October 17, 2018

This season was supposed to be a victory lap for Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The veteran powerhouse guard spent last year smashing records, piling up triple-doubles, and closing out games in heroic fashion, dragging his often outgunned Thunder team to 47 wins and a playoff spot.

Westbrook’s historic performance garnered him an MVP award, but the Thunder went into the offseason loaded with questions. General manager Sam Presti rubbed his metaphorical magic lamp and, presto, bit players Victor Oladipo, Doug McDermott, Enes Kanter, and Domantas Sabonis were turned into all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Westbrook cashing in on a gigantic five-year extension was the cherry on top of a magical offseason. One short season after being abandoned by their superstar wing, the Thunder got two more (albeit, relatively lesser) stars to replace him. All was right in Oklahoma City, it seemed. The Basketball Gods were smiling down upon Chesapeake Arena.

For Indiana, the summer was quite a different batch of emotions. Sadness, betrayal, anger. When the word was out that Paul George made it known there was no way he was re-signing, it became a question of when, not if he was going to be traded. On July 6, the 27-year-old forward seemingly got exactly what he wanted. George was shipped out to Oklahoma City for a good-not-great combo-guard and a disappointing rookie power forward.

Be careful what you wish for.

Coming into last night’s game, the Pacers and the Thunder remain on opposite ends of the basketball Spectrum, but for entirely different reasons.

Talk of the Thunder being a super team and their rousing win over Golden State seem like distant memories. Oklahoma City’s season has been off to a resounding thud. At 12-14, OKC was out of the playoff picture and were just 8-7 in their previous 15 games.

Westbrook, George, and Anthony or inexplicably playing some of the worst basketball of their careers while new additions Patrick Patterson and Ray Felton vacillated between inconsistent and nonexistent. Any visions of a Western Conference battle against the mighty Warriors were fading fast, coach Billy Donovan’s seat was warming up, and the talking heads dismissal any “time to panic?” questions started to feel a bit like whistling past a graveyard.

Pundits pointed the struggles of the 2011 Miami Heat, while detractors gleefully referenced the 2012 Lakers. The Thunder came into their showdown with the Pacers having won four of six games, but even that was a bit misleading: OKC struggled mightily as they won some terrible slugfests against teams struggling in their own right or missing key players, and the two losses were terrible showings against the scrappy but woeful Nets and an undermanned Hornets team.

On the other hand, the Pacers were shocking the world. Preseason projections had Indiana as one of the worst teams in the NBA, but the young athletic roster has other ideas.

Led by a resurgent Victor Oladipo and unicorn Myles Turner, Indiana burst out of the gates, ripping off 11 wins in their first 19 and, at 16-11, were sitting right smack in the midst of the Eastern playoff race. It’s early, but for a team projected to wallow in the lottery, the Pacers were giving the fans everything they wanted.

Last night, both teams appeared to be in the thralls of their season-long energy, for good or for ill. The Pacers were quicker to loose balls. The ball crackled at the Pacers offensive end, pinging around and finding players under the basket or wide open for clean looks. Time and again in the second half, Pacers executed simple backdoor cuts and found themselves wide open under the rim for layups.

For the Thunder, the offense sputtered as it has all season, consistent only in its inconsistency. Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony took turns forcing bad isolation shots (the trio combined to shoot a ghastly 10 for 45) and committing inexplicable turnovers (Westbrook and George combined for nine giveaways). If it weren’t for the indomitable, stolid talent of Steven Adams (23 points, 13 rebounds, and a handful of arena -rattling dunks out of the pick and roll) and some unexpected inspired play from complementary pieces Patrick Patterson (2-for-3 from deep, tough interior defense) and Alex Abrines (4-for-6 from three, the game sealing tip-in), the world would have witnessed the Pacers blowing out Oklahoma at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

But life is not a movie. Sometimes, pure talent can win out, and for all of OKC’s offensive impotence, their long-armed, switchy defense travels well. Oladipo, Turner, and Sabonis ordinarily combine for 50.4 points a night; the Thunder held the trio to 36 points on 43 shots.

Russell Westbrook once again played like a shadow of his former self (3-for-17 shooting and five turnovers, with most coming on wild drives leading to nowhere), but came through in the fourth quarter just enough by attacking the rim and earning free throws and finding shooters. Paul George looked rattled all game by the incessant booing in an arena where he was once adored, but late in the game hit the key free throws to salt it away. The Thunder snatched victory from defeat, 100-95, but there was no celebration from Oklahoma City, only a sense of relief.

The best teams play with verve, a sense of joy. Even last year’s Westbrook fueled attack is peppered with images of Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson and Steven Adams hooting, hollering, and high-fiving as Westbrook put on a show. This year’s Thunder seems to slog through every game, every possession seems to be a chore, every shot a grind to earn.

And for the Pacers, one only has to look as far as Lance Stephenson post-game interview where he jovially describes an interaction with Steven Adams.

The young Pacers know they still have a lot of growing up to do, and there’s a certain naive fun to them experiencing this journey, even after a down-to-the-wire loss.

The Oklahoma City Thunder came into Indiana and left with a victory, their fifth win in seven games. The Indiana loss snapped a three-game Pacers winning streak and dropped Indiana to 4-4 in their last eight games. But as you walk away from Wednesday night’s game, just from observing the two fan bases in locker rooms, you’d be hard-pressed to tell exactly who won and who lost.

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James Holas

Suffering Celtics fan. Lefty post dominator. Purveyor of the finest Steakums cuisine and candy corn.

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