Tramel: OKC Thunder's bizarro season ends with bizarro Game 7 but also with renewed hope for future
James Harden won the game with his defense. The best offensive player on the court was Lu Dort.
The game-winning shot came on a Rockets mid-range jumper. Chris Paul was flustered with the game on the line.
The Thunder season ended Wednesday night with the only way it could end. Kooky.
The Rockets beat the Thunder 104-102 in a Game 7 that was not to be believed.
The NBA bubble went bonkers. The Disney World teacups spun backwards. A bizarro Thunder season ended with a bizarro game.
The season began with Dort in the G League and Harden on the list of all-time NBA greats. The game began with the Rockets diligently adhering to social distancing anytime Dort had the ball. No Rocket within six feet, and Houston was willing to make it 60.
The Thunder season ended with Harden rushing at Dort as if trying to catch the last train for the coast, and the music finally died for the Thunder. So many things to unpack in any seven-game series. A fortnight of intrigue and subplots and mood swings.
But this one? Played in an Orlando bubble, a makeshift court in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, with digital fans, busing over from the Grand Floridian hotel where, by the way, the hated Rockets lodged, too?
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Then for Game 7 to go this way, all upside down, with a Malice in Wonderland feel?
Surreal. A fitting end to a Thunder season that began almost 12 months ago, when corona was a beer and Luguentz Dort sounded like a Star Wars character.
What you need to remember about Game 7 is that the go-ahead-for-good basket came from Houston’s P.J. Tucker on a one-handed flip shot from 11 feet, the kind of shot the Rockets renounce.
Three-pointers and layups are Houston’s weapons of choice, but desperate times call for desperate measures, so Tucker held his nose and swished the little mid-ranger with 1:25 left in the game.
That gave the Rockets a 103-102 and set up the Lord of the Flies finish.
Such chaos should play into OKC’s hands. The Thunder was the NBA grand master of close games. OKC tied for the NBA’s eighth-best record and stayed past its bedtime in the playoffs, only because it was salty in clutch situations.
And it was salty in clutch situations only because of Paul, the veteran quarterback with a nose for the ball and a penchant for making a shot in the most perilous of times.
But in the final two possessions of the season, CP3 didn’t produce. First he missed a 10-footer in the lane that all of Oklahoma and 90 percent of America would have bet on going in. Then Paul, covered by Robert Covington, the matchup the Thunder wanted all series, passed off, and even worse, the ball was deflected by Russell Westbrook. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander retrieved it, ran a scramble drill and with the season on the line, flung the ball to Dort.
Told you it was crazy.
When the week started, any season-on-the-line situation, Dort would have ranked below Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton, Rumble and mayor David Holt on the list of people who Billy Donovan desired to take a shot.
But you never know what a week can hold. Dort went from 3-of-16 shooting (and 0-of-9 on 3-pointers) in Game 5 to one of the best games ever played by anyone in NBA playoff history.
There. I said it. Dort’s defense was its usual outstanding quality, and it alone should have delivered victory. Harden scored just 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting, and that’s a Rocket-ship ticket back to Houston for a team that relies so heavily on the Beard.
But add in Dort’s offense, and this individual game reached historic levels. Thirty points on 10-of-21 shooting, including 6-of-12 from 3-point range. With the season on the line, Dort took the most shots in the game. More than Paul or Danilo Gallinari or Dennis Schröder or SGA or Harden or Westbrook or Eric Gordon.
And the Thunder was glad he did.
“Lu was special,” Paul said. “We had our confidence. We expected that from Lu. Lu’s going to be in this league for a long time.”
If you can take any solace from Game 7, know that the Thunder found a ballplayer. The fearless Dort won’t score 30 points very often — funny thing about making shots; they start guarding when you do. But Dort’s potential went into overdrive with his performance on such a stage.
Dort talked about how his teammates gave him confidence, how Paul and Schröder kept telling him to shoot, even when the shots didn’t fall. How Schröder way back in January took him aside against Minnesota, telling him he could guard Jeff Teague. Funny the little things that make or break a team.
“I just can’t wait for the future,” Dort said. “There’s a lot that can happen.”
There’s a lot that did happen. SGA desperately flipped that ball on the wing to Dort, and Harden, maybe for the first time in his life, sprinted on defense. He went from banging against Steven Adams in the paint to leaping at Dort’s 3-point shot.
Harden blocked the shot just as it left Dort’s hands, and despite about 15 minutes of prologue, that was the game.
The Thunder hasn’t won a playoff series since Kevin Durant left — this was OKC’s fifth straight series defeat.
That’s getting old. But the Thunder gave basketball fans a thrilling season, hope for the future and a precious lesson on trusting teammates in a Mad Hatter world.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.