Looking Forward with Positivity, Belief
As the season went along, the Thunder saw the results trend on the scoreboard. The strong record against the highest quality opponents. Subpar performances in should-win games. An affinity for playing in tightly contested games. All of that led to a feeling that the playoffs would be the time when the Thunder put it all together and evened out the bumps along the way.
Unfortunately, that’s just not the way the NBA works, and the habits a team nurtures throughout the season are the ones it has to live with when postseason play begins.
“When a game starts, it doesn't make a difference what you're built for,” said a steely Billy Donovan.
The Thunder Head Coach’s statement of reality wasn’t an indictment of his team, but rather a statement on the importance that continuity and cohesion plays a huge factor in the eventual success of the squad. Frankly, every time the Thunder’s sacrifices and collaboration seemed to hit a sweet spot, the elusive consistency suddenly slipped through everyone’s fingers like fine sand.
The nuances of the season – the last hour arrival of Carmelo Anthony, the preseason surgeries for Russell Westbrook, Patrick Patterson and Alex Abrines, and of course the season ending injury to Andre Roberson – have all been well-documented. After a nine-month sprint through the season where adjustments don’t always come easy, Thunder leaders like Westbrook are able to take a 10,000-foot view of what the team must do next season. There’s a trust and belief that with more time, a better understanding of one another’s game and the conventional wisdom that the second season with a group of veterans together usually goes better than the first, that the 2018-19 campaign could be very special.
“It was new for everybody, trying to figure it out. But obviously through this year we know and figured out what things work, what doesn't, and that's something that we have to address as a team,” Westbrook stated.
“It just comes down to our chemistry,” center Steven Adams added. “If you play long enough with a player, you understand their tendencies and whatnot. All those small different things. Especially on the defensive end. I noticed when it got close to the end of the year, I know we talked a lot about communication and stuff. Sometimes you just know.”
Certainly there are some obstacles in the way of ensuring that the band can get back together again next season. Paul George, Jerami Grant, Raymond Felton, Corey Brewer and Josh Huestis will all be free agents. Anthony has the opportunity to pick up or decline his option for next season. Nick Collison has announced his retirement and the Thunder has no firsts, but two second round selections in next Thursday’s NBA Draft.
There’s a significant chance that the team could look different, but if the group does manage to stay intact, there’s a feeling of optimism about what the future holds with Westbrook and George as All-Star standard bearers, surrounded by talented, complementary players.
“We've set the bar at what we could be,” George said. “We've had the high moments where we've seen what we can be. That's the consistency part of just getting an identity as a group. I think we're close. I think we're close to accomplishing something bigger here.”
There’s belief that this group can get it together with the benefit of a full summer together, health heading into September’s training camp and a season’s worth of experience together under its belt. But more than anything the bullishness comes from the attitude that surrounded the team through the thick and thin of a grueling and challenging regular season and playoffs.
The interpersonal relationships, chemistry and commitment to the team over the individual on the court and off of it was sensational from the moment training camp started through the final whistle of Round 1, Game 6 in Salt Lake City when the Thunder fell to the Utah Jazz.
Westbrook opened up the locker room, the team, his game and himself as a human being to George and Anthony. The duo of perennial All-Star forwards responded in kind. Communication was high. Any issues were addressed appropriately, and strong bonds were built.
“I think us bonding as brothers was a bigger thing for me,” Westbrook explained. “That was always important for me to make sure we bonded and understood where we come from and know a little about each one of us personally.”
That attitude filtered through the rest of the locker room, and players were fully committed to providing their specific gifts for the amplification of the group as a whole. Over the course of 88 games, the Thunder just wasn’t able to get the timing right and the gears clicking. With the work ethic in the building, it should be no surprise that the Thunder thinks with another crack at it, they’ll be able to get it right next season.
“The character of the guys, the kind of people that they are, the fact that they were willing to sacrifice, willing to work together, willing to try to get better really, really excited me,” Donovan said. “I was very, very optimistic going forward because of their willingness to do those things.”