Remember when the Thunder lived in Wonderland? Every player healthy. Every opponent aging. Every ping-pong ball bouncing the Thunder’s way.
Home on the Range. The skies were not cloudy all day.
But now the Spurs have supplanted the Thunder as Western Conference champs. The Grizzlies have supplanted the Thunder as ESPN the Magazine’s No. 1 sports franchise. The Thunder whiffed on impactful free agents.
And now the Unbreakable Russell Westbrook is broken. Again.
Long gone is the Thunder’s years-long streak of ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere.
About 28 NBA teams have a message for Oklahoma City: welcome to reality.
This is the way major league sports work. Seasons almost never end on a high. Beloved players leave town. Great players get hurt.
Westbrook’s meniscus tear, which cost the Thunder the West semifinals against Memphis, has led to more knee surgery, to remove a loose stitch causing inflammation.
A loose stitch is what you get on your shirt. A loose stitch is what perplexes quilting clubs. A loose stitch is not supposed to bench a superstar point guard.
But that’s the new normal for the Thunder. Those sun-kissed days when the Boomers were young and the O’Brien Trophy seemed on a crash course for Bricktown, now have given way to the realization that nothing comes easy in the NBA.
Wasn’t going to be easy with Westbrook in the starting gate. Not easy adjusting to life without a top-flight bench scorer. Not easy trying to get back to the No. 1 seed in the West and the 60something victories going to be required for such a finish. Not easy trying to return to the NBA Finals and figuring out what to do about LeBron James once you get there.
Going to be even harder with Westbrook sidelined 4-6 weeks and Jeremy Lamb playing 25 minutes a game instead of 15 and Reggie Jackson having to switch to supersub in mid-December rather than Oct. 1.
Sure, the extra minutes for Lamb and Jackson and whomever will help their individual development, but I don’t see how it helps the Thunder development. This is a team built around Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Learning how to play without Westbrook is fascinating theater but not particularly germane to the championship goal. The Thunder’s not staging a title parade without Westbrook; no reason to get excited about playing without him.
We saw the Westbrookless Thunder for three weeks last spring. Wasn’t pretty. Maybe six weeks of Westbrookless Thunder will go more smoothly. But it still won’t be pretty.
Were the Lakers pretty without Kobe? Were the Celtics pretty without Rondo? The Bulls without Derrick Rose?
Speaking of Rose, maybe his soap operic recovery from major knee surgery has sufficiently scared the Thunder into a cautious prognosis. Last spring, Rose’s anticipated return was delayed and delayed and delayed, until he became a scorned star in Chicago.
Perhaps Westbrook will be back on the lower end of the expected recovery. Perhaps the Thunder was trying to temper expectations. Perhaps Westbrook will be back by Thanksgiving.
Ah, there I go again. Giving in to cloud illusions, forgetting that with all the thrills and chills of big-time sport also comes a healthy dose of disappointment, and the knowledge that Wonderland is a mirage.