If the Oklahoma City Thunder are imploding, they’re doing so at the exact right time.
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The team was never going to be able to catch the white-hot Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, two teams on pace to top 70 wins this season. And, unless everything caves, they’ve probably withstood the best stand that the Los Angeles Clippers have to offer. Los Angeles has done well to circle the wagons with Blake Griffin on the shelf, but the team remains a game and a half behind OKC with 20 to play.
The Clippers are hardly “an unassailable crunch-time outfit,” as our Eric Freeman pointed out earlier on Thursday, but the group did manage to come back from 17 down to beat the Thunder in L.A. on Wednesday night. This came on the heels of the Thunder having their faces rubbed into it on national TV on Saturday night – with Stephen Curry’s mile-long three-pointer taking down a Thunder team that was not only up 14 at one point, but working against a Warriors squad that was dragging as it finished up a seven-game and 18-day road trip.
The Clipper loss left the Thunder with a 2-5 record since the All-Star break, a break that saw Russell Westbrook grab a deserved second-straight All-Star Game MVP award. It’s true that each of those losses came against darn good opponents (Indiana, Cleveland, New Orleans on national TV, Golden State, the Clippers); but shouldn’t the Thunder be a “darn good opponent” at this point?
“If we want to be a great team, we’re fooling ourselves,” Durant, who had 30 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, said afterward. “If we want to be a great team, we’re fooling ourselves with the way we’re playing. We’re fooling ourselves. If we want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, then that’s cool, but we’re fooling ourselves the way we’re playing … There’s just no discipline. We’re playing too loose. We’ve got to be better.”
Durant did not stop there:
A ton of noteworthy Kevin Durant quotes after tonight's collapse to the Clippers: pic.twitter.com/tPfY9eJmjR
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 3, 2016
Durant shouldn’t stop there. He knows as well as anyone that every eyebrow he raises in between now and whenever Oklahoma City’s season ends will draw the attention of people like us, as we look for new and creative ways for Golden State to lop off an extra $4.7 million in order to sign the 2014 NBA MVP outright as a free agent. Washington might be out of the picture as a free agent suitor, but Houston and Miami are always in with a chance as they work the machination channels so as to avoid prohibitive luxury tax penalties.
And, of course, Magic came up with a good idea the other day:
Kevin Durant scored 37pts against the Warriors tonight! I hope the Lakers' Jim Buss was watching, because that's who we need next season.
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) February 28, 2016
The clarion call with Durant’s free agency is the same in March as it was in 2015 – anything can happen between now and the first week of July, even if his reps have been breaking down every option for ages. The good money is on the forward sticking in Oklahoma City, Durant can make more money there than anywhere else, the team’s small market setting hasn’t prevented him from grabbing beaucoup de endorsement dealies, and Russell Westbrook’s game-breaking presence is a rather formidable perk to align oneself alongside.
Still, Wednesday’s loss dropped the Thunder down to 15th in defensive efficiency. At times they look like the best NBA option to take down the Golden State Warriors, but at this point (four years removed from OKC acting as the best “option” to take down LeBron James’ old Miami Heat) you can understand if Kevin Durant is sick of being looked upon as an on-paper candidate.
Rookie coach Billy Donovan has done well to acclimate to the NBA lifestyle, but though he hasn’t embarrassed the team in his first year there have been plenty of glaring missteps. Durant has played at an MVP level this season, as has Westbrook, but KD was a bit of a mess down the stretch on Wednesday night. Dr. Freeman reminded us that only the trying-to-lose 76ers have coughed up more fourth quarter leads this season, something that seems incongruous with two different dagger guys dominating the ball on OKC’s side, and the league’s second best-offense.
Kevin Durant doesn’t want any more wake-up calls (at least not from that hotel), but perhaps this Clipper loss served as an appropriate, final one. The Thunder has been made to look silly in front of a national audience four different times in a fortnight, and that tends to burn. Durant isn’t looking at the final six weeks of the regular season as his last go-round with the team – even if he bolts for another franchise on July 1 he genuinely isn’t working with one foot out of the door – and he wants the chance to get this right.
No injury excuses, no coaching carping, no Kendrick Perkins, no nonsense. Kevin Durant wants to be a part of the upper crust, and he’s got a month and a half to drag his team by the collar into the realm of the elite.
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