You couldn’t have conjured a more familiar morality play for Oklahoma City Thunder Fans: Russell Westbrook, fourth-quarter force of nature, turned once again basketball Sisyphus, rolled over by boulders of his own making.
The result: a 112-107 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.
Despite a brilliant 34-point performance, Westbrook's questionable shot selection down the overtime stretch—to say nothing of Durant's scoreless frame—is sure to raise anew concerns over whether these Thunder truly have what it takes to make good on their tantalizing talent.
The Spurs? They’re on their way to a second consecutive NBA Finals, the sixth in the Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan era—an astounding stretch of class and consistency the likes of which may never be rivaled.
OKC, meanwhile, will be forced to wonder, through another summer of questions and second-guesses, whether its Himalayan hump can ever be scaled.
As in postseasons past, they’re bound to come fast and furious:
Why wasn’t Kevin Durant more of an offensive focus down the stretch? Was a tender ankle solely to blame?
How did the Thunder find themselves out of timeouts as the overtime ticks wore down?
Where was the viper’s strike once Tony Parker was bolted to the bench?
And, in what’s become an unfortunate rite of spring: Can Russell Westbrook be both reeled in and yet somehow compelled to still greater heights?
First, a kind caveat: The Thunder came within a play or two of forcing a deciding Game 7, largely due to Westbrook's fourth-frame fury.
Plenty of teams and a slew of star players have failed to scale the Finals summit, of course. But only one should be of any concern for these Thunder heading into this summer: Michael Jordan.
Because if OKC has any modern mirror for its springtime struggles, it’s MJ’s Bulls, who endured heartbreaking loss after bone-breaking beating before a 28-year-old Jordan—in spite of scores of doubters who deigned he never would—finally felled his demons.
The similarities, however, end there. Jordan and Durant may represent two of the most gifted scorers the game has ever seen, but their respective Robins, while similarly gifted, are also indisputably different.
Where Scottie Pippen embraced the role of secondary threat, focusing his energy on an unparalleled brand of defensive terror, Westbrook—stopper though he often is—thrives when in controlled attack.
Tempts fate and loses, too, and far more often than Thunder fans would probably prefer.
With both superstars signed through at least the 2015-16 season, OKC’s fortunes are, for good or ill, latched tightly to its dynamic duo, dysfunction though the fates may invite.
The team’s supporting cast likewise will remain mostly intact. What recourse, then, do the Thunder have, short of next-level leaps from its core?
Scott Brooks remains the most obvious scapegoat. Even here, the parallels to the late-1980s Bulls are instructive: For it was only after Chicago jettisoned Doug Collins, promoting in his stead longtime assistant Phil Jackson, that its fortunes truly turned.
Writing at SB Nation shortly after San Antonio stormed to a 2-0 series lead, Eddie Maisonet rattled off some familiar fodder for why Brooks may not be long for the bench:
But one must wonder if the use of that ability has now expired. The injuries of Westbrook and Ibaka have brought out the worst in a team that's been deemed as a title favorite for the last couple of years. The inability to make the right adjustments, the simplicity of the offense, the unwillingness to be flexible with the roster and an over-dependence on veterans have OKC on the precipice of getting booted from the playoffs in an ugly fashion. The talent has developed, and now, the team needs no more motivation. The Thunder are in desperate need of a coach who can maximize the talent on the floor and create a system that puts both their superstars and role players in the best positions to succeed. Scott Brooks, for all his work getting Oklahoma City to this point, doesn't feel like that guy.
At the same time, to suggest a like-minded move would inherently prove potent for these Thunder speaks to the error of cross-era comparisons—of shoehorning one particular team into a decades-old mold.
Not even the Thunder’s contemporaries seem to agree on just what it is their future holds.
“Until they figure out their half-court offense,” Charles Barkley proclaimed during TNT’s Inside the NBA postgame show, “they’ll never win.”
Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich seemed more interested in providing some due perspective, via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
Ginobili on the Thunder: "They’re a pretty good team. They have so much talent, so much athleticism, so much future, too."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) June 1, 2014
Pop on KD and Westbrook: "They're class acts. They know how to lose, and they know how to win."— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) June 1, 2014
No one expects the Thunder to tuck tail and turn into a Western Conference also-ran. Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka alone are almost enough to guarantee late-May play for the foreseeable future.
Despite its annual argument to the contrary, San Antonio is bound to bump headlong into the scourge of age sooner than later.
The Miami Heat? Sooner or later, not even the galactic greatness of LeBron James can stave off failure alone and forever.
To say the window has closed on the Thunder goes against everything we as fans know of the well-worn lessons of waiting one's turn.
For proof, look no further than the man who thumped these same Thunder two years ago: King James, once the irredeemable demon, is now on the brink of locking down his legacy for good.
But with another year will inevitably rise more pressure on the panes for these Thunder, pushed down by the dual force of expectations and pure impatience.
And maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps OKC’s stock is such that the cries and clamor will strengthen, rather than snap, its resolve.
Perhaps then, when the window’s an inch from closed, will the Thunder finally realize that getting to the other side is no longer about squeezing through the ever-slimming sliver of space—shrinking to fit someone else's size and shape—but shattering the glass completely.