The Oklahoma City Thunder still had one game to go before the All-Star break, on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies, but Carmelo Anthony was already looking ahead to the stretch run of the season.
"Once we come back, it's showtime," Anthony said. "It's time to gear up."
Through 60 games, the Thunder sit at 34-26, one game back of third place and two games from being out of the playoff picture altogether. It's the same story for much of the middle of the West, but for OKC it's been an odd, perplexing season filled with peaks and valleys.
One night they look like a legitimate contender, the next they're losing to a lottery team.
It appeared they'd finally found their stride, or "figured it out," a line that's been repeated by players roughly 2,000 times since training camp last October. Six straight wins in late January, and well on their way to a seventh in a completely dominant first 32 minutes in Detroit. Then it all changed.
Andre Roberson ruptured a tendon in his left knee, and while the Thunder went on to beat the Pistons that night, the loss of OKC's lockdown defender was soon felt with four straight losses.
But in what's become standard to this Thunder season, against the wall and another valley in sight, they floored the Golden State Warriors in Oakland to snap the skid. Sandwiched around that game? Losses to the Los Angeles Lakers. It was telling. The Thunder have made a habit of -- and really sustained their season by -- performing at full tilt against the best of the NBA. They've also lost a pile of head-scratchers.
Against the Warriors, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder are 6-3 with an average scoring margin of plus-7.7 (their wins have been by an average 14.3 points; their losses by just 6.0). They've run the Warriors twice, once in OKC by 17 and once in Oakland by 20.
The Thunder are one of four teams in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive rating, alongside elite company like the Raptors, Rockets and Warriors. Their net rating is plus-3.2, good for sixth in the league. All signs point to the Thunder being a top-tier team thick in the hunt for home-court advantage in the West playoffs.
And yet, there's a measurable possibility they'll miss the postseason entirely. ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) projects the Thunder at 93 percent odds to make it, but they're tied in the loss column with a host of teams jockeying for the conference's final postseason berths.
"We know we can beat, and play and compete with the best teams," All-Star forward Paul George told ESPN. "That's not the issue. For us, it's doing it on a nightly basis."
The question George and the Thunder have yet to answer this season is this: What kind of team is Oklahoma City?
The team misses Roberson, primarily because of the in-season adjustment it's forced at a time when the Thunder were finally starting to roll, with no in-house replacement apparently available. The trade deadline yielded no results, and the buyout market likely will add a 15th player to the roster but not one of any expected impact.
Since Roberson's injury, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 108.8, which would ranked 27th in the league for the full season, ahead of only the Cavs and lottery-bound Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. There's a clear struggle. And yet, it's quite unreasonable to say Roberson was quietly one of the Thunder's most valuable players. Plus, they have a blowout road win over the Warriors as evidence they're still extremely capable without him.
When asked if he thinks the Thunder are equipped to win it all, George responded, "Absolutely."
"I think it's going to be extremely hard and a lot of work, but I think in this locker room we have enough," he continued. "It's on us, and I think that's what you want. You want a locker room that gives you a chance to win it and puts the rest of that workload on us."
Coming out of the All-Star break, there was a lot of emphasis on locking in over the final 23 games, and it would start with handling business on the road against the Kings before another trip to Oakland -- an appropriate mental test of what the Thunder have battled throughout the season. For that reason, Anthony called it maybe the most important game of the season. And OKC completely blitzed the Kings -- for a quarter. After leading by as many as 23 in the first eight minutes, the Kings came back to lead by five with five minutes to go and were tied with a second remaining before Russell Westbrook beat the buzzer on a game winner.
"It starts now with us," Anthony said before the win Thursday night. "Whatever happened early on in the season, before the break, it is what it is. We can take that information and build on that, but right now it's time for us to have a new focus, to have a new energy and start preparing for these seven weeks."
They have 22 games left to find their place and set the standard they've been working toward. Inside the organization, the 1994-95 Houston Rockets have been referenced, a team that added Clyde Drexler at midseason and rocked back and forth, winning 47 games and landing sixth in the West. It clicked in the playoffs, and behind dominance from a few stars, they rolled to an NBA title.
While that precedent has provided some comfort, it's not the goal. The Thunder will be dangerous in the playoffs regardless of where or how they finish -- they've proved that. But they don't want to walk into the playoffs as a wild card ready to put a scare into a higher seed. They want the target themselves.
"We want to be playing our best basketball starting now," George said. "We want to build good habits, we want to get consistent. I feel like now we've got enough body of work to look back and say, 'Hey, we're not doing enough, we're not as good as we need to be.'
"We're locked in sometimes, but it's a huge, huge level of inconsistency. And I think that's what this second half is for, to start to gain some traction and as a team building toward excellence."
Through this strange season, the Thunder have shown no symptoms of a dysfunctional team. Players in the locker room have remarked about it being one of the best mixes they've ever been part of, and their ability to raise the bar against the league's best is what's kept the front office patient and committed.
"When we're at our best," Westbrook said in December, "I don't think nobody can mess with us."