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OKC Thunder: Blazers series has become a referendum on entire franchise

Steven Adams is ticked off.

Thunder fans know the feeling.

Asked after practice Thursday about the team's mental state heading into Game 3 of this first-round playoff series against the Blazers, the Thunder big man reported a focused squad. Then, he admitted to personally being angry. He's mad about how he's played. Agitated over how it's affected the team, too.

"It ain't over," Adams said of the series, "which is good."

The chance for redemption remains for all in Thunder blue — rest assured, Adams isn't the only one who needs to be better — but Friday night is a must-win.

Not just for this series or this season.

On the eve of this franchise's biggest game since Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder must be focused on the here and now. History says NBA teams that fall behind 3-0 in best-of-7 series do not survive. No team has faced that hole and come back to win the series.

Lose Game 3, and the Thunder is likely a goner.

Thing is, this series has become about more than this team or these playoffs. It is also a referendum on this franchise. A stress test on the pillars of the Thunder. Exit quickly, and change will have to be considered.

A week ago, we were marveling not only about how the Thunder side-stepped the Warriors in the first round and ended up instead with a team it swept during the regular season but also how it avoided being on the same side of the bracket as Golden State and Houston. There's no primrose path in the Western Conference, but the Thunder seemed to have it pretty good.

Now, losing in a sweep seems more likely than winning the series.

Listen, I fully appreciate the longevity of this franchise. Nine times in the playoffs in 10 seasons. Ten series victories during that time. All but a handful of teams in the association would take those results in a heartbeat.

But since the departure of He Who Shall Not Be Named, the Thunder has won nary a playoff series. That the team has made the playoffs in each season since Kevin Durant bolted for The Bay is no small feat, but still, it hasn't advanced.

And it didn't last season despite great expectations — Westbrook and Melo and George, oh my! — and it is on the verge of not advancing this season even after stretches of brilliance. Remember back when the trees were bare, the wind was frigid and we thought the Thunder was a real-and-true contender?

Seems as long ago and far away today as an Oklahoma ice storm.

If the Thunder gets run out of these playoffs in the first round again, how can the franchise continue down the same path? How can it continue to do the same thing and get the same results even as Russell Westbrook and Paul George are in the primes of their careers?

Those guys aren't getting any younger.

Time's a wastin'.

Obviously, those two haven't been perfect in this series against the Blazers or in last year's series against the Jazz, but here's guessing neither is leaving OKC regardless of how this series ends. Teams work tirelessly to acquire or develop superstars, so when teams have them, they generally keep them.

But pretty clearly, if this series ends as badly as it has started, the cast of characters around Westbrook and George needs to be better. That could mean players. Could mean coaches. Could mean front-office decision makers. Changes in any and all those areas should be on the table.

If not, the Thunder is indicating contentment with spinning its wheels. It would be taking three seasons' worth of evidence and ignoring it.

That isn't smart.

Isn't fiscally responsible either. The Thunder has the third-highest payroll in the NBA this season at nearly $146 million. The salaries already on the books for the next two seasons are higher than any other franchise. If you're paying top dollar, you want top results.

If this series doesn't turn around, it sure feels like Clay Bennett and Co. are throwing away money. Not just now but in the future.

That's why this series is so important. If this team is built correctly, if this franchise is pointed in the right direction, the Thunder needs to prove it in the playoffs.

That starts Friday night.

On Thursday, George indicated emotions were different after the way the first two games went in Portland. He didn't talk about anger like Adams had, but George acknowledged a different kind of motivation and drive.

Fire, he said.

"The fire comes from, we gotta protect home court the same way that they did."

Fail to do so Friday night, and it may well be the Thunder house that's on fire.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or jcarlson@oklahoman.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.

Related Photos
<strong>After the way the Thunder lost the first two games of this playoff series against the Blazers, Steven Adams, left, says he's mad while Paul George, center, says he feels a fire. Harnessing those emotions and getting a win Friday night is paramount in myriad ways for Oklahoma City. [AP PHOTO]</strong>

After the way the Thunder lost the first two games of this playoff series against the Blazers, Steven Adams, left, says he's mad while Paul George, center, says he feels a fire. Harnessing those emotions and getting a win Friday night is paramount in myriad ways for Oklahoma City. [AP PHOTO]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-b2c57c3c7148daa1d8421d7adcc9c332.jpg" alt="Photo - After the way the Thunder lost the first two games of this playoff series against the Blazers, Steven Adams, left, says he's mad while Paul George, center, says he feels a fire. Harnessing those emotions and getting a win Friday night is paramount in myriad ways for Oklahoma City. [AP PHOTO] " title=" After the way the Thunder lost the first two games of this playoff series against the Blazers, Steven Adams, left, says he's mad while Paul George, center, says he feels a fire. Harnessing those emotions and getting a win Friday night is paramount in myriad ways for Oklahoma City. [AP PHOTO] "><figcaption> After the way the Thunder lost the first two games of this playoff series against the Blazers, Steven Adams, left, says he's mad while Paul George, center, says he feels a fire. Harnessing those emotions and getting a win Friday night is paramount in myriad ways for Oklahoma City. [AP PHOTO] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d6f86fd6cde98dc351afdc987afdb025.jpg" alt="Photo - Blazers guard Damian Lillard, center, has carved up the Thunder in the first two games of this first-round playoff series. If Oklahoma City doesn't flip the script Friday night, changes could be necessary in the offseason. [AP PHOTO] " title=" Blazers guard Damian Lillard, center, has carved up the Thunder in the first two games of this first-round playoff series. If Oklahoma City doesn't flip the script Friday night, changes could be necessary in the offseason. [AP PHOTO] "><figcaption> Blazers guard Damian Lillard, center, has carved up the Thunder in the first two games of this first-round playoff series. If Oklahoma City doesn't flip the script Friday night, changes could be necessary in the offseason. [AP PHOTO] </figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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