The Thunder’s season is done, terminated at the hands of Damian Lillard in one of the more cold-blooded ways you could imagine. The WTLC team takes stock of a season that once again fell radically short of expectations and looks ahead for what comes next.
1. What’s your emotional state about this Thunder team right now?
Nile McNair: Emotionally, I feel as if the Thunder are stuck. I know the teams need shooters to allow PG and Russ to operate more freely, but I don’t know how Presti can maneuver to get those with the cap space OKC has.
Mark Bruty: When your ride and die for your squad, losses like this hurt. I can’t sit here and act like this is fine and that I am happy with another playoff appearance but swift exit - it really stings because (like the previous season before the Roberson injury) we showed all the signs of being able to be a contender this year. We got on the “right” side of the draw, we had a first round opponent who we swept in the regular season and who were missing a key piece to their rotation - and we still faltered when it mattered. I’m disappointed, a touch angry, but will eventually look ahead with positivity.
Kevin Nesgoda: It’s a little hard to not be confused as to what happened with the team this season. My emotional state is fine. I’m more concerned with [ESPN reporter] Royce Young. That dude is running on fumes.
Reid Belew: You know, at some point in the first game of the series, I didn’t feel confident at all. There wasn’t a moment that did it for me, just a generally understanding that we, like usual, won’t live up to our expectations or ability. The last two years, I’ve always felt like we could pull it out, and last year’s insane comeback versus the Jazz in the playoffs helped that, but not for long.
I expected us to lose this first round after the first game. So, I’m not shocked. I’m just a bit numb and a bit cynical.
Will Brewer: As a lifelong Oklahoma resident, it’s been a joy to witness some of the talent that’s played here over the years. However, I’ve learned not to get too emotionally invested into the team since the 2016 run. The way OKC finished the season gave me little hope for the playoff run.
I didn’t expect OKC to lose in five to Portland, but it does not surprise me one bit. The way it ended with Lillard draining a near 40 foot three, it’s almost a domino effect of everything that has happened this season. So I’m not surprised, but l held out very little hope that I would be wrong.
2. If you had to pinpoint one thing over all others, what went wrong?
Nile: I would blame the series loss in inconsistency. Of course they could’ve a better job on Lillard and McCollum, but those two are going to get their numbers. However, Kanter and Aminu has big games in Thunder losses. And of course Russ and PG needed to score consistently and efficiently.
Mark: I think the Thunder underestimated Portland. In fact, looking back over all the tough losses throughout the past few years, they all come against teams we should beat, but who get momentum and OKC can never get it back. This series was exactly like that.
Again, it was meant to be the perfect matchup for us and it appears as though we were looking at Round 2 rather than giving the Blazers their due. So for me, the mindset is what went wrong. The Thunder should have rolled into Portland with a killer mentality, derailed the Blazers in Game 1 at home, and had them on the back foot from the outset. Instead, they had homecourt advantage, they gained further momentum with the first two wins and the rest just wrote itself. Outside of that, a tangible basketball stat that went wrong - Lillard and McCollum shot well, Westbrook didn’t, and he took far too many three point attempts. FAR too many. It hurts.
Kevin: Russ reverted back to bad Russ and that might be the normal thing going forward. Do you want to know why the arctic ice sheets are disappearing at record numbers? It’s because they are being placed on Russ’s knees every time he goes to the bench. Then there is the Paul George shoulder injury. There is some real concern this injury is a lot more serious and George could miss a lot of time.
Reid: It’s easy to point at Russ, and some portion of the blame is undoubtedly his. For me, I’ve been frustrated with Donovan for a couple years now, and this was the series that evaporated every shred of good faith I had to left to extend to him. On paper, we are better than Portland. Vegas had Portland as the underdog, despite their higher seeding. Adams should’ve been a big key to victory, since he was being guarded by Enes “Can’t Play” Kanter. In a wild turn of events, Kanter was one of Portland’s most important players, besting Adams in every way possible, and the fact that the coach who intimately knows Kanter’s huge weaknesses then failed to exploit them is pretty damning.
Pairing that with continuing to run with a poorly executed defensive scheme that seemed to go unadjusted, I don’t feel great. That, and his consistent inability to hold Russ accountable over the years, I’m just done with Donovan. Him and Brooks have the same “stand in the corner” demeanor, hoping and praying that their stallions will just burst out of the gate and win the talent aggregate battle over a large sample size. And they do, which is why OKC has a floor of 45 wins a year. But a good coach could get 55 out of this team, and that’s not a hot take.
Ben Mertens: Damian Lillard was the best player on the floor in every single game. Full credit to him, and we should be careful to note just how incredible Lillard and his teammates, especially CJ McCollum and #CanPlayKanter, were. Basketball games aren’t just lost, they’re won, and in thinking about this loss we should give as much praise to the Blazers as blame to the Thunder.
WITH THAT SAID, the fact that Lillard was the best player in every single game says something about Russell Westbrook and Paul George. George was better than Lillard in the regular season, and while a shoulder injury may be to blame (the rumor is we’ll soon hear about PG needing offseason shoulder injury), Lillard outplayed him all series. PG’s wasn’t able to slow down Lillard the way you’d hope a possible defensive Player of the Year would. He was still pretty damn good on offense, but not the transcendent force he was in the regular season.
As for Russ, he just had probably his worst playoff series ever. He shot 36% from the field but still took 10 more shots than PG did. Russ took a step back for long stretches of this season, focusing on playmaking and sacrificing pull up jump shots shots for better shots at the rim. But with his back against the wall and the pressure on, he reverted to the worst version of himself. Change is rarely linear, as anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit can tell you. We all take steps back and stumble on our way to being the person we want to be. The story isn’t finished for Russ, but this series was a massive disappointment.
Will: I am not one that wants to put blame on a single person. I will say Russ underwhelmed, Coach Donovan was out-coached in that series, and this Thunder team as a whole can not shoot. I say all that but I think the main issue goes back to PG’s shoulder injury. I believe that changed EVERYTHING for the rest of the regular season and the Portland series.
A healthy PG playing at a MVP level had this offense looking incredible. Russ did not have to force much, Grant and Ferg were shooting at efficient rates, Schroder was looking like a lead sixth man of the year candidate, Adams for much of the season was averaging around 15 and 10. It just seemed like PG’s play elevated everyone else’s. When his play slipped, roles changed, shots became more difficult, Russ had to force more, PG was not the same after returning, the confidence was lost and the momentum that was built up to that point took a dive for the worst. The same issues were carried into the Portland series, the offense was bad, Russ was still forcing, and PG was not efficient.
3. Could have OKC won this series, and if so, what would their ultimate outcome have been?
Nile: Sadly I don’t see a way the Thunder could’ve won, because they were never able to close a game on the road in Portland.
Mark: Absolutely. At their best, OKC can beat anyone — and have this season. Warriors, Bucks, Rockets, Blazers etc. All fell at some point to OKC this season. I firmly believe if PG was pre-All Star game, in the conversation for MVP PG, this would have been a 4-1 win for OKC. But George was limited on both ends, Russ tried to fill the gap and in doing so played right into Portland’s hands. The Thunder needed to lock in defensively, fight over the screens, trap and force others to beat them. They needed to hit their own shots, take the right shots and they needed to limit their turnovers while forcing and scoring off the Blazers. None of this really happened and now OKC are not only NOT in the NBA Finals, they’re fishing after the first round, having won just one encounter.
Reid: Oh, absolutely we could’ve won this series, and we should’ve. Going against San Antonio or Denver would be tough, as those teams have our number. But I think we’d push San Antonio to 6 and maybe win, but probably not. Denver would’ve slaughtered us. That’s another 5 game series.
Kevin: If they managed to win Game 5 I think they would have taken the series. I think it would have broken Portland to lose at home. I think they would have lost to Denver in four in the next round and it wouldn’t have been close.
Ben: Yes of course. They had a great chance to win game 1 and quite frankly should’ve won game 5. Flip both those games and they’re up 3-2 heading into a game 6 in OKC. The blazers deserved their victory and proved to be the better team, but upsets do happen, and the Thunder certainly could’ve pulled this one off. If they had, they’d be facing one of two good but fundamentally flawed teams in the Nuggets and the Spurs. Those teams outplayed OKC in the regular season, but as we all saw in this series, that doesn’t mean a ton for the post season. OKC probably would lose to one of those teams, but there’s a world where they go on to face the Warriors in the conference finals. But that’s not the world we live in.
Will: OKC could have won this series. Originally, I expected them to steal one on the road, win both in OKC, and then finish it out in 6. If they could have won this series, I thought they could do the same in the next round against San Antonio, but Denver would have been tough. I thought that experience could kick in and work in the Thunder’s favor in that a series with the Nuggets. The word around the city was that this was the perfect draw for the Thunder, and I thought the same. Ultimately, I expected them to get eliminated in the second round by Denver in 6.
4. How far does Portland go?
Nile: I see Portland in the conference finals regardless if they play Denver or San Antonio barring whether Kanter’s shoulder injury is serious.
Mark: As it was for the Thunder, this is the better side of the draw. Portland is a talented team, they are deep and they go as far as Lillard carries them. I can’t see them getting past the Nuggets as Jokic is going to be FAR too much to handle for Kanter, Collins etc. However, if they managed to draw the Spurs, I like the matchup a little better. It’s out in the second round or out in the Conference Finals, they can’t and won’t make it to the NBA Finals.
Reid: I told a friend another day that I really wouldn’t be surprised if Portland went to the WCF. They’re so hot right now, and the narrative is compelling enough that it’s hard to not route for them — that a team with little change of the years, by sheer force of will and growing in the nuance of their chemistry makes it all the way to the WCF, beating more talented teams along the way. Realistically, if they draw Denver, they’ll lose in 6 or 7, and if they draw San Antonio, I don’t think the WCF is insane for them. I don’t hate Portland. I’m rooting for them.
Kevin: I think they are eliminated in six games by either Houston or Golden State in the WCF.
Ben: If the Spurs pull it out, the Blazers will get another opponent that can’t really take advantage of Enes Kanter’s weaknesses. They’d be the favorite in that series, even if the Spurs do have some great guard defenders to throw at Lillard and McCollum.
If the Nuggets emerge, I think Kanter will be hard pressed to defend Jokic. That series would be a shootout, and while I’d probably pick the Nuggets, there’s no way you can count out Lillard with the way he’s played.
Will: If Dame continues to play like that, then they could easily go to the WCF. I just do not think that he will continue to play like that. San Antonio would have a better defensive scheme, and Denver would have a lot of offensive firepower that I believe would prove to be too much. The Spurs or Nuggets will capitalize on things that the Thunder could not. The main thing is Kanter. Jokic would punish Kanter, and Aldridge would definitely have his way with Kanter. Also, both San Antonio and Denver have enough shooting to make it very hard for Lillard to drag Portland to the finish line in a series.
5. What other story lines in these playoffs will you be paying attention to?
Reid: I’m just wanting to see how dominant the Bucks can be. Additionally, I’m really loving seeing the Clips give the Warriors headaches.
Mark: It’s cliche but — anyone but Golden State. I’m ready for that era to end and if that’s at the hands of Houston so be it (Clippers even better!!!).
Alternatively, I’m keeping the eyes firmly on Milwaukee and Toronto.
Ben: Who comes out of the east? Both second round series there should be excellent- Milwaukee and Boston in a rematch (with Boston now at full strength and Milwaukee now featuring a competent coach and Splash Mountain) and the new look 76ers and Raptors both trying to prove themselves.
Given how Golden State has struggled early, I think whoever comes out of the east, the Bucks and Raptors in particular, will have an outside chance to knock off the Warriors, and should at least give us our most interesting Finals since 2016 (I love LeBron, but that matchup had grown quite stale)
Jeff Linka: I will be more hurt by this Thunder loss if the title is won by anyone other than Golden State. The Warriors are supposed to win, and in doing so would find no glory — I’d rather watch Durant and Curry pass out relieved high-fives than watch James Harden and Chris Paul jump around in exaltation. If the Warriors win the title, nothing changes and the season has simply played out the way it inevitably would, with no one finding glory or validation.
Any other team winning would be undeniable evidence that this was a real opportunity for 29 teams to do something historic, and 28 of them (Thunder included) blew it. It also woudl justify even stronger super teams forming in the future, arguing that we should remember the year even the Warriors were overtaken.
Of the remaining teams, I would rank them like this in terms of who I am rooting for most to least:
- Warriors (the more dominant, the better, for reasons above)
Will: I am so interested to see who makes it out of the East this season. There is no clear cut favorite in my opinion, all four remaining teams could make it there. I would not put any money on it, but my pick is Boston. I am just excited to see how it all plays out. The matchups in both series will be fun to watch.
6. What do you think happens next for OKC?
Nile: Best case, Presti works some magic and hits in the draft again. Also hopefully Roberson can actually play next season.
Mark: OKC go into the off-season, lick their wounds and pray that KD doesn’t win another championship. The NBA Finals matter little at this point, it will be either the Warriors or Rockets in there most likely vs Milwaukee or Toronto. Either way, it doesn’t matter too much to the Thunder faithful or the organisation other than being able to see what type of basketball is successful and how to compete or beat it.
The Thunder will look to the draft — selecting at pick 21, perhaps they can move up if there is a target they like, but likely the try and find a shooter at that spot. The next thing is to see what the deal is with Morris but from all reports he’s gone and didn’t like how Billy Donovan used him - so it’s likely that ship has sailed. Then we have to try and convince Noel that backing up Steven Adams is still the best place to be — but I won’t be holding my breath.
I know people will be calling for the head of Presti, Donovan or Russ, but I don’t see any of that happening. OKC doesn’t make knee-jerk reactions. It will be how to best build around a physically declining (albeit slightly) Westbrook, how to maximise George while he’s here and can they turn Steven Adams into a floor spacing option like a Brook Lopez, DeMarcus Cousins etc.
Reid: Nothing. I don’t think Donovan will be fired, and we have a lower pick in a shallow draft. Russ and PG are untouchable, and I really just don’t expect Presti to trade Adams, though that is probably the easiest and most straightforward route to actual change. But how do we acquire shooting? We don’t have money to sign free agents, despite there being an amazing free agent class coming up.
I so wish we could get in on it and even get ONE good shooter like Satoransky or try to lowball for Redick. I’m not optimistic. We don’t have many options. Still, Presti is a wizard, and I also don’t really find it hard to convince myself he’ll find a way. Maybe Adams is made the sacrificial lamb to free up money and get shooters or picks in return. I don’t know.
Kevin: Who the hell knows. The Thunder can’t sign anyone and they are paying so much in luxury tax next year and Billy Donovan stripped any leverage of moving Steven Adams for pieces by not playing him at all in the fourth quarter. No one wants a man who can’t close playoff games and makes north of $20M a year. Well, maybe the Knicks or the Suns will.
Ben: I think trading Russ (the angry fan’s suggestion) and trading Steven Adams (the sad & desperate fan’s suggestion) are both incredibly unlikely. But Sam Presti can and should shake up the supporting cast next year. Russ, PG, Adams, Grant and Schroder should all be back, but Presti could use the team’s first round pick (the pick can’t be traded, but the player selected can be), Andre Roberson’s expiring contract, and even Terrance Ferguson (though he should be cautious there) to try and retool the second unit and bring in 1 or 2 legitimate NBA quality wings with shooting ability. A couple more wings would mean the Thunder could roll with more smallball lineups with George at the 4- lineups whose potential I like, but are currently hamstrung by the need to include a non-shooter like Schroder. They also will need to either re-sign Nerlens Noel or, more likely, find another cheap center to replace him.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to Billy Donovan. He crafted a great defense, has developed guys like Adams, Grant and Ferguson, and by all accounts is liked by the players. He’s also lost 3 straight first round series, and while that may not be entirely his fault, the Thunder risk becoming stale, and each loss was progressively worse than the last.
Westbrook and George aren’t going anywhere. Maybe a shakeup of the supporting cast is enough, or maybe the Thunder bet on consistency and roll with the same roster and coach next year. But I think there’s at least a chance Donovan is gone. Whether a new coach can do much better is an open question to me- at the end of the day, it’s less about tactics and system than it is about what Russell Westbrook wants to be as a player. Only one person decides that, and it’s not the coach.
Will: Well this is a tough one for me because I have my opinions on what should happen, but what will actually happen? It’s a tough call to make. Billy Donovan gets criticized a lot, sometimes rightfully so, but I think he has does his best with what he has had. Each year it’s been a different scenario and I think he’s done pretty good. If they get rid of Donovan, then who can we confidently say will come in and give this team a boost? I can not think of anyone, I think anyone else would run into the same problems.
I think the roster needs to improve, which will be tough with the money situation, but I believe tough trade decisions will have to be made. The Thunder need to surround Russ and PG with more shooting or more weapons in general. PG needs to get healthy and Russ needs to take a step back to analyze his game. I saw two different Thunder teams take the floor this year, pre all star break they had a chip on their shoulder and had something to prove, then post all star break they played many games like they had already won before they played it. The roster needs a tweak and the overall mentality needs to change.