The Oklahoma City Thunder headed into this weekend set to experience a back-to-back featuring two very different games — a home tilt with the 20-45 Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday and a Saturday trip to the 55-10 San Antonio Spurs. To top it off, the Thunder's previous game came against the Los Angeles Clippers, their closest competition for the third place in the Western Conference. If ever a team could be expected to look past an opponent onto the next night, this was the time.
So it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the Thunder looked very unfocused against the Thunder. OKC turned it over 24 times (against only 15 assists), shot a mere 6-of-27 from three-point range, and allowed Minnesota to come back from seven down in the fourth quarter. Those mistakes culminated with this open Ricky Rubio three-pointer to break a tie with 0.2 seconds remaining in regulation:
The 99-96 loss drops the Thunder's lead for third to two games and erases much of the progress made after Wednesday's home win over the Clippers. Kevin Durant has been critical of his own leadership after bad losses recently, and he did not mince words again after this one:
Kevin Durant's full quote on putting this on himself: pic.twitter.com/UuTD14l4ZP— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 12, 2016
Durant scored effectively with a game-high 28 points on 11-of-20 shooting, but his six turnovers led seven players with multiple giveaways. Russell Westbrook accounted for five to accompany his 26 points (8-of-19 FG) and eight assists. Serge Ibaka committed just two turnovers but fouled out in 20 minutes with zero points and two rebounds. Only Durant finished better with a better than minus-10 plus-minus among the Thunder's starters.
The loss felt quite avoidable. The Wolves shot 43 percent from the field and did not get electric performances from their top players, although Rubio's 13 points, 12 assists, and eight rebounds were certainly close. Gorgui Dieng continued to establish himself as a viable long-term piece with 25 points (11-of-11 FT), nine rebounds, and three blocks, but such performances should not trouble the Thunder too much. They are still considered one of the most talented teams in the league.
Saturday's matchup with the Spurs offers a chance to make amends, but it is increasingly hard to trust that the Thunder won't encounter another unexpected slip-up eventually. As Durant has said before, this team does not take advantage of every opportunity.
It may even be the case that the playoffs will afford them some relief from the grind of a season, particularly after the team's recent string of personal tragedies. For all the challenges of the postseason, a seven-game series avoids each team the chance to focus on one opponent over a two-week stretch. That single-mindedness could bring out the best in a group that still has the talent to win a championship.
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