LOS ANGELES — With the sting from Stephen Curry shooting their lights out on Saturday still lingering, the Thunder squandered another quality win by shooting themselves in the foot.
What’s worse: Bowing to a seemingly unstoppable force like Curry in heartbreaking fashion or totally imploding against a shorthanded team that looked lifeless for three quarters?
That’s the question facing the Thunder, who fell to the Blake Griffin-less Clippers 103–98 at the Staples Center on Wednesday after blowing a 22-point lead and losing the fourth quarter by a 35–13 count. This was nothing short of a textbook choke job, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook taking turns gagging up key possessions and feeding L.A.’s late-building momentum. All told, Oklahoma City scored just five points in the game’s final 7:26, with Durant and Westbrook combining for 2-of-11 shooting and five turnovers in the final period.
“[I] hate losing like that,” Durant said somewhat disgustedly, striking a far different tone from his “I’ll go home and enjoy me a nice meal and a nice glass of wine” approach following Saturday’s loss. “[The Clippers] made plays, we didn’t. They were disciplined, we weren’t. ... We’re fooling ourselves if we want to be a great team the way we’re playing. We want to win a bunch of games in the regular season, and that’s cool, but we’re fooling ourselves the way we’re playing. There was no discipline. Too loose.”
Although Westbrook would deliver the endgame’s most puzzling decision, it was Durant’s shakiness down the stretch that was most troubling. Days after he threw a careless pass and fouled Andre Iguodala to allow Golden State to force overtime, only to foul out in the extra period, Durant again made a late-game mess.
After back-to-back Wesley Johnson three-pointers cut Oklahoma City’s lead to eight with a little less than five minutes to play, rallying a quiet Staples Center crowd, Durant proceeded to commit two turnovers and miss two shots in quick succession.
Instead of stopping the bleeding, the Thunder bled out, losing the lead for the first time since early in the first quarter when DeAndre Jordan and Durant appeared to team up to tip in a shot for the Clippers. A Westbrook turnover, another Durant miss and a Durant miss from the stripe helped L.A. regain control of a long-lost contest.
“It was turnovers, it was maybe not great shot selection, it was not getting back in transition, it was giving up threes,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Everything we were doing at such a high level ... in the first three quarters, we didn’t do at all in the fourth quarter.”
Indeed, this was a shocking loss, as Durant (30 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) and Westbrook (24 points, 12 assists, six rebounds) had spent the opening portions of the game taking turns busting up the Clippers’ defense. Early on, Durant stuffed a Jeff Green shot attempt and took off for the races, beating Paul Pierce with a Eurostep to throw down a strong dunk. The highlights continued from there, with Westbrook beating Green for an and-one layup, Durant completing a four-point play and Durant thoroughly posterizing J.J. Redick.
The ease with which Oklahoma City dictated the action gave way to an uneasy and unsteady finish. Durant lost control of the ball under minimal pressure on multiple occasions, and Westbrook seemed to lose his mind on the deciding possession.
Down three with less than 10 seconds remaining, Westbrook grabbed a defensive rebound and raced up court at full speed, launching a running three-pointer between two defenders that missed badly.
Afterward, Donovan and Westbrook told reporters that the All-Star point guard was anticipating a foul from the Clippers on the play.
“[The Clippers] were trying to foul,” Westbrook said, declining to state whether he believed he was fouled by Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford. “[The referees] didn’t call it.”
Maybe the Clippers were trying to foul, or maybe Westbrook was guilty of overthinking by chasing a gimmick rather than simply generating a quality look for himself or one of his teammates. Regardless, Oklahoma City’s fifth loss in seven games since the All-Star break left a demanding Donovan to pose fundamental questions about his team’s identity.
“The decision we have to make collective as a group from an accountability standpoint is ‘What type of team do we want to be? ... When we get leads like this, can we actually sustain playing the right way on offense and defense?’”
Oklahoma City had it all wrong in the fourth quarter, registering just two assists in the final period and shooting a paltry 2 for 14 from outside the paint. The Thunder’s familiar bugaboos from years past—one-on-one play, over-dribbling, ball-stopping, contested shots, sloppiness—sprouted up again, narrowing Oklahoma City’s lead over L.A. to 1 1/2 games in the Western Conference standings. That gap could shrink to just one game by Thursday, when the Thunder face the Warriors at Oracle Arena, where the defending champions are a perfect 25–0 this year. The team that winds up with the No. 4 seed, of course, will almost certainly face the unenviable task of playing presumed No. 1 Golden State in the Western Conference semifinals.
There were real stakes at play, there were bad memories from Saturday still fresh on the collective mind, Durant had an incredibly favorable matchup to exploit, the offense came effortlessly in the game’s opening stretches and this absolutely should have been a runaway victory given the Thunder stars’ years of experience closing out wins together.
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Oklahoma City faces obvious questions with Donovan’s inexperience, a coaching staff that is currently without assistants Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks and a second-unit that is largely lacking in difference-makers. But Wednesday’s performance raised another question, one that really shouldn’t need to be asked of a team featuring two of the NBA’s top talents: What happened to its killer instinct?