Thunder wobbling on a sea of uncertainty

Yahoo Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. – The moment of truth is coming for these Oklahoma City Thunder, the clock tick, tick, ticking on the franchise’s future. Tragedy has surrounded them, late-game collapses inspiring doubts. Uncertainty looms everywhere. Still, Kevin Durant walked out of one more lost night clutching ownership of this season, of his team.

All around on Thursday night, Durant could witness how far these Thunder are, the gulf between the NBA champions and everyone else. Forty-four straight home victories, Steph Curry playing Pop-A-Shot, and, yes, a deeper knowledge that the Warriors are determined to make Durant a partner come July free agency.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan stands in huddles, surrounded with college coaches. His most vital assistant, Monty Williams, hasn’t been back to work since the horrific loss of his wife. Mo Cheeks has been out because of hip surgery. The Thunder’s most prominent minority-stake owner was indicted on conspiracy charges and died in a high-speed, one-car fiery crash on Wednesday.

The Thunder have lost six of eight games, lost massive leads and everyone’s left to wonder: Have they lost their way too?

“This is an exciting time for me,” Durant said. “I am happy that we’re going through this. We don’t want to be frontrunners. That’s not who we are. That’s not who I am. I’m not going to let the team be that way. When you’re losing, that’s when you’ve really got to show your character. Show who you are.”

After a far harsher message in the wake of the collapse to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, Durant has been making a public and private call for strength. He’s delivering a message to his teammates, his coaches: fight through this. Truth be told, there are disconnects with these Thunder. That’s the nature of the NBA, and there’s no righting this season, this team, without Durant and Russell Westbrook bringing everyone together.

“Winning is important to them,” Donovan told The Vertical. “Their will and the way they’re coming every day to uplift the group has been great. They bring it every single day. It’s in the message they’re giving in the locker room, the way they’re talking to the guys.”

Before the game on Thursday night, general manager Sam Presti sat in an empty arena and considered the narrowing Thunder road. They reached the NBA Finals in 2012 with Durant, Westbrook and James Harden, and everyone thought they’d be back again and again. Only, it hasn’t happened. The San Antonio Spurs regenerated themselves, the Golden State Warriors transformed into a historic juggernaut and something kept happening to Oklahoma City. Westbrook had surgeries to his knee, Durant his foot. The James Harden trade. Something happened, and now the Thunder are fighting a fade in the Western Conference, with Durant’s free agency in hot pursuit.

“One of the things we’ve done well, and served us well over the years: We don’t have any illusion of control,” Presti told The Vertical. “We have an understanding that certain things are going to take place during an NBA season that are out our hands. What we do control is how we react, how we respond, how we adjust and how we adapt. I really think that’s a measure of not only this team, but also the organization as a whole. Having that persistence, having the ability to work through things.

“When you’re faced with these situations, you can either retreat, or you can advance. We’re an organization that is always going to choose to advance.”

For the Thunder, it still starts and ends with Durant and Westbrook. This season isn’t over, this run isn’t complete. This is one more Thunder test, one more massive hurdle. Oklahoma City has 20 games to reshape itself for the playoffs, to push back July free agency and the uncertainty that looms. Kevin Durant walked out of Oracle Arena on Thursday night without passing out excuses, without blaming someone else. Durant’s a franchise player, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s franchise player, and that’s the best reason for this forlorn franchise to still have the most precious commodity amid gathering clouds and uncertainty: hope.

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