OKLAHOMA CITY — Cardiologists all over Oklahoma City should be taking advantage of what the Thunder have been doing to their fans.
Seconds left. One-possession game. A shot goes up. It may go in. It may not. But either way, it's to decide the game. It's happening every night. Or so it seems.
The Thunder are bathing in close games. They contribute to their fans' inevitable future heart failure one game. The next one: rinse, lather, repeat.
“Everyday we’re gonna try to work on some form of a special situation, because we’re gonna be in a lot of those,” coach Bill Donovan said. “And I would say we’re probably not that different than a lot of teams in this league.”
In some ways, they are, though. Everyone plays close games. But the Thunder are doing it more than just about everyone else. The endings of the last few matchups have taken tension to the extreme.
Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. clanked a 3-pointer that would have tied it at the buzzer. The Thunder won by three.
Thunder guard Anthony Morrow missed a triple against the Houston Rockets. The Rockets won by three.
Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart was wide right on a would-be game-tying jumper Sunday. The Thunder won by three.
Over and over again, it’s coming down to the buzzer. And whether they’re playing the bad, the good or the elite, the Thunder are stage-five clingers. No one can separate from them in any direction.
“To think that we’re just gonna go in games with our team and win by 15, 18 points and cruise home night after night, it’s just not gonna happen,” Donovan said. “We don’t have that kind of margin to be able to do that.”
Of the Thunder’s 24 games this season, 17 have been within five points with five-or-fewer minutes remaining. Only the Phoenix Suns, 18, have played more of those games. It’s a situation aptly named “clutch time.” And the Thunder aren’t just residing there. They’re actually thriving in it.
They’ve won 11 of those 17 games. And once a contest reaches clutch time, they’re outscoring opponents by 27.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s not just a jaw-dropping number. It’s a jaw-dropped-so-far-it-actually-fell-off number. And it’s third in the NBA, behind that of only the 19-5 San Antonio Spurs and 17-8 Memphis Grizzlies, whose games also go into clutch time often.
“Obviously you don't wanna be in those situations all the time,” Morrow said. “But I think it builds a lot of character and a lot of confidence.”
The Thunder’s fourth-quarter numbers have been dominant on the whole, maybe to a point that some regression is on the way. For now, though, it’s what has allowed them to come back from double-digit deficits over and over this season.
Russell Westbrook has unsurprisingly led the way. He’s finishing an unprecedented 61 percent of OKC’s clutch-time possessions with one of his own shots, turnovers or him getting fouled. Yet, he’s still maintained an efficiency above league average, remarkable considering how often he’s chucking.
He's averaging a league-leading (by far) 54.0 points per 36 minutes in clutch time.
“You gotta be able to close it out,” he said. “We’re not gonna be able to blow teams out like we used to. We gotta grind it out. That’s the kinda team we have, and we gotta be in the close games, and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that.”
It's not just the offense, either. The Thunder are locking down defensively during those scenarios, as well.
The pure number of close games is odd considering the Thunder’s style. It makes sense slow teams like the Grizzlies or Spurs would play a bunch of tight finishes. But the Thunder are running. They’re fifth in pace. They’re averaging six more possessions a night than Memphis and San Antonio. And yet, game after game comes down to the final possession.
“I find it encouraging,” Donovan said. “I don’t wanna jinx our team, but the fact that we’ve been in all these close games means we’ve been in the game…I’m not so sure everybody can say that.”
There might not be a true answer as to why Thunder scores stick together. And the trend could always even out as the season progresses. But for now, the Thunder play up to their opponents. They play down to their opponents. They would probably play sideways to them if they could.
“It’s the NBA, man,” Morrow said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to win games.”