The Thunder were up one with less than four minutes to go in Charlotte. Then, it all got away.
A goaltending call, loose balls, some turnovers, and the Hornets left Spectrum Center with a 123-112 victory to drop Oklahoma City to 21-15 on the season.
“We had an opportunity tonight,” coach Billy Donovan said. “But we didn’t do enough to create a big enough opportunity for ourselves because with five minutes to go, it was tied. But then from there, we were playing catch-up.”
The Thunder fell similarly Monday in Milwaukee. They led the Bucks by 15 early, but they couldn’t stop future All-Star Giannis Antetkoumnpo on the way to a dominating 26 points. Wednesday, they didn’t get out to the big lead — they never led by more than five — but it was another wing, Nicolas Batum, who they couldn’t holster.
Batum continued a hot streak which predated the Thunder game, going for 28 points while facilitating the offense and getting to the charity stripe 15 times. His only 3-pointer of the game came at the right moment, too, a triple with just over a minute left to put Charlotte up eight.
“He subtly, very calmly impacts the game,” Donovan said. “He lets it come to him. He’s got a great pace and tempo to his game.”
The Thunder have been one of the league’s best crunch-time teams all season. It just didn’t show against the Hornets, as disciplined a middling Eastern Conference playoff team as you’re going to find. And the Thunder looked anxious in the final few minutes.
Small forward Andre Roberson tried to contest a layup, but smacked the backboard and goaltended it instead. A missed Russell Westbrook shot went off center Steven Adams’ hand and out of bounds. The Thunder went butter-fingered on defensive rebounds, too.
Then with less than two minutes to go, shooting guard Victor Oladipo intercepted a pass. He bombed it down the floor to a streaking Westbrook, who tried to catch it over the shoulder with one hand a la Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. He couldn’t do it, the ball ricocheted toward the sidelines and Westbrook threw it to the other team while trying to save it.
It was just one of those closing stretches for the Thunder.
“In that fourth quarter, there were some opportunities where it was a two, three-point game,” Donovan said. “And we gave them quite a few second-chance opportunities, and we had a hard time finishing and scoring.”
Similarly to the Milwaukee loss, it’s not like the defeat to the Hornets is disconcerting. Recurring problems didn’t show up in Charlotte. In fact, the Thunder have been one of the league’s best teams during crunch time. Late heroics just weren't on display Wednesday.
The frustration built at the end of the night during a final few minutes that took so long, it was almost like the Thunder were filibustering the final result. But it started early. The Thunder fouled 50 percent more than Charlotte, though many of those hacks were intentional ones at the end of the game.
“We fouled too much,” Donovan said. “Probably a little bit uncharacteristic for our team to send somebody to the free-throw line 49 times and us to only get there 23.”
Westbrook was missing shots and body languaging himself to a subpar grade by his standards on the way to a 10 of 31 shooting night — though he still put up an impressive 33-point, 15-rebound, eight-assist line. At one point, he nailed a referee in the head with a ball between plays. He waved his arms to alert the official, who was looking away at the moment. It appeared to be an accident, but he was called for his 10th tech of the season anyway.
"I would never, ever disrespect the game in that way, throw the ball at a referee," Westbrook said. "I've never done it before."
But the exasperation continued. He later had to go cool down in the tunnel with Thunder assistant coach Mo Cheeks.
The Thunder had to find the final result irritating, too.
“We came up short,” Oladipo said. “We have to look ahead to the next game. There’s another game tomorrow.”