The end of OK3? Thunder's grand plan comes to a crashing halt

It started with a party.

With the grand opening of the Jones Assembly, a chic music bar in a hip, developing area and a new symbol of cultural and civic evolution in Oklahoma City, the Thunder said hello to Paul George.

It was an offseason coronation, a celebration of a return to Tier 1 relevance. It was the recovery and restoration of a forlorn contender, with George giving a second chance to a jilted superstar and a heartbroken franchise. It was also Day 1 of George's yearlong recruitment.

But the Thunder weren't finished. Two months later, fans gathered under the smoldering September Oklahoma sun at a hangar at Will Rogers World Airport to watch Carmelo Anthony step off a private jet. Adding George wasn't enough of a swing. It had to be bigger. It had to be bolder.

Then, with Russell Westbrook's signature still missing on a five-year contract extension, Sam Presti applied the full-court press. It was a just-add-water superteam, a roster rebuilt one year after losing its franchise cornerstone. Westbrook signed a few weeks later. George said knowing Westbrook's future would make his own free-agency decision "easier." The roster looked stacked, and things were really good for the Thunder.

Then the season started.

From the beginning, everyone around the team warned against overreactions, as they anticipated a bumpy road. Patience was preached at every opportunity. This was an assembling of stars that would require time to figure some things out -- trial and error was necessary. It was Westbrook, coming off an MVP season in which he set new usage rate records. It was George, who had lived life as the unquestioned alpha of a small-market franchise of his own. And it was Anthony, who lorded over New York and spent the past few seasons in a blink-first staring contest with the Knicks. It was going to take some time.

If you were to put a pitch count on it, the phrase "figure it out" was uttered two to three billion times. There was never any tangible panic, only fleeting moments of anxiety, such as when Westbrook sat on the end of the bench in Orlando following a baffling 13-point loss to the Magic that dropped the team to 8-12, eyes burning holes into hardwood with a blank stare.

The Thunder bounced back with a win in the next game and, up against every wobble, would win just enough, especially against good teams, to validate themselves. Maybe in the end, though, that was the problem -- they never panicked.

IT WAS THE DAY after Game 3 in the Thunder's opening-round series against the Utah Jazz, and practice was wrapping up at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. With ice packs on their knees, hoodies cinched up around their heads and slides on their feet, Thunder players hovered near one of the tunnels as the calls for the first bus to leave were shouted out. The conversation was heating up.

It wasn't an argument or debate -- it was a dare. Thunder forward Jerami Grant started it, suggesting one of the team's athletic trainers should get "Thug Life" tattooed across his stomach. Another player chimed in and said he'd put some money up for it. Then another player added more to the pot.

Carmelo Anthony finished an interview, walked over to join the group and asked what was going on. Once he found out, he threw out his own number to add to the pile. With each contribution, the cheers and screams erupted, and the trainer walked around shaking his head. The final pot was said to be nearing six figures, though it's not clear how serious it all was.

"With George headed for free agency and the yearlong recruitment not going to plan on a promise of sustained top-end success, another judgment on Westbrook and the Thunder is coming."

The whole scene had the perfect setup of a team loose and confident following a deflating Game 3 loss, with a massively important Game 4 ahead the next night. The pressure might have been building, but the Thunder weren't sweating.

They lost Game 4 by 17.

All season, they desperately tried to stay together and stay positive. Sources within the team were adamant throughout the season that chemistry was never an issue. Veterans marveled at the connectivity of the group. Everyone was aligned, everyone wanted the same thing. Even as players adjusted to new roles and responsibilities, some having a harder time than others, the buy-in was total.

Among the many issues they ended up with -- fit, focus, consistency -- some rested simply in hubris. They lived in denial all season, right up to the bitter end. After getting whacked in Game 4, it was explained away with their missing shots and the Jazz getting hot. Before Game 5, Anthony forgot what time the game started, showing up to the arena as if it tipped at 7 p.m. local time, rather than the scheduled 8:30 start. He walked down the hallway to the Thunder's locker room, nonchalantly looking around and seeing no one, before realizing he was there way too early. He got in his car and left. They told themselves from Day 1 that they were a superteam, but they existed as such only on paper.

If there ever was a true panic button moment, it came in Game 5 when Jae Crowder hit a 3 to put the Jazz up 25 with 8:34 left in the third quarter. For the first time, the Thunder actually freaked out. There was a true, purified sense of urgency for the first time all season. They weren't good enough. They were kind of, gasp, bad really. The "on" switch they dreamed all year of came in the form of Westbrook and George turning into a two-headed monster that overcame and overwhelmed the Jazz.

Even that night was complicated, though. Anthony was not-so-inconspicuously on the bench during the Thunder's 32-7 run to close third quarter. He was seen begging assistant Mo Cheeks to come back in, and finally got his wish with 7:58 left in the fourth. He was neither good nor bad -- he was merely there -- but after the Jazz targeted him with Donovan Mitchell driving past him twice, Billy Donovan benched him for the final two minutes.

And leading into Game 6, Donovan saw the writing on the wall. The Thunder at least had salvaged their dignity in Game 5, avoiding the public shaming and complete exposition of every flaw they had, but Game 6 would be the test.

"Once tomorrow starts, this is over with," Donovan said ahead of Friday's Game 6. "We've got to come back and do it again, and this has been this team's greatest challenge, is the consistency to be able to come back the next game and do it again over and over and over. And that's what's going to be required to continue to advance the series."

In Game 6, the heart and the effort were there. But it was the fine print again for the Thunder: missing an opportunity to extend a lead in the first half and falling behind double-digits in the third as Donovan Mitchell erupted. Westbrook put on his cape and fully engaged Zero Ball, but not every wild jumper was going to fall.

The Thunder gave it a real attempt. They didn't lay down. But it was the habits, the focus, the margins, that got them beat again.

ON HIS FURY ROAD to the MVP award in 2016-17, much of the narrative around Westbrook was focused on so-called "help" -- as in, Westbrook didn't have much of it. Victor Oladipo was solid but nothing close to the All-Star form he displayed this season with the Indiana Pacers. Steven Adams was good but didn't take any kind of leap with opposing defenses crowding the lane on every roll to the basket.

Westbrook was voted the 2016-17 MVP for a lot of reasons, but one of the strongest cases was built on what the middle letter stands for -- Westbrook's value was off the charts. Every minute he was off the floor was a massive problem for OKC, and that all came to a disastrous head in a five-game, first-round loss to the Houston Rockets in 2017.

Help was added in eye-popping fashion, and it produced the final result of ... a six-game, first-round exit after one more regular-season win than in 2016-17.

There's some context, with starting shooting guard and Defensive Player of the Year contender Andre Roberson lost for the season in January, right as the Thunder were starting to roll. They had to reconfigure again and eventually signed Corey Brewer off the buyout market as a stopgap.

The Thunder miss Roberson, but it's for all the reasons the Jazz gleefully exposed in six games. He played in the margin, cleaning up the details the Thunder so often took for granted. He made extra efforts, covered for defensive lapses and haphazard gambles, and was the difference between a 97.6 and a 107.1 defensive rating. Roberson's injury dramatically shifted both the Thunder's floor and their ceiling.

But even with their final 32 regular-season games to figure it out, the Thunder entered the playoffs as a wild card rather than anything resembling refinement. There was never a specific issue, but a series of isolated ones fluctuated on any given night. They never could plug the holes because they didn't really know where the water was pouring in from. Against the Jazz, they finally ran out of life jackets.

It feels like the season is a referendum on someone. The front office for taking the big swing? Billy Donovan for never maximizing the available talent? Westbrook for spoiling the supposed help he had by playing below his standard in the postseason?

In the Thunder's universe, Westbrook carries his own orbit. Everything comes back to him, fair or not. He spent the first month trying too hard to make it fit, playing awkward, hesitant basketball. Then at the urging of Anthony and George, Westbrook re-established himself as the Thunder's alpha. It became their formula for success, with Westbrook's hellish competitiveness driving the bus as George, Anthony and Adams alternated in support.

The paradox of Westbrook is that what makes him great is always what makes him fail. He plays at a volume few others can, but his mistakes are loud. His will to win sometimes spills over to tunnel vision and an "if you want it done right, do it yourself" mindset.

He's his own worst enemy because he can't let go of the responsibility to win at all costs. He said he would lock Ricky Rubio up, and he did for the most part -- but the collateral damage was four first-half fouls that put his team in a bind.

Westbrook is used to taking the blame. He was always the bad guy in the media's speculation of a rift between him and Kevin Durant in their formative years. He was the guy who shot too much, turned it over too much, wasn't a point guard, and eventually, was the reason Durant left.

Westbrook looked to be most comfortable last season as the unquestioned captain of the ship, free to fire away on pull-up jumpers unfettered. But he wanted to make it work with George and Anthony, maybe too much on his own terms, because he still requires validation.

With George headed for free agency and the yearlong recruitment not going to plan on a promise of sustained top-end success, another judgment on Westbrook and the Thunder is coming.

The grand, one-year experiment didn't pan out. But, and it's a big but, it could also be Year 1 of an extended restoration project. George has talked repeatedly about "building" with this group, and he even referenced it being "Year 1." Maybe the Thunder end up coming out of this clean after all.

Trades can be re-litigated in hindsight, but the Thunder would make both of the splashy moves they made last offseason 100 times out of 100. They have a transcendent star in Westbrook, and they aim to pay off the promise of maximizing the prime of his career. They have a chance to re-sign George, which is all they ever really wanted. They also have Anthony at age 34, with his $28 million player option looking like an albatross, especially with a grotesque luxury tax bill ahead for a noncontender. It's a complicated future for the Thunder, whichever way it goes.

For now, the matter at hand turns to George and his free agency. The Thunder, and Westbrook, have to convince him that there was more to this season than met the eye. They can point to Game 5 and the snapshot of a brilliant peer-to-peer partnership to build to something bigger. It's "as you were" for the Thunder, back to the rocky waters of the unknown, waiting on another superstar to tell them where to steer.