With a minute left, reality washed over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Center DeAndre Jordan had just finished a wild three-point play to put the Los Angeles Clippers up 99-97, and forward Kevin Durant followed with a missed jumper on the baseline. Shoulders slumped. Faces dropped.
Jamal Crawford hit a twisting runner to put the Clippers up four, and Durant split free throws on the other end. Finally a stop for the Thunder, and with 10 seconds left, they had a chance to save themselves from a humiliating giveaway. Instead, Russell Westbrook heaved an unexpected off-balanced 3 that hit only backboard, and the collapse was complete.
The Thunder entered the fourth quarter ahead by 17. They ended it down five -- 103-98. Over the final 7 minutes, 25 seconds of the game, the Thunder scored five points, with the Clippers putting up 26.
The Thunder left Staples Center that night at rock bottom, a defeated, dejected team that had their leader repeating the word "discipline" six times in the postmortem of the game. They boarded their flight for Oakland knowing the Warriors were waiting on them, and the 50 minutes in the air were spent in uncomfortable silence.
That loss was the Thunder's ninth when leading after three quarters, a number only superseded by the 76ers... who the Thunder then tied 24 hours later against the Warriors with a 10th loss when entering the fourth with a lead. That's [i]half[/i] of the Thunder's total losses this season. It's an alarming number, and one that had a spotlight shone at it starting with that Clippers game.
The Thunder entered the All-Star break at 40-14. Since then, they've dragged to a 3-6 record, with five of those losses featuring blown fourth-quarter leads. One was excusable, a one-point lead against the Warriors at Oracle Arena. The other three, though, featured sloppy turnovers, undisciplined defense, stagnant offense and other disconcerting issues that have the Thunder spinning. Against the Pacers, they led by seven with two-and-a-half minutes left. They allowed four 3-pointers to lose 101-98. Against the Warriors two weeks ago, they led by four with 14 seconds to go, but a turnover by Durant and then a foul by Durant forced overtime. And of course against the Clippers, they scored five points in eight minutes.
Even in their most recent win, a 104-96 bounce back in Milwaukee against the Bucks, the Thunder let a 21-point lead slip all the way down to two in the fourth quarter. They made the plays that time around to hold on -- and were aided by the fact the Bucks are the Bucks and made few themselves.
It's become a disturbing trend, and one that has the team asking a simple question: Why? With two of the most talented players in the league, who both have their fair share of clutch chops, what's going on? Why are the Thunder giving these games away?
"I think what happens is you fail to realize how hard you had to work to get an 18-point lead," coach Billy Donovan said. "And then you think, 'OK well, it's just one possession here,' but before you know it, two 3s and a foul and that's eight points, and the whole thing changes."
Turnovers are killing them
The main culprit, at least in terms of a tangible item: turnovers. The Thunder are a high-volume turnover team to start with (15.7 per game, 26th in the league), but in the fourth quarter alone, they turn the ball over four times on average with only the Nets worse than the Thunder. Since the All-Star break, the Thunder have been outscored by 22.2 points per 100 possessions -- worst in the league. The total score: 258-215.
"That's happened to us, to be honest with you, a lot since the All-Star break," Donovan said of letting games slip. "But because you end up finding a way to win the game by six or eight close, you close out the game, you don't have a tendency to look at those things. But then you get into a Golden State or Clipper game, or even Indiana, where you're playing pretty well and you have a three-to-five minute stretch there that really just totally changes the momentum of the game."
What's obvious is that the Thunder are doing good things in order to get those leads. It's just a matter of why it all evaporates -- and how to stop it from continuing to happen.
"The biggest thing for us is, can you sustain that for 48 minutes?" Donovan said. "But sometimes we have these lapses, these self-induced lapses. There's certain things where we're doing the right things, we're playing the right way, it's just they're playing better than we are right now and the momentum of the game has swung. The ones we have to eliminate is when we're generating the momentum changing in the favor of the other team."
In past seasons, there's been internal aggravation with players stat hunting in games, especially in fourth quarters when the game appears to be in hand. That can contribute to the loss in focus and stunning lapses, but the team maintains that hasn't been an issue this season. Though, in Sunday's win against the Bucks, Durant was trying conspicuously hard to pass the ball when he was coincidentally only two assists shy of a triple-double. Durant had three fourth-quarter turnovers that game, all on forced passes into traffic.
Another example: Serge Ibaka inexplicably put up a 3 with 35 seconds remaining and the Thunder up eight, leaving the door open for the Bucks. Why? One reason: Durant was the one who had just passed him the ball.
"I have not seen that or sensed any of that," Donovan said of stat-padding. "I've never, ever heard players ever mentioning anything about points, shots, touches, assists, rebounds. That's not to say they're not thinking about it, but I think they're probably smart enough not to say that in front of me."
The Thunder have gone through a trying few weeks, both on and off the court. They've had a wave of adversity hit the organization, with another tragic event happening on Tuesday as Dion Waiters will be away from the team due to the death of his brother. In the losses they've had, they've looked fried mentally, especially as the game wears on. They look like a team afraid of the time and score, especially when they're winning. This is unusual for the Thunder.
The leadership of the team has failed to stabilize them in a way that the rest of the group desperately needs. That's always been the function of how they play -- it's Westbrook and Durant, and then everybody else. So when the battery doesn't come through, it's a bunch of other guys standing around shrugging and confused. What do I do now? Do I say something? Do I try to do something?
"If you look at some of our games, the point swings have been astronomical," Donovan said. "We've got to recognize that; we've got to take some responsibility and accountability on ourselves to try to stop them."
Donovan and Durant see it all as a potential positive, as an opportunity to do some discovery on the mettle of the team. Donovan has been preaching attention to detail and commitment the entire season. But as he pointed out, that message doesn't always get through when you're winning. Losing bears listening, and with 19 games to go before the losses really start mattering, the Thunder have to figure it out.