LOS ANGELES -- The game appeared to be in hand, with the Oklahoma City Thunder holding a fourth-quarter lead and about to put away a quality win over a fellow Western Conference contender. Then one play at a time, one turnover after another, one mental lapse, one loss of focus, one defensive breakdown, one bad shot, the anatomy of a Thunder meltdown took shape.
No, that isn't a recycled paragraph from Saturday's soul-crushing loss to the Golden State Warriors. It's what happened on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers, a game in which the Thunder led by as many as 22, including a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter. With 7:26 left, Enes Kanter finished a dunk to put the Thunder up 93-77. After that, the final 7:25 of the game, the Thunder scored five points. The Clippers scored 26 to walk away with a 103-98 victory.
"They made plays; we didn't. They were disciplined; we weren't," Kevin Durant said. "We want to be a great team, we're fooling ourselves. If we just want to be a great team the way we're playing, we're fooling ourselves. We want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, that's cool, but we're fooling ourselves with the way we're playing."
Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are 2-5, which features 1) a loss to the Pacers when they blew a seven-point lead in the final two minutes; 2) a 23-point home loss to the Cavaliers; 3) a loss to the lowly Pelicans when they gave up 123 points; 4) an overtime loss to the Warriors when they led by four with 14 seconds to go; and 5) this debacle on Wednesday when they managed only five points in more than half a quarter.
What? How? Why? What is the explanation here?
"There's just no discipline," Durant said with his head down. "Playing too loose."
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Thunder have now lost nine games this season when leading entering the fourth quarter. Only the 76ers -- who are 8-53, by the way -- have more.
"You get intoxicated by winning and you fail to realize the slippage in things that's going on," coach Billy Donovan said. "When you get into these situations, most times, we would probably win a game like this doing what we did in the fourth quarter. Maybe it wouldn't have been by 20, but we win by five or six or close it out in the end and nobody talks about it. But right now for us, I think the biggest thing is getting exposed and shining a light like there is tonight so to a point we have to make a decision of what we want to do."
The manner in which it transpired was jarring, with senseless giveaways, namely coming from Durant. It was an entirely uncharacteristic collapse from maybe the league's most clutch player, with him doing simple, strange things, like dribbling the ball off his foot, throwing passes to nowhere and taking ill-advised shots.
It seems like the final wake-up call, but this isn't the first alarm bell that has been ringing the past month. The Thunder played one of the easiest schedules in the league up until the All-Star break and like Donovan said, often got by despite bad habits. This one is the loudest yet, and something the team can't brush aside as an off night or just an opponent getting hot at the right time. Something went wrong. Like Donovan rhetorically asked, "Did we beat ourselves, or did they beat us?"
"Man, we've supposed to been having wake-up calls," Durant said. "We've already lost too many games we're supposed to win. We can't just keep talking about wake-up calls. We've got 20 games left. We can't have no wake-up calls at the end of the season.
"We've just got to be locked in from the beginning, from shootaround. You've got think about the game of basketball, you've got to think about what you're going to do tonight from shootaround all the way to the end of the game. And if you don't do that then talent is going to take over sometimes but more times than not, the better teams are going to take advantage of that."
There was certainly more of an air of frustration in the locker room as there has been at any point this season. Durant stopped just short of entirely calling out his team; Donovan was as animated and aggressive as he has been during his tenure as coach, cutting off questions to jump in with a stern, straightforward answer.
"I'm not frustrated at all. I'm not," Donovan said. "I feel bad for those guys because there's a great group of guys in that locker room and they work hard and it gets to a point where you've really be able to do is drop and block out everything and focus on the next possession and what needs to be done collectively as a group. That's a decision those guys have gotta make, you know what I mean?
"As a group. I think that's the challenge. I've said this before, I think the best thing for this team is adversity. It needs adversity. It doesn't need to be easy, in my opinion, for it to be as good as it can be. And here's an adverse situation; what do we do from this going forward when we get leads like this? Can we actually sustain playing the right way on offense and defense?"
The team is unwilling to use an excuse of distractions, but with the shocking loss of focus, this disturbing post-break stretch the past few weeks can't be ignored. The Thunder are without their top two assistant coaches, Maurice Cheeks, who is recovering from hip surgery and Monty Williams, whose wife tragically died in a car accident and is on indefinite leave from the team.
Then on Wednesday, part owner Aubrey McClendon died in a single vehicle crash following a federal grand jury indictment with charges of violating antitrust laws. The team was informed of McClendon's death on the bus after shootaround, with general manager Sam Presti making an announcement on the way back to their hotel.
"We lost a few games. Lost some tough ones," Durant said. "But at the end of the day we're playing basketball, something we love to do every single day. When you look at it like that it's not as tough as you think. But losing does suck. And we hate losing. But at the end of the day we're still in a good spot. We've just got to climb out of where we're at right now."
Said Donovan when asked if there's a mental element to it: "I don't think so. Nope. I don't think there's one bit of that."
The Thunder have little time to pick up the pieces as they turn around and play this little ballclub north of here called the Golden State Warriors. You know, the one that's 54-5 and has won 44 straight games at home? That one.
"This is great for our team. This is great," Donovan said. "[The tough games] need to keep coming. This is great, just to keep playing a competitive schedule like this and have to pick yourself and come back out there again against the best team in the league right now."
Said Durant: "You just go put it behind you, simple as that. We play tomorrow. I'm sure coach is going to want to put in the film and all of this, and talk about this and talk about that. But it doesn't matter. We've got to dig down deep and stay disciplined, man. Throughout the whole game. And that's from the top to the bottom. Everybody. From the bench to the coaches to the players, everybody. We've just got to stick together and stay disciplined."
It can go one of two ways: The Thunder can get right quickly with a feel-good win over the league's best team or, the hole can become even deeper.