Day 15 recap: The Miracurl on Ice, history for Ledecka, Kenworthy's latest furry friend

Day 15 recap: The Miracurl on Ice, history for Ledecka, Kenworthy's latest furry friend

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Miracurl on ice! The U.S. men won gold in curling, snowboarder Kyle Mack grabbed silver and Gus Kenworthy found a new best friend. Here’s what you missed from Day 15 of the Pyeongchang Games.

Curling

Curling became America’s favorite pastime overnight as Team Shuster defeated Sweden 10-7 to clinch the United States’ first gold medal in the sport. Gangneung Curling Center felt unusually tense for the first seven ends, as the Swedes and Americans went stone for stone, deadlocked at 5-5. Then, in the eighth end, the Americans blew the game wide-open by scoring five in one go to clinch a shocking victory over the world’s No. 2 team. They weren’t the only ones surprised by the win. After the medal ceremony, Team Shuster realized that their new gold medals weren’t actually theirs.

They got the right ones eventually … we think. Back home, everyone from NFL quarterbacks to Mr. T went crazy.

Snowboard Big Air

Two days after Jamie Anderson grabbed a silver for Team USA in women’s big air snowboarding, Kyle Mack got himself one to match in the men’s final by landing one of the most stylish runs of these Olympics. Before Saturday, he had never landed a frontside double cork 1440 with a double tail grab (also known as a Bloody Dracula, which might just be the coolest term in sports). But Mack realized he needed to take a risk to become one of the first-ever medalists in big air, the Winter Olympics’ newest event.

“I was at the top [of the jump] contemplating whether I should do the bloody 14 or just do a tail grab,” he said. “But bringing style into snowboarding is the thing I’ve always worked on. Big air has always been one of the most progressive events for snowboarding, but I wish it was more about style and grabs and the technical stuff. That’s something I want to keep fighting for. Before I dropped in for my second run, I was like, I’m doing this for snowboarding.”

It worked. Mack joined Canada’s Sebastien Toutant (gold) and Great Britain’s Billy Morgan on the podium and added a seventh snowboarding medal to Team USA’s count. That’s almost a third of the total haul.

Parallel Giant Slalom Snowboarding

So, is Ester Ledecka a skier who snowboards, or a snowboarder who skis? Looks like both. A week after beating Lindsey Vonn to the gold medal in alpine super-G, the Czech snow superstar added another gold in snowboarding, her “actual” sport. She became the first woman to win gold in two sports at the same Winter Olympics, further confusing everyone wondering whether to call her a skier or a snowboarder. Two-time Olympic gold medalist should do.

In other news …

For the second consecutive Winter Olympics, freeski superstar Gus Kenworthy is going home with a pet from the host country. After adopting a family of stray dogs in Sochi four years ago, Kenworthy visited a dog farm in South Korea on Saturday and left with a new puppy, whom he named Beemo. The dog farm itself was bought out by Humane Society International, and all 90 dogs will be brought to the U.S. for adoption.

U.S. gymnasts say the sport is rife with abuse

U.S. gymnasts say the sport is rife with abuse

They were little girls with dreams of Olympic gold when they started in gymnastics. Now they’re women with lifelong injuries, suffocating anxiety and debilitating eating disorders.

They are the other victims of USA Gymnastics.

Thirteen former U.S. gymnasts and three coaches interviewed by The Associated Press described a win-at-all-cost culture rife with verbal and emotional abuse in which girls were forced to train on broken bones and other injuries. That culture was tacitly endorsed by the sport’s governing body and institutionalized by Bela and Martha Karolyi, the husband-and-wife duo who coached America’s top female gymnasts for three decades.

The gymnasts agreed to speak to AP, some for the first time, after the recent courtroom revelations about USA Gymnastics’ former team doctor, Larry Nassar, who recently was sentenced to decades in prison for sexually assaulting young athletes for years under the guise of medical treatment.

The Karolyis’ oppressive style created a toxic environment in which a predator like Nassar was able to thrive, according to witness statements in Nassar’s criminal case and a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, the Karolyis and others. Girls were afraid to challenge authority, Nassar was able to prey on vulnerable girls and, at the same time, he didn’t challenge the couple’s harsh training methods.

“He was their little puppet,” Jeanette Antolin, a former member of the U.S. national team who trained with the Karolyis, said. “He let us train on injuries. They got what they wanted. He got what he wanted.”

Young girls were virtually starved, constantly body shamed and forced to train with broken bones or other injuries, according to interviews and the lawsuit. Their meager diets and extreme training often delayed puberty, which some coaches believed was such a detriment that they ridiculed girls who started their menstrual cycles.

USA Gymnastics declined to answer questions for this story, and the Karolyis didn’t reply to requests for comment. The Karolyis’ Houston attorney, Gary Jewell, said the Karolyis didn’t abuse anyone.

Some female gymnasts in the U.S. were subjected to abusive training methods before the Karolyis defected from their native Romania in 1981. But other coaches and former gymnasts say the Karolyis’ early successes — starting with Romania’s Nadia Comaneci becoming the first woman gymnast awarded a perfect score in competition — validated the cutthroat attitudes that fostered widespread mistreatment of American athletes at the highest levels of women’s gymnastics.

The Karolyis, who helped USA Gymnastics win 41 Olympic medals, including 13 gold over three decades, trained hundreds of gymnasts at their complex in rural Huntsville, Texas, known as “the ranch.” They selected gymnasts for the national team and earned millions from USA Gymnastics.

USA Gymnastics said in January that the organization would no longer be affiliated with the Karolyi Ranch.

A congressional committee investigating the gymnastics scandal said in Feb. 8 letters to the Karolyis, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee that they were all “at the center of many of these failures” that allowed Nassar’s sexual abuse to persist for more than two decades.

It’s unclear what the Karolyis knew about Nassar’s sexual abuse and whether they took any action to stop it.

Martha Karolyi, in a deposition given last year as part of the lawsuit against the Karolyis and numerous others, acknowledged that “in or around June 2015” she received a phone call from the then-head of the national gymnastics organization, Steve Penny, informing her that the organization had received a complaint that Nassar had “molested a national team gymnast at the ranch.”

The deposition was included in a Feb. 14 letter to two U.S. senators from John Manly, an attorney representing Nassar victims in a lawsuit that seeks monetary damages and court oversight of USA Gymnastics.

Manly cited the deposition in accusing the sport’s governing body of lying to Congress.

In a timeline submitted to a congressional committee investigating the scandal, the organization said it was told in mid-June of an athlete “uncomfortable” with Nassar’s treatment, but that it was not until late July 2015 that it decided to notify law enforcement “with concerns of potential sexual misconduct.”

Penny, the former USA Gymnastics chief, said in a statement that Martha Karolyi was mistaken about the timing of his call.

Texas has one of the strongest child abuse reporting laws in the nation, requiring anyone who has reason to believe abuse has occurred to immediately alert authorities. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor punishable by jail time and a fine.

In the deposition, Martha Karolyi said she did not discuss what she learned about Nassar with anyone but her husband, her lawyers and the USA Gymnastics official who called her.

Jewell, the Karolyis’ attorney, said the couple didn’t know about any sexual assault complaints involving Nassar until Martha Karolyi was contacted by a USA Gymnastics official in the summer of 2015.

Steelers, Martavis Bryant seem destined for eventual divorce

Steelers, Martavis Bryant seem destined for eventual divorce

PITTSBURGH — The Steelers are negotiating with the game’s best running back on a long-term contract and managing a tight salary cap that will likely require the release of multiple veterans.

Yet one of the biggest stories surrounding the team this week was the growing chatter involving Martavis Bryant, who wanted out of Pittsburgh at midseason only to reverse course with expressed optimism for 2018 after the playoff loss to Jacksonville.

After talking with several people around the league, there’s minimal buzz the Steelers are actively shopping Bryant. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t at least listening, as NFL Network reports. The Steelers are smart enough to field calls on the talented receiver.

It’s important to prioritize this reality: Bryant and the Steelers have not had any discussions about a contract extension. Bryant is a free agent in 2019, and if both parties were in an ideal spot, the possibility of a short re-up or long-term pact could have been broached by now, even if the Steelers typically wait until the summer to finalize business.

Pittsburgh hasn’t made any overtures on a modest bridge contract, in part because they aren’t sure what they’ll get from him and also because Bryant doesn’t have plans to sign. He’s made clear he wants to be a No. 1 receiver, and that has to happen elsewhere. If you’re looking for a potential trade catalyst, that’s it.

The Steelers don’t want Bryant causing any problems in 2018.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Bryant sat out offseason workouts to crystallize his frustration.

This awkward dynamic makes a trade plausible. Even if motivated to deal, though, the Steelers likely wouldn’t budge without a hefty draft-pick haul. The message Bryant received at the October trade deadline was the team felt fair compensation in exchange for Bryant’s skill set was not available. The Steelers likely got offers for a fourth-round pick. That wasn’t enough.

A late-second-rounder or low-third could help the Steelers — who have been brilliant drafting receivers for much of the last decade — identify a new vertical threat. Perhaps the Buffalo Bills, who were trying to get involved last year, could oblige.

Since that’s no guarantee, trading Bryant breaks up a potent receiver triumvirate with clear roles defined: Antonio Brown the do-it-all superstar, Bryant the lanky deep threat and JuJu Smith-Schuster the inside-out option.

Smith-Schuster’s historic rookie year does give the Steelers draft flexibility. He looks ready to be a No. 2 receiver. Ben Roethlisberger averaged a 134.0 passer rating when targeting Smith-Schuster last season, according to Pro Football Focus. But how would Smith-Schuster respond to a full-time transition to the outside with Bryant gone? He looks up to the challenge, but the Steelers must ask and answer that question. With Eli Rogers recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Steelers could run dangerously thin at a crucial position.

The Steelers’ best course of action is likely to give Bryant the chance to maximize his potential in a motivating contract year. Bryant signing elsewhere in free agency would be a plus in the Steelers’ compensatory pick formula for the 2019 draft. The switch to coordinator Randy Fichtner could help free up Bryant with more targets.

Either way, Bryant will be performing with a different jersey for 2019 in mind, and the Steelers pretty much know it.

The most unappreciated baseball trait? Strength

The most unappreciated baseball trait? Strength

What feats of strength will the Yankees power combo of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton perform in 2018? 

The joining of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge places arguably the two biggest, strongest players in major league history on the same team. It is a story so compelling, the New York Yankees will open the gates to spring training games three hours earlier so fans can watch these two, and others, take batting practice, which, on certain days, will be more entertaining than the game. Exit velocity, launch angles and home run distances will be even more celebrated in 2018, especially in the Bronx.

Baseball strength always has been one of the great, hidden components of the game, at least to some. The strength of the players, especially in their hands, wrists and forearms, goes largely unappreciated: I’ve never met a position player who wasn’t really strong in those areas, even dinky, little middle infielders. Indeed, after Michael Jordan’s one year in baseball in 1994, one of his many observations about the game was that virtually every player on his Double-A team was stronger than him from the tips of their fingers to their elbow.

“I noticed how really strong baseball players are when I joined the general population after retirement,” said John Baker, who caught in the big leagues from 2008 to 2014. “I started practicing jujitsu. From day one, when I grabbed the lapel, I could grab it longer and harder than anyone else. That comes from thousands and thousands of violent swings with a baseball bat. Swinging a bat makes your hands strong. Baseball players are so strong.”

The lineage of strength in modern baseball history can be traced to where most in baseball is first traced — to Babe Ruth, who played at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds in his prime in the 1920s, and hit home runs that even today would be considered tape-measure blasts. He soon was followed by Jimmie Foxx, whose nickname was “The Beast.” He gave way to others, including Mickey Mantle, who once hit a ball that reportedly traveled 565 feet at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Former Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski wore cutoff sleeves to show off his muscular arms. Former White Sox outfielder Dave Nicholson’s hands were so strong, he turned off all the showers after a loss, and no teammate was strong enough to turn them back on.

“No one hit the ball harder than Jimmie Foxx,” Ted Williams once told me. “Until I saw Frank Howard.”

Howard was listed at 6-7, 255 pounds but was actually closer to 300 pounds with the Senators in the mid-1960s.

“Frank Howard came to the plate [in a spring training game in 1959], he was the biggest person I had ever seen in my life,” Hall of Fame third baseman Ron Santo said years ago. “He hit a one-hopper that hit me in the stomach and knocked me out. When I woke up in the hospital, there he was again, standing over me. I said to myself, ‘Am I in heaven? Who is the giant?’ “

The stories about Howard sound Ruthian and apocryphal, but this one is also true: Former Senators catcher Jim French loved chiding Howard, who, one night, had had enough, so he dangled his teammate by the ankles off a hotel balcony that was several stories high. And this one is true, too: Ted Uhlaender, a former center fielder for the Indians and Twins, said Howard hit a line drive over his head, he turned to see where the ball would land, and when he turned, the ball hit him in the chest after ricocheting off the center-field fence.

Howard’s legend gave way in the mid-1980s to Bo Jackson, who, more than once, snapped a bat over his knee in frustration, and similarly, snapped a bat over the top of his helmet.

“Bo was a big bow hunter,” said catcher Mike Macfarlane, a former teammate. “He kept his bows in his locker. He would show us how to shoot, but for him, it was like plucking a harp. He just used two fingers to cock it. I stood on top of the bow and, using both hands, tried to cock it, and I couldn’t do it. And neither could anyone else on our team. I’m sure our front office wasn’t happy about this, we were all afraid of tearing a rotator cuff trying to cock a bow. Bo needed two fingers. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen.”

More Bo: “When he signed, they sent him to Memphis [Triple-A] where I was,” Macfarlane said. “He hit a ball foul in the game, and broke his bat. It wasn’t broken in half, but it was clearly cracked. Typical Bo, he said, ‘Ah, Ah, Ah, Ah, screw it.’ He didn’t get a new bat, and hit the next pitch over the center-field fence. It was right then that we said, ‘OK, you are a freak.’ “

Many followed Bo Jackson. The Brewers’ Rob Deer, who hit 230 major league home runs but had trouble making contact, “once just picked me up, put me under his arm, and carried me around,” said former teammate Tom O’Malley, who was 6 feet, 180 pounds. “It was like I was a little kid.”

In the 1990 World Series, the Reds’ Glenn Braggs, whose physique was that of a body builder, broke a bat without hitting the ball: In the follow-through of a swing-and-miss, his bat snapped in half when it collided with his shoulder blade.

I had never seen that.

“Oh, I did that a dozen times this season,” he told me after the game.

I once saw Cal Ripken put a ball on a batting tee at home plate, and, using a fungo, hit a ball over the left-center-field fence, a blast of at least 380 feet. Ripken had incredible hand strength.

“I could lift more weight than him,” former teammate Brady Anderson said, “but once he got you in a bear hug, and he wrapped you up, there was no way to get free.”

Prince Fielder, 6 feet, 275 pounds, became the game’s strongest man, perhaps carrying the mantle from Mantle to Bo Jackson and others. “I really believe he could enter the World’s Strongest Man competition — you know, carrying logs on his back — and he would hold his own,” former teammate Ryan Braun said.

Phil Coke, a former teammate with the Tigers, said of Fielder, “He showed us a video of him wrestling a professional sumo wrestler. It was unbelievable. Prince just chucked the guy across the room.”

The players today are especially big and strong. The Mariners’ Nelson Cruz “will hit the longest home run in baseball history one day,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said a decade ago. Cruz hit a ball so hard in spring training many years ago, then-Rockies left fielder Ryan Spilborghs said, “If I’d caught it, the momentum of the ball would have carried me through the left-field fence, leaving only an outline of my body like you see in the cartoons.”

And there there’s the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, who once, on a checked swing, missed the ball, and the bat snapped in two in his hands. “That was unbelievable,” former pitcher Orel Hershiser said. “I’ve only see that one other time in my life — by Bo Jackson.”

And now we have Judge and Stanton together.

Judge is, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the biggest position player — 6-foot-7, 282 pounds — ever to play major league baseball. Last year, he routinely hit balls to places no one had ever gone before.

“I took BP for eight years at [the new] Yankee Stadium, and I never hit a ball to center field where he hits them all the time,” said Mark Teixeira, who hit 409 career homers. Ken Singleton, who has played or has broadcast major league games since 1969, said Judge “hits the ball harder than any player I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Stanton is 6-foot-6, 245 pounds. When he was with the Marlins, Baker said, “He had this tiny waist. And he had this incredible leg strength. He had a 40-inch vertical jump. That was the highest in the organization. He could hit a ball farther and harder than anyone, and jumped higher than anyone.”

When Stanton took batting practice in spring training as a 19-year-old, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson — an incredibly strong man — was watching. After one round of BP, Dawson said, “That’s the hardest I have ever seen anyone hit a baseball.”

Baker was there that day.

“He hit a home run in an exhibition game that went over the Cardinals’ clubhouse in right-center field,” Baker said. “It was ridiculous. No one had ever seen a ball hit that far. It was like Harry Potter’s wizardly, worldly power. When Stanton got to second base, he stopped running, he looked at the umpire and asked, ‘Was that a ground-rule double?’ He didn’t think he gotten all of it. The umpire looked at him with open palms, as if to say, ‘What are you doing?’ then told him to keep running. When he got back to the dugout, he had no idea what had happened. I said to him, ‘Dude, that ball went 200 feet over the fence!’ “

So strong. Get used to that this year with the Yankees.

Now the real work begins for Wallace

Now the real work begins for Wallace

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will drive in his second race as a full-time Cup series driver of the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports. 

HAMPTON, Ga. — Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. has other things to worry about beyond whether he will get to play in Denny Hamlin‘s popular recreational golf and basketball leagues.

Performance — not a beef with one of the sport’s veterans — needs to be Wallace’s focus now that the NASCAR Cup Series shifts to racetracks that don’t rely on the draft to get to the front. The first race is set for this Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET, Fox).

Wallace did everything asked of him at Daytona, including earning a second-place finish in the Daytona 500. He even did a little more than asked, making a quip that engulfed him and Hamlin into a personal dispute.

Following the Daytona 500 and a crash between the two drivers after the checkered flag, Wallace quipped: “He might need to take some Adderall for that one.”

Hamlin, who said he was joking during a podcast when he estimated 70 percent of drivers used Adderall to focus, didn’t like the comment and the two had a brief shouting match outside the media center afterward.

Wallace didn’t take too kindly to their war of words.

“I removed myself from the basketball league just after the conversation we had that day,” Wallace said. “I was like, ‘Whatever, I guess I’m not coming back.’ That is OK.”

And the golf league?

“I didn’t get the direct text,” said Wallace, adding that his text to Hamlin went unanswered. “It went through like five or six people. That is classy, I guess. … I have been told the golf league was out.”

Hamlin said Friday night he, too, will move on.

“I don’t really have anything to add,” Hamlin said. “It’s over with. I’m moving on. Trust me, it’s done.

“[The perception of fans more on Bubba’s side] doesn’t concern me. I am just going to keep moving forward and try to do the best I can and let whoever tell their side and let it be.”

Some might advise a rookie against getting into a spat with a veteran, but Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team didn’t seem to mind.

“Until it affects our finish, I don’t really care about that part,” Wallace crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said. “He’s fiery. And I like to have somebody like that. He’s passionate and he cares.”

Blickensderfer hopes the second-place finish doesn’t fuel expectations beyond Wallace’s control. The team was 24th in the owner standings last year. It had hovered from 17th to 20th in the standings until Aric Almirola got hurt in May.

“Our expectation is to be where we were when Aric got hurt,” Blickensderfer said. “We were right on the edge of the Chase via points, and I think that is what this race team can do. Everything after Aric got hurt was a blur.”

The team is one in transition. It switched manufacturers from Ford to Chevrolet and moved shops to the Richard Childress Racing campus.

“We want to be as good or better than we were on mile-and-a-halves last year,” Blickensderfer said. “That would be a huge improvement for having a new manufacturer and rookie driver.

“Running 16th isn’t a bad day for us on Sunday, but I think it would look like a bad day to a lot of people after last week.”

Blickensderfer says the goal early on is to be a 15th-to-18th-place car. Wallace said he and Petty were in a car Thursday talking about expectations, and Petty is aiming a little higher.

“He wants to improve to a top-eight, to a top-12 team,” Wallace said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s right in the ballpark I was saying. I was saying top-10 to top-15, so he says … there are going to be days where we are better than that, and there’s going to be days when we’re worse than that.

“But we all have to keep in once piece and bring it home and let us work on it and not get behind.”

The team now will try to seize on that opportunity.

“For a team that is low on people and working so many hours to get to the racetrack, for it to come out the way it did last Sunday night was about as good as it could come out,” said Blickensderfer, whose team added a seventh person in the shop this past week.

“Although we’re scared now [of expectations], we’re in a much better place than we could have been. … As a company, I’m not sure we could have done anything more to provide more good press for Bubba and Richard Petty Motorsports.”

Wallace is a different person than when he drove those four races for Petty, according to good friend Ryan Blaney. After Almirola returned, Wallace didn’t have a ride, as Roush Fenway had closed his Xfinity Series team for a lack of sponsorship.

The now-24-year-old Wallace had no idea of his 2018 plans — or if there would be 2018 plans — last July.

“He proved that Sunday when he was able to kind of put all this behind him and just go out there and race,” Blaney said. “I don’t think he could have handled that a few years ago.

“I think he’s matured a lot over the past two or three years. And, honestly, I feel like him sitting out a little bit last season really matured him a lot and made him appreciate the chances that he gets and the opportunities, and I think that humbled him a lot and made him grow up.”

While Wallace drove four races for the team in 2017 in place of Almirola, Blickensderfer learned more about his driver while at Daytona International Speedway, where there was an intense media focus on Wallace being the first full-time African-American driver in NASCAR since Wendell Scott in 1971.

“When the 24-year-old takes his helmet off and gets in the lounge, it is strictly business,” Blickensderfer said. “Then he goes back to being Bubba as soon as he’s out.

“He’s very mature for his age and he handles everything around him. There’s a lot of kids that would be freaking out over everything that was going on.”

Apparently, Wallace came a little close to getting overwhelmed. During the week at Daytona, Blaney received a call from Dale Earnhardt Jr. about Wallace.

“He was like, ‘Hey, I need you to go call Bubba and calm him down because I think he was getting really overwhelmed with all the media and the pressure that was kind of being bestowed upon him, and we haven’t even got started yet,'” Blaney said.

“[Wallace] and I had a little bit of a talk and not really a talk, but just trying to relax him and telling him that he deserves to be here and don’t let all that other stuff — it’s a good thing that he’s getting recognized in all forms of TV and entertainment and media and don’t see it as pressure, see it as a well-deserved opportunity that he got.”

Wallace in some ways did relish the moment. His racing shoes for the Daytona 500 were inscribed with the date for his first Daytona 500.

He has a new pair of shoes for this weekend.

“[I asked] our PR person, ‘Hey, do we have another pair of shoes we can throw on?'” Wallace said. “She’s like, ‘No, but we can get them.’ So, we got them.

“We have a black pair now. Those were special for that week. We’ll put those up and be able to look back on those and say I remember when.”

What's next for the inconsistent, unpredictable and maybe very good Thunder?

What's next for the inconsistent, unpredictable and maybe very good Thunder?

The Oklahoma City Thunder still had one game to go before the All-Star break, on the road against the Memphis Grizzlies, but Carmelo Anthony was already looking ahead to the stretch run of the season.

“Once we come back, it’s showtime,” Anthony said. “It’s time to gear up.”

Through 60 games, the Thunder sit at 34-26, one game back of third place and two games from being out of the playoff picture altogether. It’s the same story for much of the middle of the West, but for OKC it’s been an odd, perplexing season filled with peaks and valleys.

One night they look like a legitimate contender, the next they’re losing to a lottery team.

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’s become standard to this Thunder season, against the wall and another valley in sight, they floored the Golden State Warriors in Oakland to snap the skid. Sandwiched around that game? Losses to the Los Angeles Lakers. It was telling. 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.

Against the Warriors, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder are 6-3 with an average scoring margin of plus-7.7 (their wins have been by an average 14.3 points; their losses by just 6.0). They’ve run the Warriors twice, once in OKC by 17 and once in Oakland by 20.

The Thunder are one of four teams in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive rating, alongside elite company like the Raptors, Rockets and Warriors. Their net rating is plus-3.2, good for sixth in the league. All signs point to the Thunder being a top-tier team thick in the hunt for home-court advantage in the West playoffs.

And yet, there’s a measurable possibility they’ll miss the postseason entirely. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) projects the Thunder at 93 percent odds to make it, but they’re tied in the loss column with a host of teams jockeying for the conference’s final postseason berths.

“We know we can beat, and play and compete with the best teams,” All-Star forward Paul George told ESPN. “That’s not the issue. For us, it’s doing it on a nightly basis.”

The question George and the Thunder have yet to answer this season is this: What kind of team is Oklahoma City?

The team misses Roberson, primarily because of the in-season adjustment it’s forced at a time when the Thunder were finally starting to roll, with no in-house replacement apparently available. The trade deadline yielded no results, and the buyout market likely will add a 15th player to the roster but not one of any expected impact.

Since Roberson’s injury, the Thunder have a defensive rating of 108.8, which would ranked 27th in the league for the full season, ahead of only the Cavs and lottery-bound Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. There’s a clear struggle. And yet, it’s quite unreasonable to say Roberson was quietly one of the Thunder’s most valuable players. Plus, they have a blowout road win over the Warriors as evidence they’re still extremely capable without him.

When asked if he thinks the Thunder are equipped to win it all, George responded, “Absolutely.”

“I think it’s going to be extremely hard and a lot of work, but I think in this locker room we have enough,” he continued. “It’s on us, and I think that’s what you want. You want a locker room that gives you a chance to win it and puts the rest of that workload on us.”

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.’

“We’re locked in sometimes, but it’s a huge, huge level of inconsistency. And I think that’s what this second half is for, to start to gain some traction and as a team building toward excellence.”

Through this strange season, the Thunder have shown no symptoms of a dysfunctional team. Players in the locker room have remarked about it being one of the best mixes they’ve ever been part of, and their ability to raise the bar against the league’s best is what’s kept the front office patient and committed.

“When we’re at our best,” Westbrook said in December, “I don’t think nobody can mess with us.”