1-game to go before the All-Star break, Carmelo Anthony was looking ahead towards the future. "Once we come back, it's showtime", Anthony said. "It's time to gear up."
60 game in to the season the Thunder 34-26, one game of third place and 1 game from being out of the playoff picture all together. It's been the same story for about two years for Oklahoma City. One night they look like a legitimate contender, the next night they're losing to lottery teams.
It appeared they'd finally found their stride, or "figured it out," a line that's been repeated by players roughly 2,000 times since training camp last October. Six straight wins in late January, and well on their way to a seventh in a completely dominant first 32 minutes in Detroit. Then it all changed. Andre Roberson ruptured a tendon in his left knee, and while the Thunder went on to beat the Pistons that night, the loss of OKC's lockdown defender was soon felt with four straight losses.
But in what has become the "norm" with OKC they destroyed Golden State in Oakland to end the 'drought'. Fast-forward a little bit, they lose to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Thunder have made a habit of -- and really sustained their season by -- performing at full tilt against the best of the NBA. They've also lost a pile of head-scratchers.
Coming out of the All-Star break, there was a lot of emphasis on locking in over the final 23 games, and it would start with handling business on the road against the Kings before another trip to Oakland -- an appropriate mental test of what the Thunder have battled throughout the season. For that reason, Anthony called it maybe the most important game of the season. And OKC completely blitzed the Kings -- for a quarter. After leading by as many as 23 in the first eight minutes, the Kings came back to lead by five with five minutes to go and were tied with a second remaining before Russell Westbrook beat the buzzer on a game winner.
"It starts now with us," Anthony said before the win Thursday night. "Whatever happened early on in the season, before the break, it is what it is. We can take that information and build on that, but right now it's time for us to have a new focus, to have a new energy and start preparing for these seven weeks."
They have 22 games left to find their place and set the standard they've been working toward. Inside the organization, the 1994-95 Houston Rockets have been referenced, a team that added Clyde Drexler at midseason and rocked back and forth, winning 47 games and landing sixth in the West. It clicked in the playoffs, and behind dominance from a few stars, they rolled to an NBA title.
While that precedent has provided some comfort, it's not the goal. The Thunder will be dangerous in the playoffs regardless of where or how they finish -- they've proved that. But they don't want to walk into the playoffs as a wild card ready to put a scare into a higher seed. They want the target themselves.
"We want to be playing our best basketball starting now," George said. "We want to build good habits, we want to get consistent. I feel like now we've got enough body of work to look back and say, 'Hey, we're not doing enough, we're not as good as we need to be.'