OKLAHOMA CITY -- Early in the season, Carmelo Anthony put it this way: "After the first 20 games is when things really start to kick in."
On Friday, the Oklahoma City Thunder, sitting 8-12 after their first 20, played their 21st game. And while it featured some of the same old issues at times, it also featured the kind of basketball they've been striving to play, as they got back on track with a 111-107 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
There have been a lot of symptoms involved in what has made the Thunder ill, but the most obvious has been their performance in close games. Entering Friday's game, the Thunder were 1-9 in "clutch-time" games (within five points with five minutes to go), and 0-9 in games decided by eight points or fewer. While they led by as many as 21 over the Wolves, the Thunder let their lead slip as they have so many times this season. With 4 minutes, 17 seconds left, Oklahoma City led by only three after being up by 10 just a few minutes earlier.
But this time, they made the little plays. Russell Westbrook willed in a driving layup, then hit two free throws. Steven Adams, who had a career-high 27 points, put back a missed Westbrook 3 to put OKC back up five with 26 seconds left. Then it was Paul George going 4-of-4 at the line to ice the game. The Thunder took the chance out of the game, whether it be a call that didn't go their way or a long rebound they didn't get or a banked-in half-courter.
"It just shows us how, kind of the growth that we're taking that next step forward," Anthony said after the game. "We didn't want to have the same game that we've been having, where we give up leads and then not only the team comes back but they take the lead and we're fighting an uphill battle. Tonight I thought we withstood their runs, we stayed composed, and I think that was a big key for us."
Adams' perfect performance (11-of-11 on field goals, 5-of-5 on free throws) was the highest-scoring outing by a player who made every attempted field goal and free throw since Pau Gasol scored 28 points on 10-of-10 field goals and 8-of-8 free throws on Nov. 21, 2010.
By no means would anyone within the team say they're fixed, or that this is some springboard. Westbrook repeats that it's a "day-by-day" process for them. They try not to dwell on losses or rise too high on wins. It felt like a week and a half ago that a beatdown of the Warriors would propel them forward, but three straight losses sent them spiraling back down -- especially because two were double-digit losses to teams with lower expectations (Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons).
The integration of Westbrook, George and Anthony has been messy, but the Thunder at least sound committed to transforming into a balanced, dynamic attack rather than the iso-heavy, single-action group they've been at times. The message has been about "habits," letting go of contested non-paint 2-pointers and single-pass possessions to become a more moving, flowing, side-to-side team.
It flashed, as it has often, with a beautiful first quarter -- 42 points (a season-high for a quarter) on 11 assists. Then it bogged down to 43 total in the second and third combined on 11 assists. That's when it transitioned to a grind, something that wasn't necessarily pretty but absolutely needed. A few weeks ago, the Thunder probably lose this game in some dumb way.
But they found a way, which, at this point, is something they'll happily take.
"I think we checked all the boxes down the stretch," George said. "Played great team defense to close the game out, we made our free throws and I thought we just had a 'win' mentality and it resulted in a win for us."
The Thunder's first 20 games are behind them, and they're into the second quarter of the season. With each game, any justifications or "it's early" excuses will have to fade, and they'll just be who they are. They know who they want to be, and think they can be, and Friday's win had glimpses of it.
The question is: Can they do it again?
And again and again?