Watching the Thunder in the Middle of the Storm
Last night gave us one of the biggest games of the year: Spurs-Warriors. We had two of the most gorgeous offenses in the NBA, a couple of superstars at the end of their reigns (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili), and a couple of superstars just hitting their primes (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson). On one sideline, you had maybe the greatest coach ever. On the other, you had the guy who learned from him 10 years ago. The Spurs had something to prove after a slow start. The Warriors wanted to prove they’re for real after starting fast. It’s as close as we’ll get to the playoffs in November. But this is not the game we’re talking about today.
All the fair-weather fans can step aside: This is for the Telfair-weather fans.
The Thunder played the Bucks last night. They were 4.5-point underdogs. When I saw this Tuesday morning, I was convinced the line was a misprint. That couldn’t be right.
Before we go any further, I apologize for the cheap weather pun in the headline here. But in the second quarter of Bucks-Thunder, while Kendrick Perkins goes mano a mano with Zaza Pachulia, you think things like Will either of these teams break 40 before halftime? and What’s the most obnoxious Thunder headline possible?
Like: For the Thunder, It’s Raining Adversity … Storm Brewing? This Was Never in the OKC Forecast … The Future Is Cloudy, the Present Is Stormy, and the Thunder Need a Spark … Weathering the Storm: Can the Thunder Still Make Some Noise? … If They Don’t Win Soon, Do the Thunder Go Boom? … Thunderstruck? More Like Thundersuck!
This is all I had to sustain me during the second quarter.
Anyway, I went into last night’s game intending to write about the Bucks, but what’s happening with OKC is too amazing. It’s like a basketball season written by Kafka. Here are seven thoughts after Tuesday:
1. It’s Perk’s World. Kendrick Perkins has actually been pretty decent so far this year! At some point over the past few years, he became a universal punch line and source of resentment, and it has never been entirely fair. He didn’t make sense with the OKC lineup, he shouldn’t have been starting or playing nearly as much as he did, and he probably should have been amnestied two years ago. None of that is really his fault. He’s always played hard, and he’s always been a good teammate.
Now? Kendrick Perkins is a breathing human with working limbs, which automatically makes him invaluable for the Thunder.
If nothing else, it’s nice to see him appreciated for the first time in at least 24 months. The other night he got a standing ovation during the Kings win, and afterward Royce Young reported this:
Perk on getting a standing ovation in the first quarter: “It felt good. I thought I heard a couple MVP chants.” I told him I didn’t hear any of those. “Yeah, neither did I. Just in my head.” Perk is the best.
Tuesday, he threw down a two-handed dunk in the first half, the OKC bench went nuts, and on the next possession the announcers joined in.
Announcer 1: “And I gotta tell you, Perk is showing me hops I didn’t know he had.”
Announcer 2: “Veteran savvy.”
Announcer 1: “He is just feeling it.”
Right as they said this, OKC was feeding Perk down low, and he dribbled it off his foot and out of bounds. This is about when I wondered if the biggest reason Perk looks good right now is that the rest of this team is looking so bad. Speaking of which …
2. Remember Serge Ibaka? I understand that Ibaka has never really been a dominant player in any traditional sense. That’s not his game — he helps in other ways. After last year’s conference finals, it’s just about impossible to question Ibaka’s value to the Thunder. It’s also impossible to root against Serge in any life endeavor. Look at him in this commercial.
He is the absolute best.
But even if it’s impossible to criticize Ibaka in any meaningful way, we can at least say that the Westbrook and Durant injuries have underscored everything that Ibaka isn’t. Remember when LeBron and Wade would sit out games and Chris Bosh would go nuts? Serge Ibaka doesn’t have that in him. He shot 4-13 from the field Tuesday. It’s just part of the experience with this team.
You see Ibaka out there, and you think, Well, hey, at least they’ve got Serge. But then you realize it makes no difference. Watching the Thunder right now is like watching the ’96 Bulls if all they had was Rodman.
3. LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANCE. Lance Thomas, that is. He played on my friend’s AAU team growing up, so while the entire country wonders “Who the f--- is Lance Thomas?,” I know exactly who he is. I’m happy for him. But it’s still pretty jarring to watch him play 30 minutes a game for a championship contender.
He hasn’t actually been that bad for this team, just inconsistent, which is about what you expect from any player who’s suddenly asked to do way too much. I’m pretty sure there’s an alternate universe in which Durant and Westbrook are healthy and Lance Thomas is a pleasant surprise off the bench for 10 or 15 minutes every night.
This is not that universe.
Instead, every clanked Lance Thomas jumper makes the new Thunder reality a little more searing for everyone. This is also true for Sebastian Telfair jumpers. Together, they shot 3-16 last night.
4. Hooters. The lowest point in the five stages of grief is a Thunder-Celtics watch party at Hooters.
5. Reggie Jackson. Every cloud has a silver lining — sorry, last weather pun — and Reggie Jackson looks great right now. Last night, he had a regular-season career-high 29 points on 12-21 shooting. He’s pretty much the only reason OKC was in the game through the fourth quarter. This is the player we saw kill the Grizzlies in last season’s playoffs, and now he’s getting more minutes, and he’s delivering. He is the opposite of Jeremy Lamb.
He isn’t Westbrook, but he’s closer than you’d think.
Of course, every time Reggie plays like this, it makes it clearer that he’ll probably get a big contract this summer, along with a starting role — two things OKC probably won’t offer. In other words, the better OKC’s best role player looks, the closer he gets to leaving this summer. Even the bright spots for the Thunder are ominous. It’s been that kind of month.
6. The Worst Good Team. The Bucks have talent that runs something like 10 players deep, but their actual execution is a complete mess. The entire team is like Giannis right now. There’s something there, and it’s not fun to play against, and it’s probably going to be really good at some point, but it hasn’t quite come together yet. It probably won’t come together until next year.
Meanwhile, the Thunder play smart and disciplined, without too many stupid mistakes. They run an offense that gets open looks for guys like Ibaka and Lamb, and they’re not giving away any of these games. Scott Brooks is doing a good job of giving them a chance in these games. They just don’t have the firepower to actually win many of them.
To put this a little differently, Tuesday was a good team with bad players against a bad team with good players. It was close the whole way, right up until the good team just couldn’t score anymore. The Thunder went scoreless for four minutes in the fourth quarter, and by the end of that stretch, the Bucks had a big enough lead that they couldn’t give it away.
7. Smith. With the game out of reach in the fourth, an OKC player banks in a 3 and I have absolutely no idea who he is.
“WHO IS SMITH?” I yell in my living room.
Ish Smith, the player they signed with the hardship exception this week.
So there you go.
You should really watch a Thunder game sometime this month. It’s better than Spurs-Warriors, or some other playoff preview, because there’s nothing more amazing than watching the most exciting team of the past five years reduced to Kendrick Perkins post-ups and Sebastian Telfair pull-ups. It’s all a reminder that every team is an injury or two (or five) away from disaster, and as the future with Durant and Westbrook gets more and more uncertain, this season is a reminder that you can’t count on anything in the NBA.
But there’s a difference between knowing the Thunder are struggling and watching them get worked by Zaza Pachulia and O.J. Mayo. Forget the future, what’s happening now is crazy enough. You should watch a Thunder game because we’re either going to look back and be amazed that OKC could ever come back from this, or we’ll look back and remember this as maybe the most snakebitten season in the history of title contenders. Either way, the Perk post-ups will be part of history.
The Celtics are 5.5-point favorites against the Thunder tonight. It doesn’t seem right, but in OKC this year, what does?