Thunder’s massive leap ended in playoff disappointment. What comes next is crucial

Every close series in the NBA playoffs reaches a point where a team has to put everything else aside and roll with the five guys they think can get to the finish line. This is the true test of who and what a team believes in.

That moment came with five minutes remaining in Game 6 of the Dallas-Oklahoma City Western Conference semifinal series. We had spent five games building, but in a playoff game separated by just three points, the Thunder showed us what they believed in most: a frontcourt pair of Jaylin Williams and Chet Holmgren that had seen just 92 minutes of use in the regular match. season.

Oklahoma City rode this formation, with perimeter stalwarts Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Jalen Williams, from 5:19 until a must-win possession with 27 seconds left, when Isaiah Joe replaced Jaylin Williams.

That didn’t work out too well, as Oklahoma City still crashed on the glass. This clip below of PJ Washington easily brushing aside Jaylin Williams to rebound a missed free throw – he almost dunk, for crying out loud – and set up his own game-tying 3 will stick in the throats of fans of Thunder for a long time. It was one of six offensive rebounds Dallas grabbed in the final eight minutes of its Game 6 victory.

Most important, though, was what this lineup told us about the Thunder.

They had tried pretty hard to prepare for this moment in the regular season, experimenting with different formations and coming up with different offensive strategies when teams inevitably put their center on Josh Giddey and a smaller player on Holmgren. They talked pretty openly about how they expected teams to attempt this in the playoffs and were perhaps overconfident in their ability to pull it off. That said, their plan seemed to work when Giddey repeatedly punished the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round for attempting the same strategy.

Once Giddey started playing 3s in the Dallas series, his leash became shorter than a Tom Thibodeau playoff rotation. The Thunder weren’t going to let him get away with this, especially if he was going to be negative on defense as well; the lack of confidence in Giddey was evident in Game 3, and he only played 11 minutes in the final two games.

That’s what makes it so difficult for a young team – and coach – to make the playoffs the first two times. They have ideas of what it might look like, but it doesn’t. know yet, and often, they do not know what they do not know.

If the Thunder truly thought a Williams-Holmgren frontcourt would be their salvation, they probably would have spent more time with it during the season (although they did give it some running minutes in the Pelicans series). Instead, this lineup was a complete desperation when plans A through J proved insufficient.

Let me emphasize that there is nothing wrong with this. Twenty-nine NBA teams are seeing their seasons end with some level of disappointment, and that’s true even for those that had largely successful campaigns.

In early October, anyone in Oklahoma City — fan, player, coach, whoever — would have happily accepted “57 wins and a solid six-game second-round playoff exit” as the outcome of the 2023-24 season. The Thunder were widely considered to be a year away from the big jump, and their offseason moves (using their cap space to acquire even more draft picks, rather than additional players) seemed to indicate that they felt the same way internally .

Instead, they won first place in the Western Conference, had the second-best point differential in the NBA and saw their best player finish second in MVP voting. Even in defeat, they weren’t humiliated – the final goal total over the six-game series against Dallas was 636-636, and you can make a strong argument that the league gods had a strong influence on the result. .

Dallas messed things up, but the Thunder were still capable of playing some great basketball. Watch this sequence from the second quarter of Game 6, for example, where the threat of a Gilgeous-Alexander post-up is a lure for a Joe pop-out that leads to a short Holmgren turnover and an instant, correct call to find an open 3 for Cason Wallace. Frame this:

Nevertheless, history will remember the Mavs series as a missed opportunity. The Thunder blew a 17-point lead in Game 6, got crushed on the boards by a player they traded on draft night, had tactical moments in the middle of the series that they would probably like to reunite and has sometimes shown his youth. in a way they hadn’t in the regular season — like when Jalen Williams appeared to lose track of time late in the third quarter of Game 6.

Looking ahead, they now have much more information. Some questions they had were answered negatively (Giddey as a role player in a playoff), others more positively (Gilgeous-Alexander as a leading man in a playoff series). Others get an incomplete score (can they really win at the highest levels while being this bad on the glass?).

The timing of all of this is very interesting, as Oklahoma City has a tremendous short-term opportunity. Yes, the Thunder plead for patience and the team is quite young, but they also have an extraordinary cap situation, with a two-year window with Holmgren and Jalen Williams on rookie contracts.

That means the Thunder could sign another max-level player for two years at their cap cap while still staying under the luxury tax. With their war chest of future draft picks and a few tradeable young players (Giddey, for all the beating he took against Dallas, would be a much more interesting player on other rosters than the Thunder’s), he succeeded to conclude an agreement. This won’t be the hardest part. Identifying the right player is the challenge.

But I wonder, when the Thunder look at this team and this opportunity, how much they think about Game 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals in Oklahoma City.


After a disappointing second-round exit, what’s next for the Thunder?

The Thunder narrowly lost this game to the Miami Heat, 100-96, to even the series at one game apiece. too badwe thought, they would surely come back — probably a week later for Game 6. They had 23-year-old Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and 22-year-old James Harden and Serge Ibaka.

We still haven’t been back for an NBA Finals game. LeBron James performed, with a few Mike Miller splashes in between, and the Heat won the final three games of this series in Miami. The Thunder traded Harden in 2012 and Westbrook was injured in the 2013 playoffs, then the Spurs made a move on them in 2014. Durant broke his foot in 2015 and Game 6, Klay Thompson, took place in 2016, and then Durant left at the end.

The future is not assured and although, on paper, the Oklahoma City team is as bright as any basketball team, its current excellence relies heavily on Gilgeous-Alexander being one of the five best players in the league. right away. At some point he may have to pass the torch to Williams and Holmgren, but we’re years away; thus, maximizing the human Slinky’s climax is the challenge for the next few seasons.

The Thunder can attack this from a much more powerful place based on what they learned in the playoffs. Yes, they struggled on the glass, but the biggest need was a big secondary playmaker. I’m not sure it was totally obvious until Dallas did it.

In that sense, you applaud the Gordon Hayward trade even though it didn’t work out – he was exactly the type of big secondary connector with shooting skills that could have given them a leg up on Washington defenses. playoffs, and targeting that skill rather than a towering five that would have slowed them down was the right play. Alas, Hayward’s individual protest against the shot clocks dismissed that idea, even though Oklahoma City gave him every chance (and even some) to work.

Big picture, going from a good team to a great team is the hardest step, but the Thunder have all the prerequisites met: they’ve won 57 games, have a superstar pivot, and young players who shouldn’t only improve and the most enviable cap. and the draft pick situation around the league.

It is now a matter of consolidating this new information – some of which was only known two weeks ago – and identifying the players who best adapt to their three young diamonds.

Finding the right fifth starter is a big ask – there aren’t many 6-8 skill guys who are also switchable rebounders and defenders waiting to be traded. But if the Thunder can pull off this final team-building phase, we’ll be back in Oklahoma for an NBA Finals game — again and again.

(Top Oklahoma City Thunder photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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