Armed with 22 points of breathing room, a pair of dynamic superstars and two games worth of momentum, the Oklahoma City Thunder did what they do best against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday: make us question everything we think we know about them.
Three games into their second-round battle against the Clippers, the Thunder were granted an opportunity to take control and move within one victory of a Western Conference finals berth. They were given the opportunity to make a statement.
All they had to do was steal Game 4.
Early on, it appeared they would seize the chance. But slowly, the Thunder wilted. The Clippers fought; Oklahoma City faded.
When the game ended, the Thunder had nothing to show for their efforts save for a 101-99 loss accompanied by a ream's worth of unanswered questions.
Game 4 Letdown
There was nothing not to like about the Thunder's first-quarter performance in Game 4.
Everyone helped set the tone defensively. The Clippers were held to 15 points on 25 percent shooting. Blake Griffin was a marked man: he started the game 0-for-5 from the floor.
The Thunder led by as many as 22 points in that first quarter and entered the second with a 17-point advantage. With their offense hot and their defense stifling, it was only a matter of time before the Clippers gave in.
Things changed slightly in the second quarter. Durant and Westbrook combined to go 3-of-13 from the field while the Clippers went off for 31 points on 54.2 percent shooting. Led by Chris Paul (seven points), Griffin (nine) and Jamal Crawford (11), the Clippers were given new life. Entering halftime, they trailed by only 11 points.
Some of the life was stomped out of them in the third quarter. The Thunder, too. It was an ugly affair for both teams, fraught with poor shooting and sloppy decision-making. Neither club shot better than 27.8 percent as the Thunder stretched their lead to 12 before the fourth quarter.
Lost on no one was the predicament the Clippers found themselves in: Not only were they down 12, but Griffin was forced to exit late in the third after he picked up his fifth foul. The fourth quarter would begin without him and Paul.
It was during that time that the Thunder began pulling away. Kind of. Sort of.
Though they stretched their lead to 16 points, the Clippers kept coming. Paul and Griffin returned. Darren Collison took over. Griffin was scoring. Paul was attacking. His angry face was in full effect.
Before the Thunder seemed to know what was happening, the Clippers were down 12. Then eight. Then six.
Crawford capped off Los Angeles' comeback with a straightaway three-pointer to give his team a two-point lead.
The Thunder would later tie the game, but they never led again. Westbrook missed a game-winning three, Serge Ibaka's tip—which wouldn't have counted anyway—trickled off the rim and the Thunder left Staples Center in a 2-2 series tie, their heads hung low, the disbelief washing over their faces without delay.
With the game on the line and their lead dwindling, the Thunder caved.
The real surprise?
We shouldn't be surprised.
This epic collapse isn't typical of every Thunder game, but the symptoms of their latest crackup are frightfully similar to what we see almost every game. Wins, losses, blowouts, nail-biters—it doesn't matter.
What was it we saw?
Down the stretch, the Thunder did nothing. They were lollygagging on the offensive end, taking forever and ever and ever to enter their sets. And when they did enter their sets, they did nothing again.
Westbrook did as Westbrook does, attempting twice as many shots (10) as Durant in the fourth quarter. He hit only four of them. Before the fourth, he was shooting a very economical 6-of-12 from the floor, forcing very little, deferring frequently and allowing Durant to attack. For some reason, he just couldn't let that last.
Durant couldn't create separation for himself and none of his teammates helped. Paul—yes, the generously listed 6'0" point guard—helped hold him to just three shots in the final five minutes and one shot in the final five. Credit the smaller Paul for his ball denial and fighting over screens, but Durant has roughly 10 inches on him. He wasn't battling for position the way he should.
It was just a mess. Instead of relying on a system and their ball movement, the Thunder relied on individuals. They trusted the Clippers to lose this game.
Remind of you anything?
Oh, yeah, the series against the Memphis Grizzlies, which serves as a benchmark for doubting OKC. This game was that series. All of it. The blown leads, Westbrook's uninhibited late-game shot selection and Durant's inability to establish position against an opponent much smaller than himself (Tony Allen).
Offenses don't get much less inventive than the one Oklahoma City runs. There is no rhyme or reason to their execution. There is standing still; there is remaining idle.
There is no reaction or adjustments.
When the Clippers threw double-teams at Durant, the rest of the Thunder stood around. They didn't move toward the ball or space out. They stood there. They were asking for turnovers. They were daring the Clippers to win this game.
They were begging to lose Game 4, just like they were begging to lose against the Grizzlies, just like they've been begging us to doubt them time and time again during these playoffs.
The Meaning of Title Contention
One game isn't enough to sound alarms.
Even in the playoffs, there are going to be roadblocks—bumps in the road that look ugly immediately but may not have truly dreadful consequences. The Thunder still hold home-court advantage, after all. In a way, they did what they needed to do in Los Angeles by splitting the two games after losing Game 1 in Oklahoma City.
As Daily Thunder's Royce Young explains, this loss is immediately looked at as something more than it actually may be:
I’m not going to sit here and try and act like this loss wasn’t horrible. Because it was. The Thunder had their chance to put a choke-hold on the series, and instead they just did some choking. Playoff games get viewed in a vacuum, especially right after they happen. Within only today, the loss feels potentially catastrophic, like something that may cause a summer of regret. But the series takes place on a bigger scale than just today. It’s more than one game. The bigger picture paints a nicer image, one in which the Thunder earned their road split and now have homecourt advantage in a best of three.
This may be a game to reflect upon and lose sleep over. But we’re not going to know that for a few more days. The Thunder tried to get greedy, going for a two-game sweep in Staples to have a chance to put this to bed in OKC in Game 5. Instead, they’re back in the same spot they were against the Grizzlies. The difference here is, the Thunder are back to being the desperate team, coming off a loss with legions of doubters and gripers piping up. And that’s really when the Thunder tend to play their best.
Everything Young says is true. Yet this is also about more than one game. This is about more than just this series.
The Thunder have been battling these demons all season. They've been laboring through a lack of creativity down the stretch. That they're as good as they are despite obvious flaws speaks to the individual talent on this squad.
Is this team actually a title contender, though? A real, legitimate title contender?
Regular-season records say yes. Their four wins over the San Antonio Spurs this year say yes. But those same Spurs are currently up 3-0 on the Portland Trail Blazers and will inevitably be resting as they await the winner of this series.
Playing like this, the Thunder won't beat the Spurs. They won't beat the Miami Heat.
They won't beat the Clippers. Not if they need to constantly be put in desperate situations to play well. Desperate teams don't always win. Sometimes the circumstances are too grave, the missed opportunities too valuable. Remember that.
"That was a very physical basketball game...defensively we have to do a much better job," Thunder coach Scott Brooks told reporters afterward.
Blame this one loss on what you like, be it the Thunder offense, the untimely turnovers or the half-court defense down the stretch that allowed Paul and Collison to have their way in the paint. Really, it's a combination of everything, an emblem of all that's wrong with this wildly talented team still struggling to make the most of their potential.
At this stage of their development, when they've been running with the same starting five for years, we shouldn't be talking about a blown 22-point lead, a 40-point playoff outing from Durant going to waste or a fourth-quarter defensive meltdown that saw them relinquish 38 points.
We should be talking about victories. We should be lauding their ability to put a chokehold on this series. Instead, we're left wondering if this colossal breakdown stands for something more.
So are the Thunder contenders?
Absolutely. But they're flawed contenders—ones who will only flirt with winning while never actually winning anything until this years-long process of figuring out how to consistently play together finally ends.