OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook exploded past half court, pressing the nitrous button in his shoes to crush a wild tomahawk midway through the third quarter. It was the kind of dunk that ignites an arena and sends everyone scrambling to see who can Vine it fastest.
The Cleveland Cavaliers‘ lead was cut to four, and it seemed as if the Thunder were about to make a trademark push to completely seize the momentum. Matthew Dellavedova answered Westbrook’s dunk in the most opposite way possible — a soft, running floater — and suddenly, the Cavs were the ones unexpectedly pouring it on and outscoring the Thunder 29-11 in the final eight minutes of the third to take over the game.
It’s rare that the Thunder get blown out, particularly at home, but the Cavs did just that as they rolled to a 115-92 win. It was the fourth-worst home loss since the Thunder relocated, but with an addendum: It was the worst loss ever when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all played. It was the kind of loss that raises eyebrows, catches your attention and makes you wonder if there’s a level of concern brewing within the team. Simply put: The Thunder just don’t get blown out like this.
“Nah, we’re not concerned,” Westbrook said. “There’s a reason why it’s rare. It doesn’t really happen. Not a concern. We’ll be back and ready to go to Dallas.”
Durant, who has lost 10 of his past 12 games against LeBron James, dating to the 2012 Finals, stuck to the no-panic message and tried to keep a single loss in an 82-game season — bloated margin or not — in perspective.
“We’re not going to go home and think it’s the end of the world,” he said. “We lost a game against a good team. We’ve got to regroup and figure out what we need to do better and move on. It’s the regular season.”
That’s Durant’s tried-and-true response after disconcerting losses — move on and forget it — but this feels like a seasonal crossroads for the Thunder, where they either answer the call against a troubling lull or tumble into a darker hole. They lost a deflating game to the Pacers on Friday, when they blew a seven-point lead in the final three minutes. Then they turned around and got blitzed by the Cavs on national television. It might not be the low mark of the season, considering they are 40-16, but the vibes coming from the arena and the locker room postgame weren’t positive. It was a sobering loss, the kind that causes a good amount of self-reflection and evaluation.
“We’ve got to dig down deep, man. X’s and O’s and shootarounds and schemes and practices — that s— is out the window,” Durant said. “You’ve got to dig down deep and decide what you want to do. And that’s everybody.”
Asked to elaborate on what he meant by digging down, Durant wouldn’t indulge.
“Nah,” he said, “I can’t go deeper.”
No need to because really, Sunday’s loss was self-explanatory and a continuing trend. Defensively, the Thunder were a mess. They allowed a layup line in the first half and watched the Cavs pull away when shots stopped falling in the third. Durant denied that it was an energy thing, which raises the question: If not that, how do you lose by 23 at home?
The Thunder are 19-6 since Christmas, which is a nice thing to keep repeating, but within that, probably the most encouraging thing they’ve done in terms of assuring their status as contenders is lose to the Warriors by eight. They haven’t performed against the better teams, with inconsistencies and flaws being exposed, and the schedule from here on out is an unforgiving haul through most of the league’s better teams.
“I think the second half of our schedule is set up with the teams we are going to play,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I think the more adversity our team faces, I think, the better, because I think that is the only true way to really come together [and] rise above it.”
The Thunder will be in the playoffs, with their seed to be determined, but the question is if the habits they have developed in regular-season games will be good enough.
If their plan is to simply turn it on and find a higher level come the postseason, they’re going to face a harsh reality. You play only the good teams in the playoffs, and those seem to be a bit of a problem for the Thunder right now.