STORMY FINISH?

Experiment in Oklahoma City looks to be a failure for Thunder

Experiment in Oklahoma City looks to be a failure for Thunder
Russell Westbrook and the Thunder are on the verge of being ousted by Utah. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Last summer everyone was waiting for the next super team to form. Where would Carmelo go?  Where would Paul George go?  One day the Lakers were the place for Paul and the Rockets the place for Carmelo, another day the Cavaliers and so on and so forth until the smoke cleared and both landed in Oklahoma City.  Huh?  Yeah, the place that has been bleeding talent for the last three years suddenly is in the business of bringing Russell Westbrook help?  I guess the powers that be decided that if you’re going to pay Westbrook $200 million dollars he should have some help to actually win something, and so the newest super team was formed.

But honestly, this was never a squad that worked right. Carmelo is known as a guy who scores buckets by the bushel, George has never really lived up to the hype. In the era of the dominant three, he’s always been well, third fiddle, and Westbrook for all his venom and vitriol is probably going to be the odd guy out when it comes to championship rings when it’s all said and done in this era, and putting them together just made for a weird casserole of headlines, under-performance and typical media questions like “who takes the last shot?” “Whose team is this?”

I’ve never understood those questions because there’s one thing Coach Gene Hackman taught me in the movie The Replacements, “winners want the ball.”  So obviously, Westbrook right? Or George? Well definitely not Carmelo right?  Either way it looks a little irrelevant now.  Fast forward to the playoffs and here we are in the first round and Mr Double Triple Double and company are on the verge of a five game bounce by the far less talked about Utah Jazz.  Ricky Rubio, Rudy Gobert and the genuine rookie of the year Donovan Mitchell are stifling the poorly built Thunder and suddenly storm clouds are forming on the horizon.

Paul George is scheduled to make $20.3 million dollars this coming season but can opt out and wear a ski mask to get around $30 million dollars in a new max deal.  It’s the NBA so someone will probably give it to a guy who has never done much more than aggravate Lebron James in a few playoff series. But should it be the Thunder?

Don’t forget about Carmelo, who gave up $8 million dollars in a trade kicker to come to Oklahoma, and also has an opt out for this season.  So if you’re Oklahoma, this year you paid about $70 million to three guys and surrounded them with Australian Jason Mamoa and Raymond Felton to limp out of the playoffs in the first round in what will presumably be five games and now each of those three guys is going to cost about $10 million more next year.  Awesome.

In today’s nonsensical topsy turvy NBA you’re going to see a bunch of talking heads on TV all summer long try and convince you that Oklahoma needs to resign George and Carmelo.  That giving each of them another $175 million each is the only hope Oklahoma has of winning anything. Let me simplify this for you; no it isn’t.  As a matter of fact this is exactly the one thing (I guess technically, two things) OKC shouldn’t do.  You tell them each, thanks but no thanks and you go out and sign three more guys who can defend and shoot the 3 and you let Westbrook sell out your arena night in and night out in his pursuit of all kinds of regular season accolades and early playoff exits, because there isn’t a team that OKC could build in the next three years that would overtake Golden State or Houston. Or next year’s Lakers or this year’s Utah Jazz for that matter.  If you’re OKC you have to have the presence of mind to realize that once Durant left, the championship window closed, and that once James Harden left Durant was never far behind.  So say goodbye to Carmelo and Paul, say hello to lots of stats, 45 wins a year and mediocrity.

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Coogs beat the Sooners, 87-85. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images.

Jamal Shead hit a short follow shot with 0.4 seconds left and No. 1 Houston beat Oklahoma 87-85 on Saturday night, giving coach Kelvin Sampson a victory over one of his former schools.

Shead missed a driving layup attempt, but corralled the rebound and put the Cougars back ahead after they blew a 15-point lead. Emanuel Sharp tipped away a desperation pass by Oklahoma’s Milos Uzan as time expired.

“The main thing (on the last shot) was to get it to the rim,” Sampson said. “We weren’t going to shoot anything outside of 5 feet. There were three ways to win that game — a whistle, make the shot or (grab) an offensive rebound and put it in — and we got the third one.”

Sampson credited the result to Houston’s “winning DNA. We had a lot of things go against us tonight. … We were just plugging the holes in the boat up.”

L.J. Cryer led Houston (26-3, 13-3 Big 12) with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-pointers. J’Wan Roberts added 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Shead scored 14 points. Houston shot 56.7% from the field and Oklahoma was at 52.7%.

Rivaldo Soares had 16 points for Oklahoma (19-10, 7-9). Le’Tre Darthard had 15 points, finishing 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

Sampson coached Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006 and ranks second in program history with 279 wins and first in winning percentage (.719). Before Saturday, he’d never coached against the Sooners, but Houston’s entry into the Big 12 for this basketball season provided that opportunity.

Sampson received a warm welcome as he entered the Lloyd Noble Arena court, with many fans applauding, cheering and standing. Just before player introductions, Sampson and his three assistants with Oklahoma ties — former players Hollis Price, Quannas White and Kellen Sampson, his son — were individually recognized with announcements and pictured on the video board.

“The memories that I will take from here are just amazing,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Oklahoma will always be home in a lot of ways.”

Houston made its first week this season at No. 1 a successful one, with two wins. The Cougars are a game ahead of No. 8 Iowa State in the conference standings with two games left in the regular season and remain in the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Houston has won eight of the last nine games it has played as the No. 1-ranked team and is 35-5 overall while atop the AP poll.

Oklahoma dropped its second game of the week against a top-10 opponent, having lost 58-45 at Iowa State on Wednesday night.

The Sooners pushed Houston to the limit. Houston led 67-52 with 12:01 left, but the Sooners methodically closed that gap and Javian McCollum’s layup with 11.8 seconds left tied it at 85. It came after a hustle play by Uzan, who tracked down a rebound off a missed free throw and threw it off the leg of Sharp, allowing it to carom out of bounds.

Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said the vibe in the Sooners’ locker room was “tough. It wasn’t like they were happy to be close. They’re hurting. That’s a good sign. … That’s the elite of the elite and we’ve got to find a way to win that. That’s my job.

“I thought they were resilient battling back. Houston made tough shots, open shots, good shots. They do a lot of good things … but I thought we did too. We played the best team in the country, but we fell short. The margin of error when you play a team that good is small.”

Godwin went 6 of 6 from the field and led Oklahoma with 17 points, missing only the one free throw in six attempts as well. He also had seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: Sampson surely appreciated the warm welcome from fans on his return to Oklahoma, but he’s undoubtedly glad to have the emotional game against the Sooners over with. Now he can push the Cougars to focus on finishing the regular season strong and prepare them for the postseason.

Oklahoma: A win over the nation’s No. 1 team might have pushed the Sooners up a line or two in NCAA tournament seeding, but the loss shouldn’t damage their postseason hopes too much. Oklahoma probably needs at least one win next week — at home against Cincinnati or at Texas — to stay comfortably off the NCAA bubble heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

UP NEXT:

Houston: At Central Florida on Wednesday night.

Oklahoma: Host Cincinnati on Tuesday night.

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