Tramel: Winning a single NBA playoff game is now a tall task for the OKC Thunder, which needs four wins in nine days
The Thunder’s mission is clear. Beat the superior Houston Rockets four times in nine days to advance in the Western Conference playoffs.
Doable, I suppose.
Until you remember that the Thunder has four playoff victories in the past 1,550 days.
The franchise that once was a playoff crackerjack has become a flop. OKC had 10 series advancements in the six playoffs from 2011-16. But none since. Three straight first-round defeats and on the verge of another, now that Houston is up 2-0 after a couple of double-digit victories that has left the Thunder bewildered.
How could teams with exact regular-season records be on opposite sides of such a gulf on a neutral court in the Disney World bubble?
The big chips have fallen the Thunder’s way, and still the Rockets have dominated. Russell Westbrook hasn’t played, courtesy of a quad injury. James Harden’s new Kryptonite, OKC rookie Lu Dort, was quite effective in Game 2. The refs haven’t been whistle-happy (37 foul shots total for Houston through two games; you thought Harden might have that many alone).
Billy Donovan put on a brave front Friday, saying that while he knows down 2-0 in a playoff series is different from anything faced in the regular season, he is comforted by knowing this team’s fight.
- Related to this story
- Article: OKC Thunder vs. Rockets: NBA Playoffs Game 3 lineups, tip-off time, how to watch
- Article: OKC Thunder: With no home court to fall back on, 0-2 hole to Rockets seems deeper
- Article: Russell Westbrook 'really annoying' as he plays Rockets' new sixth man from the sideline vs. OKC Thunder
- Article: OKC Thunder: Billy Donovan finishes third in Coach of Year voting
- Article: OKC Thunder: Rockets' Jeff Green continues to turn back the clock vs. former team
- Article: OKC Thunder: Tip-off time set for Game 5 vs. Rockets in NBA Playoffs
- Article: OKC Thunder: NBA rules Dennis Schroder fouled Eric Gordon on inbounds turnover
- Article: OSU football: As many as seven true freshmen could play for Cowboys
- Video: Thunder update: Rockets reserves fuel runaway Game 2 win vs. OKC
OKC, remember, was known for its remarkable comebacks this season, including three from at least 20 points down.
“One thing I feel very very good about is the competitive makeup and spirit of this team,” Donovan said. “So I feel good about them coming back and competing tomorrow.”
Competing, yes. Winning, uh, let’s come back to that one.
The Thunder has lost four straight playoff series. Since May 24, 2016, when it beat the Warriors in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder is 4-17 in postseason games.
If you’re going to blame stars, you’re going to need a lunch break. Those defeats have been sprinkled among Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Victor Oladipo, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Wait. What? Four wins in 21 games with rosters that included those names? Sure, Carmelo was over the hill in his lone OKC season, but everyone else was in their prime or approaching it.
It makes no sense. The Thunder culture is not responding to postseason pressure and hasn’t for some time.
Losing to the Rockets in 2017 was understandable. But the past three postseasons have been demoralizing.
The Thunder lost with homecourt advantage (Utah 2018), with homecourt disadvantage (Portland 2019) and now is headed for losing with no homecourt either way.
The Thunder has lost while missing a key piece (Andre Roberson, Utah), has lost with the opponent missing a key piece (Jusuf Nurkic, Portland) and now is losing with Houston missing Westbrook.
The only rhyme and reason is Thunder futility.
Donovan said he doesn’t think a lack of confidence has set in from year to year, “just because since I’ve been here, teams have changed so drastically. This team is totally different than last year’s team. I don't feel like there's going to be any carryover to that.”
True enough. Of the Thunder’s top eight players, only three — Steven Adams, Dennis Schröder and Nerlens Noel — were on the squad last season, and Noel and Schröder were Thunder maidens then.
“Everything's positive,” Thunder rookie Darius Bazley said of the team’s vibe being down 2-0. “Just a lot of positive energy going into Game 3, knowing we have to do whatever it takes to win.”
Positive energy seemed in short supply Thursday night, when the Thunder had two massive scoring droughts, either of which could have sunk OKC and both of which did.
And now the Thunder, to keep its season alive, must win four games in nine days. Winning a single playoff game has become a colossal task for this franchise.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.