The Oklahoma City Thunder must be sick of playing fourth quarters. One night after blowing a 17-point lead against the Los Angeles Clippers in the final 7:27 at Staples Center, the Thunder lost another meaningful lead late on the road against a top Western Conference contender.
This time they at least had the excuse of playing a team that doesn't seem to know how to lose anywhere, let alone at home. Down 80-71 after a Serge Ibaka three-pointer with just under five minutes remaining in the third, the Golden State Warriors started an eventual 24-7 run covering more than six minutes to take full control of the contest and finish with a convincing 121-106 win at Oracle Arena.
This particular victory gives the Warriors a new spot in the record books. Their 44th consecutive win at Oracle draws them even with the Chicago Bulls for the longest home streak in NBA history. The vast majority of Chicago's wins in that run came during their 72-win 1995-96 season, and it's now looking more and more likely that Golden State will mount a serious challenge for that mark, as well.
Games like Thursday's make it seem increasingly possible. After struggling to mount a consistent defensive effort for much of the first half and executing poorly on offense to start the third quarter, the Warriors found a rhythm to close the third quarter on an 11-3 run. They then scored the first seven points of the fourth in just 68 seconds.
Oklahoma City cut the margin to as few as two with 6:01 on the clock, but Golden State appeared in firm control once it took the lead early in the fourth quarter. Finishing the game on a 50-26 advantage convinced further, especially with these Stephen Curry three-pointers serving as extra daggers:
It was a full team effort. The game-changing run featured key performances from Leandro Barbosa, suddenly adept outside shooter Marreese Speights, and Shaun Livingston, who was one of their better players on the night with 11 points, eight assists, three steals, and several important defensive assignments. The plus-minus numbers from Thursday and last Saturday's thriller in OKC bear out how clearly Golden State won the battle of the benches:
In the 2 games vs. the Warriors in the last 6 days, the OKC starting lineup was a +21. Other OKC lineups were a -39.
— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) March 4, 2016
However, the Thunder did well for most of the night by relying on their stars. Serge Ibaka (20 points on 8-of-12 FG and 2-of-3 3FG) and Kevin Durant (32 points on 11-of-17 FG, 10 rebounds, and nine assists both posed matchup problems that figure to persist in future games between these teams, although Durant's nine turnovers should be of concern.
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Yet OKC struggled mightily due to a serious lack of production from their guards, including Russell Westbrook (8-of-24 FG, including makes on his last three attempts when the result was essentially decided). Westbrook did himself no favors with his shot selection vs. the Clippers and made questionable decisions again on Thursday. He will likely bounce back with a big game soon, but his past two days were not impressive. The Thunder lack backcourt firepower in general, but they need Westbrook to show up to avoid another combined showing like this one — 1-of-14 from beyond the arc and 13-of-44 from the field for Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Randy Foye, and Dion Waiters.
The struggles went beyond just shooting stats. Durant said after Wednesday's loss that the Thunder are fooling themselves with talk of contention right now, and their performance late against the Warriors did not convince anyone otherwise. Last Saturday's loss turned the Thunder into the team with the most apparent advantages to beat the Warriors in a playoff series, but it's hard to argue they have the mettle for accomplishing such things. As our Dan Devine said Thursday night, they only match up well with other contenders if they're able to beat them:
I think the Thunder are really good. I also think it’s hard to say they match up great with these other West powers until they beat some.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) March 4, 2016
It's now readily apparent that the Warriors can get those big wins even when they're not at their best. Curry finished with his customary 33 points, but his 5-of-15 shooting from outside is downright poor for a player of his abilities. Klay Thompson wasn't at his best, either — he put up 21 but needed 19 shots with a 1-of-7 mark from three-point range to get there.
But the Warriors can count on a number of things that almost every other team cannot, including steady contributions from the bench and the likelihood of winning any close home game in the final minutes (or earlier). The matchup advantages are as essential as any other part of what makes this team special. It's just clear that superior talent isn't the only thing that gets a team to 55-5.
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