At a time when the NBA unequivocally belongs to the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder are knocking at the door of partial ownership, feverishly trying to wedge their way into a tier presumed out of reach.
On Thursday night, in a matchup with the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers, the Thunder had an opportunity to bust that door open. But they blew that chance, falling to LeBron James and friends, 104-100 at Quicken Loans Arena. They leave Cleveland with a squandered six-game winning streak, knocking on a door that remains locked, still straining to look up at the Spurs and Warriors.
This was a performance worthy of everything the Thunder are, as well as everything they’re not but desperately need to be. They led by as many as 12 points, at times scoring so easily it seemed the Cavaliers and their isolation-serried offense would inevitably break.
Russell Westbrook posted his normal superhuman stat line—sans an inordinate number of rebounds (three). He finished with 27 points, 10 assists and three steals on 10-of-18 shooting.
Kevin Durant threw down his typical 25 points and five assists, albeit on an uncharacteristically inefficient 7-of-17 showing from the floor. But that sometimes happens when you’re being smothered by James, and Durant was far from bad. He contributed two blocks on the defensive end, tried (and failed) to keep James in front of him and, as per usual, reminded us there is no angle from which he can’t score:
Serge Ibaka did his part, amassing 23 points and nine rebounds on a tidy 8-of-14 effort from the field, including a 2-of-5 clip from downtown.
And, on most nights, that would be enough. Seventy-five combined points from the Thunder’s three best players should do the trick.
But Thursday night wasn’t most nights, and those 75 points weren’t enough.
The rest of the Thunder contributed just 25 points on 25 shots. Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters couldn’t stay on the floor. Kanter finished at minus-10, and Waiters, who kept reverting to playground-style ball against his former Cavaliers team, was worse, finishing as a minus-11 after converting just one of his seven attempts.
First-year head coach Billy Donovan only compounded matters. It was assumed the Thunder canned Scott Brooks in favor of him for some offensive reinvention. But, as NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin so succinctly explained, he’s thus far paled in comparison to the sideline sage he was expected to be:
So Billy Donovan is not Rick Carlisle.
— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) December 18, 2015
Too often the Thunder offense devolves into 17 to 22 seconds of aimless dribbling before ending with a less-than-ideal look from one of its two lifelines, Durant and Westbrook. It doesn’t set nearly enough screens, as was the case against the Cavaliers, and is too talented at the top of its depth chart to endure the kind of scoreless stretches that have become commonplace.
Cleveland obliterated Oklahoma City via small spurts twice, rattling off an 18-0 run in the first half and then a 20-2 blitzkrieg in the second half. Those momentum-shifting stretches of anemia were more about the team’s lifeless offense than they were about the Thunder defense, which entered the game inside the top 12 of points allowed per 100 possessions.
Not enough was being done to get Durant or Westbrook open when they were positioned off the ball. The Thunder bank on their creating separation almost entirely on their own, which is a flawed approach at best.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Durant and Westbrook are that good. But when isolations and drive-and-kicks are nearly the only things in your bag of offensive tricks, you become too predictable.
On top of everything else, with the Thunder clinging to a four-point lead, Donovan benched Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook to start the fourth quarter. Such a move borders on insane given how bad Oklahoma City is without its Big Three in the game this season, as RealGM’s Danny Leroux reminded us:
Before tonight, OKC had played 206 minutes without KD, Westbrook and Ibaka. Outscored by 16.1 points per 100 possessions in that time.
— Danny Leroux (@DannyLeroux) December 18, 2015
Things look even worse considering how poorly the Thunder have played in final frames overall, per the Oklahoman‘s Anthony Slater:
The Thunder has blown a fourth quarter lead in seven of its nine losses this season.
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) December 18, 2015
It’s not as if this loss is exclusively on Donovan, of course. There is only so much he can do, and his players made more than their fair share of mistakes.
Westbrook and Durant combined for eight turnovers and an unhealthy number of low-percentage shot attempts. And Durant’s decision to dish the ball off to D.J. Augustin at the end of the third quarter rather than shoot it himself remains inexplicable:
Sorry, but this reeks of not wanting to hurt field goal percentage by KD. https://t.co/sctUYfwyEm
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) December 18, 2015
There is a time and a place to worry about shooting slashes, and the closing seconds of the third quarter of a four-point game isn’t it.
Neither Donovan nor his players did anything to redeem themselves down the stretch, either. Trailing by three inside 25 seconds to play, they had a chance to draw up a play that would spring Durant or Westbrook free for a game-tying trey.
Two chances weren’t enough to do even that. Oklahoma City first settled for a long contested three from Durant after letting precious seconds tick off the shot clock:
Then, after Tristan Thompson errantly tried to hand the ball off to James, the Thunder burned through their second opportunity on a one-dribble step-back triple from Westbrook:
Those are not clutch plays. Those are unacceptable end-of-game underachievements.
The most maddening thing about them? They were also predictable plays. Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus, who to the best of my knowledge isn’t a practicing seer, saw at least one of these failures coming:
Don’t love the TO but that’s more specific to OKC, because they are just going to draw up a play for pull up for KD.
— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) December 18, 2015
All of this makes the Thunder a predictably consistent model of inconsistent unpredictability. You know what they’re going to do but seldom know how it’s going to play out.
Just look at their record against different levels of competition:
- Against West playoff teams: 4-2
- Against East playoff teams: 2-4
- Against above-.500 teams: 6-7
- Against top-10 offenses: 5-2
- Against top-10 defenses: 3-4
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Thunder. They’re a flawed team with plenty of room for improvement and reinvention, and that’s encouraging.
Despite their struggles, they still deploy one of the league’s three best offenses. Entering Thursday night’s affair, they owned the third-highest net rating, leaving them behind only the Spurs and Warriors.
When Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook share the floor, the Thunder are outscoring opponents by 14.7 points per 100 possessions—a differential that would pace the entire Association.
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Amid a ridiculous number of blown opportunities, the Thunder are still in the thick of the championship hunt.
“We can turn this thing around,” Durant said just one game into Oklahoma City’s winning streak, per Erik Horne of the Oklahoman. “The glass is half full in my opinion. We’re not like panicking at all. Every single day we’re looking forward to getting better knowing that we can improve.”
And that’s the thing: The Thunder can improve. They have three stars. They have enough offensive firepower to compete with anyone.
They could be 24-2 if they did a better job of holding on to fourth-quarter leads.
Most importantly, in spite of their imperfections, they have been knocking on the door of the Spurs and Warriors’ level all season. As the NBA’s third-best team, OKC is a mere heartbeat away from sharing control of a competitive landscape that’s just begging for another owner outside of San Antonio and Oakland.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate leading into games on Dec. 17 unless otherwise noted.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter:@danfavale.