This will sound deeply strange, but: the Thunder are in survival mode. With the West shaking out the way it has, even a team as good as OKC has no shot at catching Golden State or San Antonio—they’re now 9.5 games back of the Spurs with 21 games left to play. All the Thunder functionally have left to play for is to avoid being caught by the Clippers and slipping to fourth, which would likely set up a second-round matchup against the Warriors. After last night’s massive late breakdown, the latest in a mini-slump, they’ve got just a game and a half on the Clips, and their postgame quotes were far more dire than their record would objectively justify.
Up by 22 in the third, up by 17 to start the fourth, still up by 16 with 7:25 remaining, the Thunder managed to blow it, falling to the Clippers 103-98.
You can blame it on the Clippers going into defensive lockdown, or the Thunder offense turning up the sloppiness, or, more likely, a good bit of both, but L.A. finished the game on a 22-3 run, with 15 of the Thunder’s 17 turnovers coming in the second half.
“There’s no discipline,” Kevin Durant said. “Playing too loose...They made plays; we didn’t. They were disciplined; we weren’t.”
The Thunder had one last possession with a chance to tie, and the ball ended up in Russell Westbrook’s hands, and then it leapt from those hands like a remote-controlled brick. If you didn’t watch the fourth quarter, that one play functions as a pretty fair summary:
The Thunder are now 2-5 since the All-Star break, and on the year they’ve managed to lose nine games in which they entered the fourth quarter with a lead—a feat surpassed only by the Sixers. OKC takes the court again tonight, in a rematch of Saturday’s heartbreaker against the Warriors. And yeah, it sounds like there’s a little panic happening.
“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.”
“I think the biggest thing we need to do is make a decision, collectively as a group, from an accountability standpoint, of what type of team we want to be. In order to do that, there has to be a high level of sacrifice by everybody.”
There is no reason to freak out just yet; the regular season has six weeks to go, plenty of time for ships to be righted—or for cracks to widen. But the West, which not long ago looked like it had the clear three best teams in basketball, now looks like it might be a four-horse race. Or, more worryingly for the Thunder, just two.