By Randy Renner
It’s hard to wrap your head around what’s happened to the Thunder organization the last few years. The team that made it to the NBA Finals in the spring of 2012, the one that seemed destined to be basketball’s darlings for the next half decade at least, has instead been plagued by sports tragedies and now real life tragedies.
There was Russell Westbrook’s knee in the 2013 playoffs and then Serge Ibaka’s calf in the 2014 playoffs and then Kevin Durant’s foot all of last season.
Sports tragedies all.
And now this season real life has intruded and showed us all what a real tragedies looks like.
Assistant coach Monty Williams’ wife Ingrid killed and three of their children seriously injured in a car crash. A life changing event that has kept Williams, head coach Billy Donovan’s lead assistant, off the Thunder bench and away from the practice facility ever since.
And now the stunning news of Thunder part-owner Aubrey McClendon’s deadly car crash. The team was told what had happened yesterday while returning to a hotel in Los Angeles after finishing up shootaround several hours before the Clippers game.
“My prayers, the organizations prayers go out to his family, his wife and his kids,” Donovan said later yesterday at Staples Center. “It’s been a tough and terrible day. He always treated me very, very well, a very generous guy and I’m just really saddened by what’s happened.”
General Manager Sam Presti was asked what he’ll remember most about the man who sat next to Thunder Chairman Clay Bennett at almost every Thunder home game.
“First and foremost his enthusiasm for the Thunder,” Presti said, “and his enthusiasm for Oklahoma City. As a civic leader, someone who not only was always trying to have a vision for the future of the city but trying to work towards that.”
The Thunder have also been dealing with the temporary loss of assistant coach Mo Cheeks to hip replacement surgery.
It’s hard to say how all of this has affected the team but you would have to think as each incident piles on top of another it has become more difficult for players, coaches and other staffers to maintain a laser focus on playing a game.
Maybe that helps explain the Thunder’s 2-5 record coming out of the All-Star break. Maybe it helps explain all the mental lapses that have led to blown leads and inexplicable turnovers and questionable decisions.
Last night all three of those issues played major roles in the Thunder’s come from ahead 103-98 loss to the Clippers. A 22-point lead early in the game, a 17-point lead going into the 4th quarter, a 16-point lead with 7:30 to play and a 14-point advantage with 5:16 to go then that already decreasing margin quickly vanished in the midst of a 26-5 Clipper closing run leaving the Thunder scrambling for answers.
“We’ve already lost too many games we’re supposed to win, we can’t keep talking about wake-up calls,” Kevin Durant said after the game. OKC has lost nine games this season when the Thunder came into the 4th quarter with a lead.
“Just no discipline,” KD said, “playing too loose.”
He was speaking generally but he was talking about himself as much as he was anyone else. Durant had six turnovers last night, including a ball he dribbled off his foot, a pass that sailed out of bounds and a couple of fumbled possessions late in the game.
“I turned the ball over too much,” he admitted.
The Thunder have given away games to the Pacers, Warriors and Clippers with 4th quarter, last minute and last second meltdowns. They didn’t even seem capable of competing in a loss to the Cavaliers, a team that has been in stumble-mode ever since clobbering OKC.
“We’re fooling ourselves if we want to be a great team the way that we’re playing,” Durant said. “We’re fooling ourselves.”
Donovan sounded much the same when he said, “you get intoxicated by winning and you fail to realize the slippage in things. Did they beat us? Or did we beat ourselves?”
There certainly seems to have been much more of the latter lately.
“I think the biggest thing we need to do is make a decision,” Donovan continued, “collectively as a group, from an accountability standpoint, of what type of team we want to be. In order to do that, there has to be a high level of sacrifice by everybody.”
And once again Durant brought up something he said after a loss the other day about digging down deep.
"We can talk about this, talk about that, but it don’t matter," KD said. "We gotta dig down deep and just stay disciplined, man. Throughout the whole game. That’s from the top to the bottom. Everybody, from the guys on the bench to the coaches to the players. Everybody."
The Thunder’s lead over the Clippers for 3rd place in the Western Conference is as skinny as a stick man in the loss column, just one game.
It can disappear entirely with a loss tonight to the Golden State Warriors.
“We just gotta stick together and stay disciplined,” Durant finished but sitting in a chair inside the Staples Center visitors lockerroom, staring at the floor, he didn’t really sound totally convinced.