<
>

Still spiraling, the Thunder are searching for answers

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Russell Westbrook said it more as a throwaway, just words to get through a question and move one closer to his postgame obligations being over. But in a simple 10-word sentence, he summarized the current state of the Oklahoma City Thunder going forward following their 121-106 loss on Thursday to the Golden State Warriors.

"Just got to find a way to get a win."

It was a much more telling thing than Westbrook probably thought it would be. But that's where the Thunder are right now. Forget aesthetics, forget style points, forget statements or messages. They just need to win a game again.

That's now six losses in their past eight games, all coming in different, almost equally aggravating and excruciating ways. In Thursday's installment, the Thunder led 80-71 with 4:11 left in the third quarter, bursting with electricity and threatening to end the Warriors' 43-game home winning streak.

Then the Warriors closed the game on a 50-26 run. Going back to the Thunder's demoralizing loss on Wednesday against the Clippers, they've now been outscored 74-38 in their past two fourth quarters.

The postgame locker room mood, though, was a complete reversal from Wednesday's, which featured Kevin Durant calling his team out six different times for its lack of discipline. As Westbrook put it, "We feel better about ourselves today." Despite the margin of defeat being wider, the Thunder took the bright-side approach.

Sure, the Thunder played the Warriors pretty well, threatening them moderately, but Durant has been adamant that they don't accept moral platitudes. They are about winning point-blank. But with the cavernous dip they've experienced since the All-Star break, perspectives have to change in order to crawl out of it.

"This is an exciting time for me. I'm happy that we're going through this, because like I said, it's easy to be ... we don't want to be front-runners. That's not who we are. That's not who I am. And I'm not going to let the team be that way. When you're losing, that's when you really got to show your character and show who you are. We're going to keep our heads up; all our guys are going to stay positive and keep working and learn from it."

Reading into the "front-runner" quote aside -- that might be one to bookmark for later -- Durant essentially was echoing the message Thunder coach Billy Donovan offered after the Clippers debacle. Adversity could be the key to unlocking potential, or at least that's the hope. Wins can mask flaws, or at least aid in ignoring them. To really discover an identity and a backbone, it has to get bad before it has to get good. It's a creative way to spin it, but then again, what else are you supposed to say?

"I think it's a temporary thing," Durant said of the rough stretch. "We definitely want to get it under control. We're not happy with the way we're playing, obviously. We want to win. But this is when you see what you're made of. It's easy for you to come in here and smile and answer you guys' questions with a positive attitude when you're winning. When your back is against the wall, when you've been through a couple dark days, this is when you see who you are. So I'm excited and looking forward to the rest of the journey."

The question everyone keeps asking is, what's wrong with them? What happened to the evolving monster that rolled into the All-Star break at 40-14? Durant noted first of all, the Thunder are playing better teams. It's a fair point, but not one that really eases anxiety. Because you can't butter your bread on just beating the middle and bottom class of the league.

The other, more sinister thing: The Thunder look shaken and low in confidence. The stat has been repeated enough in the past two days for everyone to know, but this makes 10 games now the Thunder have lost after leading going into the fourth quarter. When they went up by nine late in the third, it was almost like they looked at the scoreboard and said, "Oh crap! We're ahead again."

This time around, their fourth-quarter lead was of a much different standard -- as in, it was just one point, against the Warriors, in Oracle Arena. It's not exactly one you can classify as a "blown lead." But the point remains: Something changed in those final 12 minutes, and it meant another one got away.

These are the types of stretches that can fracture locker rooms, building tension and animosity. That hasn't been the case with the Thunder, though. Multiple sources note the team remains exceedingly together despite the downturn. And on top of it: When you start losing, you also start listening. Donovan was strong with his comments on Wednesday, and on Thursday, and he was more animated than usual on the sideline. The Thunder are preaching accountability, and the losing opens the door for the message to finally get across, especially for the team's two stars.

It's a parting of the waters for them. Are they going to unravel? Or will this be a bump in the road they look back on fondly as a turning point?

"How many games we got left? Twenty?" Durant said. "Twenty games to go before the playoffs. That's when the real season starts, so we want to play good basketball at the right time and keep grinding it out. That's what it's all about."

The clock is ticking. Twenty games to find out who they are. Twenty games to find out what they can be. Twenty games to find answers, before the questions start getting a whole lot harder.