The Oklahoma City Thunder spent the first three quarters of Wednesday night's visit to the Los Angeles Clippers in total control, opening up a 13-point lead after the first quarter that grew to as many as 22 near the halftime break. Up 85-68 entering the fourth quarter, OKC likely had visions of extended garbage time that would allow them to rest key players for Thursday night's very tough rematch against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena.
Perhaps they looked ahead a little too early, because the close to the fourth quarter saw the Thunder fall into utter disarray at both ends. OKC held relatively steady and pushed the lead to 93-77 on an Enes Kanter dunk with 7:27 remaining, but that was the last moment in which they had any control. Cole Aldrich followed at the other end to start a game-closing 23-3 run. The Clippers took their first lead since the midway point of the first quarter on a DeAndre Jordan tip-in with 1:12 on the clock and did not look back on their way to a 103-98 win.
The Clippers deserve lots of credit for the win, and we'll give it to them in a bit. But this one will be remembered primarily for the Thunder's collapse, because they were well on their way to a win before the devastating finish. Fans and analysts have questioned OKC's late-game offense for several years now, and it's easy enough to point to several bad looks in crunch time on Wednesday. However, this loss occurred due to a glut of factors, including bad shot selection, poor shot-making, porous defense, and plain-old unfortunate luck.
Whatever happened, it felt entirely fitting that the result was sealed when Russell Westbrook fired away on this confounding running three-pointer down 101-98 without a timeout but several seconds left to get a better look:
He tried to explain his decision after the game:
"They were trying to foul. They didn't call it." Russell Westbrook on his late errant three
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) March 3, 2016
Missed call or not — we're going with the latter — the play said a lot about what went wrong for the Thunder in the fourth quarter. They were left in a bad position because of a combination of poor decision-making and several other manners of mistakes and only compounded their problems with more errors. No one had an answer for their struggles.
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It was a team-wide offensive collapse. The Thunder shot 4-of-18 from the field and 0-of-7 from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter, including just one made field goal during the Clippers' run. Much of blame will fall on Westbrook, who went 0-of-6 and can count on that final attempt to linger as a lowlight. But Kevin Durant struggled, as well, shooting 1-of-4 from the field (plus 1-of-2 from the line) and turning it over twice in the final four minutes. There were no winners here, only those who lost in slightly less egregious fashion.
Unfortunately, losing in the fourth quarter has become something of a trend for the Thunder, and not just because of last Saturday's thriller vs. the Warriors:
Thunder have lost 9 games this season when leading entering the 4th quarter (only 76ers have more)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 3, 2016
To make matters worse, Wednesday's result had a meaningful effect on the standings. The Clippers now trail the Thunder by only 1 1/2 games for the No. 3 spot in the West, a meaningful goal given that both teams would much prefer a matchup with the likely No. 2 seed San Antonio Spurs in the second round. OKC has been widely acknowledged as the conference's third best team for most of the season, but they're now in danger of losing that position. It's a safe bet that they expected to be in stronger shape in early March.
It's hard to buy the Clippers as an unassailable crunch-time outfit given their own recent history, but this comeback involved an impressive display of balance, in stark contrast to the Thunder's effort. Several guys made big plays in crunch time, including Jordan, Chris Paul, and reserve wing Wesley Johnson. With Austin Rivers returning from his hand fracture Wednesday, deadline addition Jeff Green capable of occasional big games (this wasn't one of them — he went 0-of-7), and Blake Griffin nearing a return to health, it's nearly time to put the Clippers on equal footing with the Thunder. (If we haven't already, that is.)
OKC is now in the unenviable position of needing to bounce back from this tough loss in Oakland on Thursday night. The Warriors will likely bring back Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala after they sat out Tuesday's overtime win against the Atlanta Hawks, and it's a safe bet that Golden State will be motivated by the chance to tie the longest home winning streak of all time at 44 games. The Thunder better have short memories, because it only gets tougher from here.
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