There are three games left in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s regular season, and it still feels like we don’t totally know who they are. Which, on the other hand, might mean we know exactly who they are.
This is a team that’s proven equally capable of dominating conference champions and letting victory slip through their fingers against should’ve-been-overmatched competition. It’s a team capable of ripping off a six-game mid-March winning streak to get within arm’s reach of securing home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs, and then following it up by losing five of seven to put themselves in real (if still pretty remote) danger of missing the postseason entirely. This, despite Russell Westbrook nearly averaging a triple-double again, despite center Steven Adams enjoying a breakout year, and despite the offseason additions of two multi-time All-Stars expected to give Westbrook the support he needed to get Oklahoma City back into contention with the league’s elite teams.
But on Tuesday night, at home against the Golden State Warriors and old pal Kevin Durant, the Thunder still looked like a team far more dependent than it would like on a full-scale one-man-army Russ.
Westbrook went bananas, scoring 44 points on 15-for-26 shooting — including 17 in the third quarter alone to bring OKC back from a 10-point halftime deficit — to go with a game-high 16 rebounds, six assists (albeit against six turnovers) and two steals in 41 had-to-have-them minutes. But despite the Thunder outscoring the still-Stephen-Curry-less Warriors in those 41 minutes, OKC still wound up falling, 111-107, thanks in part to a 34-point, 10-rebound performance by Durant (who did most of that damage before halftime), a needed 20 from the just-returned Klay Thompson, and a strong defensive effort that limited Billy Donovan’s club to just 37.6 percent shooting from the field and a 9-for-38 mark from 3-point land.
Taken another way: non-Westbrook Thunderers made just 20 of their 67 shots, a tick below 30 percent from the field. Even against a Warriors team working its way through injury woes toward the start of the postseason, that’s just not going to cut it.
“I take it on myself,” George said after the game, according to ESPN’s Royce Young. “We’ve got to do a better job of helping Russ. [Westbrook] was great, he was great. He took it to another level, a level those guys didn’t have an answer for. It’s frustrating when we see that and notice that and we can’t help him by making shots and putting the ball in the basket.”
Most troubling for the Thunder: the bulk of those misses came off the fingertips of George and Anthony, who combined to go 9-for-35 from the floor and 3-for-18 from beyond the arc. Anthony, who had shaken off a recent cold snap by hitting 12 of his last 21 triples entering Tuesday, missed all nine of his 3-point tries, a level of long-distance futility he’s never experienced in his 15-year NBA career.
We’ve known, though, that this version of Melo — a defensive question mark whose offensive value becomes an issue when he’s a team’s No. 3 or No. 4 option and he’s not making shots — could pose problems for the Thunder in the season’s biggest moments. But it’s George whose bricklaying seems most troubling at the moment for Oklahoma City.
Much has been made of the fact that what seemed at the time a steal of a deal orchestrated by Thunder general manager Sam Presti — shipping Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for George, a four-time All-Star with a legitimate claim to being one of the best two-way players in the sport — looks a little less shiny now that Oladipo’s become an All-Star himself, Sabonis has turned into a valuable playmaking big and reserve interior scorer/rebounder, and the Pacers actually own a better record than the Thunder with one week left in the season. Ultimately, though, none of that matters if, when it matters most, George plays like Paul Freaking George: a versatile defensive destroyer who can disrupt the opponent’s every action, and a potent offensive weapon capable of carrying your attack for stretches.
He hasn’t been doing that on the offensive end lately, though, shooting a dismal 37.1 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from 3-point range in 20 games since the All-Star break. Asked after Tuesday’s loss what’s up a frigid stretch that’s now spanned more than a month, George offered an eye-opening and bracing answer:
Paul George says there’s something mechanically wrong with his shot: “I don’t know that it is. It just feels funny. Shooting the ball feels funny.” pic.twitter.com/qLJAi7dpKA
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) April 4, 2018
“I’ve got to figure out something mechanical in my shot,” George told reporters. “I’ve had struggles throughout the season and my career shooting. It’s all just being able … not making shots. I don’t know what it is. It just feels funny. Shooting the ball feels funny. So I’m working with our trainers to try and figure it out. But I don’t feel myself shooting the ball. … It’s just my shooting, period. I don’t know what’s stiff, what’s tight. Something’s going on with my shooting.”
Which, y’know: yikes!
Definitely what you want one of your most important offensive players saying a week and a half before the start of the playoffs. https://t.co/IXXpynAoS7
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 4, 2018
“I know what I can offer and what I can do in this league,” George said, according to Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript. “I’m not pressing, but it is frustrating.”
It would seem unwise to wager against a player as gifted as George, and with an established résumé of big-game postseason performances as he’s put together over the years, finding ways to contribute when Oklahoma City needs him most. But with Anthony’s contributions far from assured at this stage of the game, and Adams, as excellent as he is, contingent on the creation of others to get his buckets, the Thunder need George to live up to his star billing to be able to match firepower with the Warriors, or the Houston Rockets, or any of the other teams they might encounter in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs.
“More than anything, it’s just frustrating not being able to kind of carry our own weight and help in those moments,” George said after the game, according to Erik Horne of The Oklahoman. “If I make shots and put that pressure on them, we win this game tonight.”
With just three games left in the season and so much still to be decided, that’s the state of play for George and Oklahoma City. If he doesn’t work out what’s been feeling funny, and fast, the Thunder — who now sit in sixth in the West, only 1 1/2 games ahead of the still-alive ninth-place Denver Nuggets — might not win many more games this season.
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