With most of the season in the rear-view mirror, the seven-week schedule coming out of an All-Star break can feel like a race downhill for playoff contenders.
Russell Westbrook would seem accustomed to that feeling. He often attacks the basket like a skier, shedding defenders like gates on a slalom course.
But in Westbrook’s eyes, the climb continues for Oklahoma City. The apex is next month’s playoffs.
“That’s uphill,” Westbrook said. “Momentum is going upward. Russell Westbrook don’t go downhill. Uphill, baby.”
His Thunder team would like a snowball’s momentum. The only thing consistent about Oklahoma City has been how consistently the coaches and players have spoken of needing consistency this season.
The Thunder franchise is on trial this season for the future of Paul George, who is a free agent after this season. He might have found an elite team with championship caliber. Oklahoma City beat Golden State twice and won against Houston, Toronto, Cleveland and San Antonio.
Then, there are the nights when the Thunder check in late against lesser teams, like giving up 38 first-quarter points to Orlando and 37 first-quarter points to Phoenix in the last week.
“We’re getting consistent on adjustments,” George said of the team’s penchant for improving as a game progresses. “We’re making the adjustments necessary to win games.”
It has been an adjustment since Oklahoma City traded for George in July and dealt for Carmelo Anthony three days before training camp. Oklahoma City opened the season 8-12 with Westbrook changing gears from his triple-double extravaganza of last season. He still is nearly averaging a triple-double this season as his rebounding average has increased to 9.7.
A 22-8 stretch followed through December and January as the stars acclimated to each other. But Oklahoma City is back to being .500 in the 14 games entering Saturday night and eking out recent victories against four of the NBA’s six worst teams.
The ebbs and flows put Oklahoma City encouragingly close to third place in the Western Conference at times and uncomfortably in sight of lottery-bound ninth place at others.
Since defensive specialist Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury Jan. 27, Oklahoma City is 2-5 against teams with winning records.
The Thunder ranked fifth in the NBA for defensive rating with Roberson and have ranked 18th for defensive rating since losing him to injury. Signing postseason-eligible swingman Corey Brewer on Saturday could help.
“The biggest difference is the awareness of having to rotate,” coach Billy Donovan said of the team’s two defensive faces. “What we’re asking our guys to do defensively is really, really hard because you’ve got a guy in Steven Adams up in pick-and-roll coverage. So you’ve got to protect the paint. You’ve got to build back out. You’re in constant rotations. You’re in constant scrambles. The best part about us is when we’re rotating and scrambling and we’re covering because of our length and size, that’s when we’re really good defensively.”
The Thunder is not oblivious to the issue. Scoring is not a worry with Westbrook, George and Anthony, even though Anthony is shooting and scoring at career-low clips in his first non-All-Star season since 2009.
It is a conundrum at times because Oklahoma City knows it must be more physical and give more effort. Yet, it has players who already personify that.
George leads the NBA in deflections and is a candidate for the team’s defensive player of the year by leading the NBA in steals. Westbrook leads the NBA in collectin 50-50 balls, the epitome of hustle. Adams is leading the NBA in box-outs for a team that tops the league in offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
“We know, on any given night, that we have the players and the personnel to help us get a win,” Anthony said. “It’s just a matter of taking advantage of it.”
They carry supreme confidence because Westbrook wills the team to win at times.He averaged 36.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists to help the Thunder avoid losing to Dallas and Phoenix.
Thunder guard Alex Abrines said he and guard Josh Huestis were comparing Westbrook to Gandalf, the wizard from “Lord of the Rings,” while marveling at him from the bench during a recent game.
“He’s never early or late,” Abrines said. “He’s always at the right time. When the moment of the game arrives, he shows up and wins the game.”
It is impossible to look too far ahead on Oklahoma City’s path when every step is impacting what will shake out with the roster, payroll and a potentially massive luxury tax bill.
Westbrook’s five-year, $205-million offseason extension was the first commitment.
George, who has a $20.5-million player option for 2018-19, long has held dreams of playing near home in Los Angeles but this season’s trial in Oklahoma City also has prompted the 27-year-old to fondly speak of the bond he is forming with Westbrook and Anthony.
The change also has benefited his game. George’s scoring opportunities remain nearly on par with what he had as Indiana’s go-to player. He averaged 23.7 and 23.1 points the last two seasons and entered Saturday night at 22.3 this season. He is shooting a career-best 42% on three-pointers with the new nuance of off-the-ball play.
Anthony, 33, also has a $27.9-million player option for 2018-19, but at age 34 is situated differently than George and appreciates the opportunity Oklahoma City has given him. Anthony’s New York teams averaged 29.3 wins over the previous four seasons.
“Totally different,” Anthony said. “Different team, different atmosphere, different motivation now. To actually be playing for something and looking ahead at the big picture and having the opportunity to do something special, that brings a lot of excitement to myself. I look forward to what’s about to happen.”