Playoffs 2018 West First Round: Thunder (4) vs. Jazz (5)

After early playoffs exit, offseason of questions begin for Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

SALT LAKE CITY — At the moment of truth, when this team’s true identity was stripped bare, it was all Russell Westbrook, and when Russ didn’t have it anymore, it was all over.

The 2017-18 season wasn’t designed to be this way, or end this way, not with Russ taking more shots than a boxer’s chin, and certainly not with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony being rendered useless, mostly by their own doing with help from the Utah Jazz. No, when the Oklahoma City Thunder went all in last summer and cooked up their version of a Big Three, they were built at least for May. Well, in a sense, in the final frantic life-support moments of their season, it was indeed May Day.

* Thunder-Jazz series coverage

They missed chances, repeatedly and disastrously, while trying to extend Game 6 against the Jazz. There were five cracks on a 50-second possession while down three points, and each shot taken by the Thunder looked more desperate than the previous one. Clang, they went, against the rim, against the backboard, until exhaustion and reality settled in and sent them home for the summer.

And so, these are the scenes that will follow the Thunder into the offseason like a black cat: George turning into dust in the final game by passing up shots and getting shut down on others, scoring five points with six turnovers … Russ essentially and quite literally throwing up his hands by taking 43 shots, 27 more than George … ‘Melo benched for all but nine minutes in the second half, towel draped over his slumped shoulders, for sure feeling flummoxed by this experiment here in the autumn of his career.

And this: The fortified Thunder, over and out in the first round of the playoffs in six.

Maybe this was their more reasonable destiny, anyway, because Russ, George and Anthony never appeared solid all season. Yes, there were sensational stretches and teases but the fact is OKC with Russ-George-Melo lasted just one game longer than OKC last season with just Russ.

There’s great optimism from me about what the team could end up being going forward.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan

That’s all that matters, right? The cold, hard bottom line, which must’ve felt like concrete when the Thunder landed on it Friday?

Not to dismiss the team that took them out; the Jazz are in many ways the anti-Thunder, with deliberate ball movement, defense that never takes a rest, and a lineup that lacks a single All-Star. They were brilliantly led in this series anyway by Donovan Mitchell, a rookie only by designation; he was the best player on the floor and crushed it in the close-out game with 22 of his 38 points in the third quarter when everything changed.

Yet: This was more a statement about the loser than the winner.

And because this was a one-and-done by OKC in the playoffs, the next order of business is to see if this Big Three experiment is one-and-done, period.

It’s all about George and his feelings about playing next to Russ, about living in Oklahoma City and being a member of the Thunder as he approaches free agency this summer. The buzzer Friday didn’t just end OKC’s season, it signaled the start of George’s decision.

Understand what’s at stake here: To get George, the Thunder traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, which means OKC gave the Pacers a chance to do what George couldn’t while in Indiana: Beat LeBron James in the playoffs, with the seventh game of that first-round series looming.

How empty will that trade look if George becomes the second star to leave OKC in three years? Salary cap-wise, the Thunder have limits for how they can improve next season, meaning George must believe this current group can do better with just a few minor cosmetic touches. Meanwhile, the Lakers will surely chuckle at that, maybe a team like the Sixers will, too, if they come knocking.

Of course, George wasn’t prepared to make an announcement just hours after getting bounced, although what he did say sounded good for OKC.

“It was an amazing season. really a learning experience, playing off Russ, playing off ‘Melo, seeing what potential is like,” George said. “It was great, a lot to be happy about. The fans, the city, and the organization have been unbelievable. I would love to remain a Thunder but that’s what this summer is for, so we’ll address that this summer.”

And this, regarding Russ: “He’s unbelievable, just a standup guy. amazing person. That’s how you can describe Russ, as a friend and brother. One of the best teammates I’ve had by far.”

Finally, this, explaining how a first-round elimination wasn’t a game-changer or deal-breaker in his eyes: “Not necessarily,” he said. “Talent wise and all that yes, but it’s our first year playing together. I think we have to figure out the in between stuff. That can take some time to unravel and to become a championship team.”

Sounds nice … but plenty can change in a few months, including George’s mind.

He shot just 2-for-16 in Game 6 and for some reason wasn’t the force he was in the previous game, where he tag-teamed with Westbrook to rally OKC from 25 points down. And yet, OKC will pay him handsomely nonetheless.

“One game I just so happened to miss shots,” he said. “We lose by five points. That’s going to happen over a series. You’re going to have a bad shooting night. It doesn’t make me feel unaccomplished.”

For ‘Melo, this series and perhaps this season was a shock to the system for a 10-time All-Star. He morphed into a third banana and managed to slip on a peel far too often in this playoff series. In important stretches of games, he was benched for Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant. His confidence appeared to reflect his body language. There were no clear-outs and isolations for Anthony, suddenly a $27 million role player.

And what of Westbrook? He delivered another triple-double season, becoming the first to do so in NBA history, although his efficiency took a noticeable hit. His energy and his will never wavered and he was defiant until the end, true to his DNA. With George in a fog and ‘Melo literally and figuratively checking out — on one change of possession, ‘Melo didn’t even run the floor — Westbrook went mostly solo.

“You’ve you got to fight, man,” he said. “I was just playing the game. We just weren’t able to make the run that we needed.”

As he walked off the floor at halftime, Westbrook did find time to angrily confront a fan who shouted at him and also confronted another fan once the game ended, and Westbrook was in no mood to issue apologies, potential fines be damned.

“Here in Utah, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to players here with these fans, man,” he said. “It’s truly disrespectful. (They) talk about your families, about your kids. It’s disrespectful to the game. I’m tired of going out here and play and letting the fans say whatever the hell they want to say. I’m not down with that. If I was on the street, they wouldn’t just come up to me and say anything crazy, ‘cause I don’t play that (bleep).”

Curiously, Westbrook flashed no such anger about how the Thunder’s six-game playoff stint cratered. Nor did he show any fear over possibly losing George.

“You’ve got to look at the season as a whole and go from there,” Westbrook said.

He wasn’t the only one staring at a crystal ball and seeing Paul George in it. Thunder coach Billy Donovan added: “There’s great optimism from me about what the team could end up being going forward.”

Maybe those are words used to numb the pain, or words meant for a certain free agent to hear. In almost every reasonable measuring stick, however, this season didn’t quite become what the Thunder thought when they added two stars and raised hope.

Well, the honest truth is this Big Three couldn’t win the Big One. As in round.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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