We shouldn’t be all that surprised the Thunder face a 3–1 deficit heading to Portland following Sunday night’s 111–98 defeat. Oklahoma City combines a startling inability to shoot with a common stream of mistakes, both of which were on full display at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Russell Westbrook is miles removed from his MVP campaign. Paul George has struggled in two straight playoffs. Add in a middling supporting cast, and a second consecutive first-round exit looks imminent. Will Oklahoma City ever sniff its Kevin Durant era-heights again?
The Thunder give credence to the NBA’s make-or-miss league axiom. Their pieces should form a sturdy contender in a vacuum, riding a swarm of long limbs and forced turnovers to contention for the Western Conference crown. The blueprint got Oklahoma City within six minutes of the Finals in 2016, when the Warriors were overwhelmed by the chaos from the Thunder defense. We know the story from there: Klay Thompson erupted and the Durant-Westbrook partnership eroded. George did a pretty impressive Durant impression for much of the regular season. He’s faded since March, and went 8-21 from the field on Sunday night.
It’s unfair to pin Durant for all of Oklahoma City’s woes, though. George is an All-NBA player, and a worthy consolation prize. He’s a massive upgrade compared to Westbrook’s running mates in 2016-17. There are other success stories on the roster, most notably Steven Adams’s growth and Jerami Grant’s emergence. Yet the back half of the rotation is still lacking. Raymond Felton logged 13 minutes on Sunday. Nerlens Noel is still not a reliable rotation big after a minor reclamation. Terrance Ferguson went 1-7 from the field on Sunday, and Dennis Schroder continues to be a turnover machine. Westbrook and George have noted shortcomings, however the Thunder’s supporting cast can’t pick up the slack.
The rough edges of Oklahoma City’s roster wouldn’t be lethal if the Thunder had a more bankable superstar. Perhaps George would have risen to the occasion had his shoulder been fully healthy. Last year’s 2-16 embarrassment against Utah suggests otherwise, as does his effort against Portland. Playoff P hasn’t quite earned the nickname through two seasons with the Thunder.
Westbrook remains the true culprit for the Thunder’s struggles. The erosion of his jumper is startling, slamming a ceiling on Oklahoma City’s Finals aspirations. Westbrook was a passable shooter in his MVP season, making 34.3% of attempts from three. The eight-time All-Star cratered this season. He shot just 29% from beyond the arc in 2018-19, the worst mark in the league, and the third-worst of any player since 1980. Westbrook shot 5-21 on Sunday night. He combined to shoot 13-37 in Games 1 and 2 against Portland. Game 6 in Utah last year featured an 18-43 performance. Westbrook is arguably the worst high-volume shooter in recent memory.
The impact of Westbrook’s brick-fest extends beyond the box score. His recklessness seems to send Oklahoma City into chaos, fed by a diet of missed elbow jumpers and frustrating turnovers. Westbrook shoved Damian Lillard as he attempted to rock the baby within the first three minutes, and a Billy Donovan technical came shortly after. The Thunder often shine in chaos, especially on the defensive end. But as the court shrinks in the postseason, disaster awaits. The Thunder’s lack of shooting and execution are on full display.
Westbrook is still a historic player, one of the most versatile talents the league has ever seen. His MVP season was as thrilling as any in recent memory. George as a sidekick should spell a streak of consecutive playoff appearances, and it’s hard to see Donovan shipped out of town. There are worse fates. But the Thunder’s shortcomings are glaring from the top down. Westbrook’s jumper abandoned him once again on Sunday night, and another long summer awaits. The solution to Oklahoma City’s playoff woes remains firmly out of sight.