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Sounds of Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder lack passion for excellence

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Bad losses to bad teams tell the tale.

Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

In his recent article about Andre Roberson, SBNation’s Seerat Sohi introduced a word into the Oklahoma City Thunder narrative: conundrum. It is the perfect word to describe the Thunder’s season.

From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of conundrum

a: an intricate and difficult problem; He is faced with the conundrum of trying to find a job without having experience.

b: a question or problem having only a conjectural answer

Clearly, a team with 3 players, 2 in their prime and 1 entering the twilight of it, that boast a combined 20 All-Star appearances, 21 All-League type awards, 2 scoring titles, a Most-Improved Player award, and a MVP award, that hovers just above .500 at the midway point in the season has a problem, and an intricate and difficult one at that, thus, a conundrum.

A Season of Paradoxes’

The American Heritage Dictionary adds a dimension to the definition of a conundrum:

Conundrum

1. A riddle in which a fanciful question is answered by a pun.

2. A paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma: “the conundrum … of achieving full employment without inflation” ( Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. )

A paradox is a truth that flies in the face of common sense and this Thunder season is chock full of them, but two, in particular, stand out.

Lost Sheep

The Thunder have gone 6 and 3 in games in which Steven Adams, Paul George have missed, but stand just 3 and 5 in games that Andre Roberson has missed this season. Explain that one Roberson haters, if you can.

Adams has always been a defensive beast and has, with the extra spacing the Thunder have enjoyed this season, become a force on offense as well. The Thunder went 4 and 1 in games minus the Funaki, in the worst month of the season no less.

Granted it’s just one game, but the Thunder record is 1 and 0 in games Anthony hasn’t suited up. A 13 point win and the only win compared to two losses to the lottery-bound Dallas Mavericks.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder are 1 and 2 in games that Paul George is out, but the second loss was also the last game a suffering Andre Roberson played before going down with patellar tendinitis. Roberson was not in the game for the infamous blown baseline call that would have propelled the game into overtime nor was he 100% through much of the game.

Impressive Wins vs Bad Losses: will the Real Thunder please step forward

The Thunder are an impressive 3 and 1 against the top 2 teams in each conference and yet are just 8 and 8 against likely lottery teams. Further, in the lone loss against top 4 team Boston, the Thunder held an 18 point lead at halftime. Further still, three of the Thunder’s wins against lottery teams were by 3 points or less.

Compare that to the Golden State Warriors, a team the Thunder beat by 17 points on November 22nd, who have lost only 3 times to teams with less than 20 wins and have only 2 single possession wins against future lottery fodder. The Houston Rockets, victims to the Thunder on Christmas Day, have only 4 losses to sub-20 win teams and only one close call against the Philadelphia 76’ers. Further, the Sixers also account for one of those Rocket losses and at 19 and 20, barely fall into the sub-20 category to begin with.

If you’re keeping count, that’s 11 bad losses and weak wins for the Thunder and 10 for the Warriors and Rockets combined.

Looking for An Answer

The Thunder can soar with the eagles one day and then crash and burn the very next night. The obvious common denominator that appears to decide whether the Thunder put their best foot forward or not is the level of competition they face.

Start with an Attitude Adjustment

When asked about the Thunders lack of energy after year ending home losses to Milwaukee and Dallas, Paul George admitted to a loss of urgency against lesser opponents:

In a highly competitive, dog eat dog, environment like the NBA, that is a recipe for disaster. That mentality is what has put the Thunder just 2 games over .500 and just a few more losses away from being out of the playoff picture if the season were to end today and it is that mentality that has to change.

In his recent commencement speech at Cal Maritime, Dr. Rick Rigsby quoted Aristotle and told the cadets to remember that “‘you are what you repeatedly do’ therefore excellence should be a habit, not an act.”

If the Thunder repeatedly play average or below average, the Thunder therefore must be an average to below average team, no matter how many All-Star appearances they can brag about.

That is why the Thunder’s defense has suffered to the point of extinction without Andre Roberson in the line-up. Robes’ commitment to excellence — at the most thankless job in the game — inspired his defensive teammates during the team’s offensive struggles in November to become one of the best defenses in the league. However, without Roberson’s example and leadership on the defensive end, the Thunder look completely lost.

Carmelo Anthony recently spoke about the Thunder’s bad habit of playing down to their opponents:

Paul George didn’t want to call the team complacent against weak teams when it is, and Melo doesn’t want to say the team takes weak teams for granted when they obviously do.

“I think it’s a mentality thing, now in the second half of the season, we have to change our mentality. every game counts, every moment counts, regardless of who we’re playing, we gotta take that mentality into that game.”

Melo is right, it is a mind thing, but how are the Thunder going to change their mentality if they are unwilling to admit what the problem with their mentality is?

Complacency and taking weak teams for granted are signs of the worst mental problems a team can have — apathy — or one of its synonyms; affectlessness, emotionlessness, impassiveness, impassivity, insensibility, or numbness.

Even Melo’s comment about changing mentality about playing weaker teams was passionless when passion is exactly what this team needs to change its mentality. When Paul George talked about playing with a sense of urgency he looked like he was talking about mowing the lawn.

The lack of passion has been the focal point of many of Antonio Daniels’ post-game analysis, but none were more to the point than these comments made after the Thunder lost to the lottery-bound Orlando Magic late in November.

Passionate teams do not try to coast past weak teams or take them for granted, they crush them — quickly — rest their stars, and move on. They use them for target practice to sharpen their teeth for the better competition that is just around the corner.

If Melo is serious about a change in mentality, start with a change in vocabulary. A near miss against a weak team is NOT acceptable if you consider yourself a contender. So say so — publicly and privately —and mean it. A loss against that same team isn’t a “learning experience,” it’s an embarrassment, a failure to live up to your own standards. Learning experiences should only be reserved for the 4-5 “elite” teams in the league; everything else is material failure on some point. Own it and make everyone around you own it as well.

If Melo is serious about a change in mentality, a good place to start would be heeding Dr. Rigsby’s words when he said, “Good enough isn’t good enough when it can be better, and better isn’t good enough when it can be best.”

The Thunder have settled for “good enough” all season, and the only thing they have to show for it is an 8 and 8 record against lottery level competition. The talent is present to have one of the best records in the league, but the missing ingredient, especially against weaker teams, has been passion, and now that apathy is spreading to games that really matter. Losses to Portland and Minnesota — crucial games for playoff seedings — are the proof to Dr. Rigsby’s words, “you are what you repeatedly do.” But with such carelessness, OKC has all but missed the window and 5th seed may be their ceiling.

Conclusion, Good isn’t good enough if it can be better.

In the year 2000, the Oklahoma Sooners won a national championship in Bob Stoops’ second season as head coach. Starting the season ranked #19, the Sooners first appearance in a pre-season poll in five years, no one gave them a second thought at winning anything of consequence at the beginning of the season.

How little were the Sooners thought of? The Sooners won their first game 55 - 14 and dropped a spot in the poll. That is how far off the NC radar the Sooners were at the beginning of that season. 2000 was a glorious run that led to an Orange Bowl match-up against Florida State and their Heisman Trophy winner, Chris Weinke, and although the Sooners entered the game ranked number 1, FSU was still the heavy favorite.

OU’s quarterback, Josh Heupel, injured his throwing shoulder in a game against Texas A&M earlier in the season and even though the Sooners kept winning, games that were once blowouts turned into dogfights. Those dogfights were the difference and on January 3rd, 2001, the Oklahoma Sooners held the best offense in the country to a mere 2 points and won the National Championship.

You would think after all these years the big plays and great wins would be the thing I would remember most, but they aren’t. It was the post-game interviews with OU linebacker, Rocky Calmus.

The Sooners never lost. They were perfect and Calmus was a consensus All-American and the runner-up for the Butkus award, but you would never have known that listening to one of his interviews.

No matter what the score was, no matter how well he had personally performed, Calmus was never satisfied. Good is not good enough if it can be better, and by mid-season, the entire defensive squad was following Calmus’ lead and critiquing themselves the same way. “Yeh, we won, but I could have done this better... or I was too slow on this assignment...”

By the time the Sooners beat Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship, the entire team was on board.

As the key member of the Sooner’s front-line defense, Calmus was a primary focus for the Seminoles and they held Calmus to just 2 tackles in the first 3 quarters. But on FSU’s 1st possession in the 4th, the Sooners leading 6 to 0, Calmus struck:

Better isn’t good enough when it can be best, and by January 3rd, 2001, the Sooners were the best... and don’t let the final score of 13 to 2 fool you, it wasn’t even close.

I am writing this on the heels of yet another “excuse me” Thunder win over another weak opponent and let’s give credit where credit is due. When Alex Abrines subbed in for Paul George to start the final quarter, there was not a single Thunder starter on the floor and the Thunder trailed by 3.

In 5 minutes and 25 seconds, with a lot of motion and a little common sense, the Thunder’s 100% bench produced 20 points and outscored the Hornets by 12. At the 6:35 mark, the prima-donnas returned and the Thunder outscored the Hornets by 1.

Just for fun, I rolled the video back and watched the first 5 12 minutes of the 4th quarter. Not to watch Ray and his boys do their thing, but to focus on the activity on the bench while it was happening.

This is what I saw:

Other than Russell, there is not one player on their feet. If there wasn’t a basketball game going on the in the foreground, you would think that row of overpaid beef was watching a How-To video on the proper way to clean a toilet.

It is said a picture is worth a thousand words. Scratch that, in this case, it was worth 2035.