I got the vax at a Walmart in Homewood, Illinois. It’s about a 45-minute car ride straight south from Chicago, 15 minutes west of the Indiana state line. The drive was uninvolved. There were pastures and truck stops and a motel with a windmill on the roof and FANTASY JACUZZI SUITES on the marquee. And there were 18-wheelers and horse trailers and a Winnebago with duct-taped windows and a billboard that said HEAVEN and HELL. HEAVEN was on one side and then there was a line and then there was HELL. I don’t remember what the HEAVEN side looked like and the right was flames.
The SuperCenter was just off Illinois Route 1 among its brothers and sisters, friends and cousins. It was next door to a Kohl’s and kitty-corner from a Dollar Tree. Beside the DT was a Buffalo Wild Wings, the two spots situated in such a way that for a moment, as I was parking, my hurried mind thought it was some combo type of thing in the vein of those Taco Bell–KFCs. “Your table should be ready in about 10 to 15 minutes. While you wait, feel free to grab a drink at the bar and peruse the aisles of the Dollar Tree. Your wishes are our wishes. Come, your night of enchantment awaits.”
I’d arrived too early so I wolfed three tacos in the truck. I shoveled the food into my mouth like a cow and listened to a Michael Kiwanuka song I heard in a GAP commercial. I’m still coming to grips with both the last six words of that sentence and my own washedness. In time I’ll be fine.
It was all pretty anticlimactic, really. I sat in the Walmart pharmacy inside one of those porta-partition vax stations, a peninsula of blue walls around me and a laminated sign at the top of one that just said READY. There was a black table like a TV tray at my knees with a pack of disinfectant wipes on top. A nice woman named Maya gave me the shot. Johnson & Johnson. One-hit wonder. The good stuff.
I sat in the truck afterward looking up directions for home and thinking about fantasy jacuzzi suites. It struck me that I was only around two and a half hours away from Indianapolis and the Gonzaga-Baylor title game later that evening. Two nights earlier, in the men’s national semis against UCLA, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs—a potential lion in this year’s draft who the Oklahoma City Thunder would be over the moon to take—hit one of the greatest shots in the history of the sport. The bucket sent the Zags to the championship game and Bill Raftery into orbit. It’s one of those in-your-head-forever shots. If I left Homewood then, I could make it in time for tip-off. In any other year, the tournament would’ve been played all over the country. This year, of course, the entire men’s bracket was played in Indiana to limit travel. They did it that way, of course, because the tournament took place during this ruinous pandemic. We were where we were for the same reason. I drove home. That was Monday.
And now this is more like it. This is what I wanted. This is how you tank. What an extraordinary run of games for the Thunder. Maybe they’ve turned their season around? They’ve lost five in a row and are 2-8 in their last 10. It’s been incredible. I’m so happy. Better late than never. Last week at this time, they had the ninth-worst record in the league. Now, they are tied for the seventh worst. Huzzah! Huzzah! No reason to celebrate in a major way yet. Lot of basketball left to play. But this downward trend, it really shows a lot of promise.
The same Monday I got the shot, the Thunder waived Justin Jackson. There had been some deadline buzz surrounding him but nothing ever materialized. Now he’s gone. In comes Justin Robinson on a 10-day contract and Jaylen Hoard on a two-way deal. Hoard took the spot that came available when Moses Brown got promoted. They’ve gotten a good amount of burn in the three games since they signed. Hoard’s averaging 24-ish minutes a game and Robinson around 18. Organizational alignment, baby, and the Ls, they are a-coming.
When I watch a fringe guy my favorite team just signed, I see with my heart. I’m usually like, “Wait, what’s his name? How do you spell it?” Then I go to YouTube and watch their highlights for five to 90 minutes. Thirty seconds into the first video: “Hey, now hold on, we might have something here!” And I keep going. “He’s pretty bouncy, right?” “Fluid athlete.” “I’ll tell you what his position is, it’s ballplayer.” “It says here he was a five-star guy in high school.” “All the other teams are stupid and mine is smart.” I am trying to feel special. I am trying to feel better than everyone else. I am trying to fall in love.
These losses are not at all on Hoard and Robinson. They’ve both competed and made positive contributions at different times. Hoard in particular has had some nice moments. But we are losing! Finally! And I just want to say, with complete sincerity, to all parties involved—thank you. Keep it up. I love what I’m seeing. The 30-point beatdowns are a little demoralizing even though I don’t want wins, so if we could keep it in that nice, five-to-15-point-loss range that would be super appreciated, but still, lose, lose, lose. Give yourself the best odds you possibly can at one of those top-five picks. I understand the lottery is not as much of a guarantee as it used to be, with the new odds they implemented in 2019, but the system is the system. This is the way.
After the loss to the Cavs last night, the Thunder waived Darius Miller so they could reportedly sign Gabriel Deck, a 26-year-old Argentine forward from Real Madrid. They’re bringing him over, inked him for three years. I don’t know much about Deck. I know Manu is a fan. So was Kobe. So much so he tried to get him to come to the Lakers.
The late, great Kobe Bryant seemed like he was a fan of Gabriel Deck pic.twitter.com/tBta9ujg9d— Poku Film Room (@ThunderFilmRoom) April 8, 2021
As of 11:56 p.m. central time on Thursday night, I have watched 2.5 Deck mixtapes and when he screams, the veins in his neck bulge. He has a tortoise tattoo near his right elbow. His nickname is Tortuga. And I’m falling in love again.
I’ve been getting more excited about the draft. Regardless of where Oklahoma City winds up in the pecking order, the thought of adding another lotto pick (maybe two?!) to this core is exciting. The Thunder are clay now, so young it makes me think about the last time the team was so wet behind the ears. The era of the Broingtons and spry Collison and Russ with no sleeves. A benefit of building through the draft is the fan base gets to watch those players evolve, become men. And even though this is a belabored point, it’s still true. One of the great joys of watching those contending Thunder teams was we had seen them young, and seen them fail, and seen them grow and mature and grind, together, toward something that had once seemed so far away. Histories are built, relationships. Players get a chance to bond with the city, the city with the players. It makes whatever success experienced all the better. Don’t get me wrong: If Oklahoma City were some big-time free-agent market that could get big-time free agents to come there and play with other big-time free agents, I’m pretty sure I’d find a way to be OK with it. Still, all championships are not made equal.
There are these parrots in England that cuss. African grey parrots, five of them. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Park adopted them in August 2020. Upon their arrival, they were placed in quarantine for a couple weeks. That’s when the staff first realized the parrots swore. They were hoping they’d chill on the expletives when they moved outdoors, but they did not. Not at all. They kept cursing, the birds egging each other on, laughing at each other’s bits. On display for the children, swearing away. This kept happening, so much they had to separate them. And if that story were a shirt,
Our 1-year-old has gotten really into Sesame Street, specifically Elmo. I don’t know what it is about him. Tarkaida (our 4-year-old asked that I call her that) was the same way when she was younger, completely and totally smitten with the red monster. We got her a big, 3-foot tall Elmo balloon for her second birthday. She played with it for months until most of the helium had seeped out and his legs had lost their shape and looked like licorice. But yeah, the 1-year-old’s gaga for him. Whenever he’s on screen, she points and says his name over and over. That’s kind of how I am with Aleksej Pokusevski at this point.
And chugga chugga, Poku. All aboard. It’s time for another magical journey to the psychedelic Eden that is
WELCOME, ALL YOU BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE. SOFT PRETZELS ARE FREE TODAY. STARE AT THIS BLOWTORCH.
From Russell Westbrook to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Darius Bazley, OKC has been a hot bed for the hottest NBA fashion.— Brandon Rahbar (@BrandonRahbar) November 20, 2020
The newest Thunder player Aleksej Pokusevski and his fanny pack carries on the tradition. pic.twitter.com/DYfllEgTgk
That was taken in November of last year. Why buy new clothes when you already have the best clothes? I enjoy watching Poku so much I don’t even get mad when he messes up. He will fall down while dribbling and I’ll just giggle away and feel no animosity whatsoever. He could catch a pass, turn around, and punt the ball into the stands and I’d be applauding on the couch saying, “OK, Janikowski! My guy looked pretty smooth kicking that thing, too. Hey, babe, come watch this!”
“Is it another Poku thing?”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“You’re obsessed. You need to rein it in.”
“You don’t understand, he just has a really unique skill set for his size!”
The bright spots are growing both in time of shine and in wattage. He’s taking 3s off the dribble now? Played well enough against the Pistons that the Thunder’s play-by-play man, Chris Fisher, said, “a rare miss from Pokusevski.” Those words were not once said in that order earlier this year. He’s got primo court vision and is starting to test-drive this new one-footed sort-of runner? Well, it’s not a runner. Maybe it’s a floater? It’s like he gets into the lane, jumps straight up off one foot, and shoots it with one hand? Sometimes it looks about as elegant as my description of it, and yet it works. Sometimes. “You got to have an evasive move,” said Thunder television analyst Michael Cage. He also said of Poku, with about a minute left in a lopsided loss to the Pistons, “He’s done a good job keeping the Kool-Aid cool and the cocoa hot.” Again, Cage has high highs. So does someone else.
Look at this madman.
Yoooo Poku really going for it against the Hornets pic.twitter.com/kiu2c14xun— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) April 8, 2021
Just look at him!
"How did he find Maledon?"— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) April 3, 2021
Poku tossing dimes for the @okcthunder! #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/bszcuH5TrV
That pass happened during a blowout loss to the Suns last Friday. That’s Mikal Bridges he’s leaving. Bridges can guard. He can guard very well. And Poku dusts him? I don’t know what to believe except that right now, when he’s in the game, he’s the most interesting thing about it. On Wednesday night against Charlotte, he had a career-high 25 points on 14 shots. He got up 11 3s, made seven of them, and y’all saw the attempted murder. It was a fantasy jacuzzi suite of a game for Slim. Thursday night, he shot 3-for-12 from the field and 2-for-8 from 3. The ups and downs, this is the Poku Experience.
This was one of the few makes he had against the Cavs:
POKU STEP-BACK @okcthunder | @aleksejpokusevspic.twitter.com/BljAyEiF4s— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) April 9, 2021
Even on nights when he doesn’t have it, and there have been many, he tantalizes. Nights he does have it going, though? That game against Phoenix, he and fellow Thunder rookie Théo Maledon did this:
The @okcthunder's Theo Maledon (33 PTS) and Aleksej Pokusevski (20 PTS) became the first teenaged teammates in NBA history to each score at least 20 points in the same game. pic.twitter.com/F7lSyJ8aVd— Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) April 3, 2021
And honestly, I get it. I do. It happened on a night when Oklahoma City lost by 37, so who cares? You’re making a big deal out of nothing, you jackass. Isaiah Canaan put up 20-plus points a bunch of times for the Process Sixers. Who’s he play for now?
All right, first of all, chill. You’re coming at me real messy right now and you need to fall back. I’m not the one. Second of all, those are valid points. In response, I would say, “But look at the variety of the shotmaking! And they both pop as passers! And they’re so young! And they’re both comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll! And they embrace the moment!” Also just shut up and let me have this!
If Poku is a drug-fueled techno-parade through the streets of Oz, then Maledon is the professor who shuts his office window because the noise is too loud and he can’t hear his Debussy. Something about Maledon is very stately, businesslike. He seems like someone who tucks in all their shirts, someone who has strong opinions on manners, someone who will one day be spoken of as “venerable.” But there’s a saucier side lurking. It showed itself in the Larry he gave the Suns. Trying to start a thing where when someone scores 33 it’s called a Larry.
I won’t commit to it and the idea will die right here.
Maledon’s confidence is growing and with it his field goal attempts. In the first half of the season, he averaged 7.0 field goal attempts and 4.1 3s per game. Since the All-Star break, he’s upped those numbers to 13.1 and 6.1, respectively. The field goal shooting has not been what you want—his effective field goal percentage is 47.3, pas bon—but he’s been solid from distance all season (35.8 percent). Part of this upsurge has been opportunity based. Dort and SGA, among others, have been sidelined recently. SGA’s out with plantar fasciitis, three different guys are currently in concussion protocol, and we talked about Horford last week. There are more but you get it. Yes, Maledon has the ball in his hands more, but there’s a different energy to him lately. With a little under 11 minutes left in the third quarter of Oklahoma City’s game against the Pistons this past Monday, he rebounded a Jerami Grant miss and went coast to coast, came diagonally across the court, right to left, slid past Saben Lee, and hit a running right-handed scoop on the left side of the goal. Go to 2:35.
He hit Conley with a slow-mo scoop in the half court against the Jazz earlier this season, but this is not that. Don’t care whether SGA and Dort are playing: Maledon was not, with a full head of steam, taking a leaning, one-footed, no-pass-possession runner even a month ago. When he let it go, he looked like a dancer. He’s not an explosive athlete but he’s faster with the ball in the open court than his half-court pace suggests, and if the 3-point shooting is real he can play either guard position. The efficiency isn’t where you want it, but I’d rather him shoot through his struggles than give in to them. He’s become more willing to make mistakes now, playing with less fear. That mentality will serve him well no matter who’s out there with him.
Losses can happen—I encourage them—but are the young players getting better? Are they competing, learning, getting quality cuts in the cage? As long as those answers are yes, then you’re good. In a tank, you want development—in skill level, in confidence, in intelligence. Those are the things that matter. Development, losses, and fantasy jacuzzi suites.
Tyler Parker is a writer from Oklahoma.