The Thunder dominated the Clippers from the opening tip on Wednesday, led by double-digits in the fourth quarter ... and somehow lost. Los Angeles closed the game on a 22-3 run, giving them a huge win that also gets them closer to the third-best record in the West.
Meanwhile, the epic collapse has the Thunder reeling and questioning their status as contenders.
"We're fooling ourselves if we want to be a great team the way that we're playing," Kevin Durant said after the game, according to NewsOK's Anthony Slater. "We're fooling ourselves."
What Durant seems to be overlooking is that the Thunder's late-game execution problems have been around for many years now. Unfortunately, they're very hard to fix given the current roster.
The problem that cost Scott Brooks his job is still a problem under Billy Donovan
The Thunder have lost nine games when they've led to begin the fourth quarter this season. Only the 76ers have lost more. Their direct rivals in the West -- the Warriors, Spurs and Clippers -- have combined to lose seven times when ahead after three periods. In close games (ahead or behind by five points with five minutes to go), Oklahoma City has a winning percentage of .576, tied for ninth in the league with the Dallas Mavericks.
In 2013-14 -- the last season everyone was healthy for the Thunder -- Oklahoma City lost seven games when leading entering the fourth quarter. That was the most out of any of the top-four seeds in both conferences. They ranked seventh in the league in win percentage in close games and, just like this year, they rarely pulled away in those situations, boasting a very low scoring margin.
This isn't a new problem. Thunder fans and management surely hoped firing Brooks and hiring Donovan would fix it, but it's not happening. The bigger problem is the way the roster is constructed.
The Thunder's star-oriented offense struggles in crunch time
Like Brooks before him, Donovan runs a simple offense in Oklahoma City. The Thunder rank dead last in the league in passes per game this year, per SportVU data. Only seven teams have a higher percentage of plays that end in isolations, according to Synergy Sports.
Donovan is simply replicating Brooks' system, which shows there's only one way to use the talent the Thunder have. The entire offensive identity of the roster has been built around their stars' ability to create almost every trip down the court, as other shot-creators have been traded and replaced by finishers or defenders. Because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are that great, it works.
Late in games, however, the strategy stops being as effective. It's just too easy to figure out what the Thunder will do.
Late in Wednesday's game, the Thunder's offense devolved into a series of sequences that involved a lot of dribbling by one of the stars, a ball screen and a shot. The Clippers were ready for them and provided help off of the non-threatening role players to cause turnovers and tough looks.
Durant and Westbrook are so talented that they can occasionally score even when the opponent knows what's coming and is prepared to counter. But when they can't score, the offense simply dies because there's no plan B or any role player who can step up. The same has been true since James Harden left the franchise and won't change unless the entire offense changes first. That's a problem because ...
The Thunder have too many one-way players to change things now
As you see in those clips, opponents always can help off someone late, making life harder for Durant and Westbrook. When Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are out there, teams cheat because they cannot shoot from the perimeter. Donovan could fix that by having Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters on the court to close the game, but then he would have a major problem on the other end. Waiters is prone to lapses on defense, and Chris Paul got whatever he wanted at the beginning of the comeback by involving Kanter in pick-and-rolls.
At one point, the Thunder went with their best defensive unit, staying big with Serge Ibaka and Adams while the Clippers went small. Unfortunately Ibaka doesn't have the post game to create a mismatch Oklahoma City can exploit, and his defensive impact is minimized when he has to defend a shooter.
The Thunder's role players are simply too specialized. The good defenders can't create on offense and the good offensive players are a liability on defense. The front office has surrounded its stars with one-way players, which makes it very hard to come up with a balanced crunch-time lineup that excels on both ends.
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The Thunder have the talent to beat anyone. When Westbrook and Durant are at their best, they can take on an entire defense on their own and succeed. Asking them to routinely do that against quality teams in the clutch, however, is not the best game plan. Yet because of the way the organization built its roster and empowered the stars while marginalizing role players, that's exactly what they must do. It's no wonder they so often come up short.
No coach is going to change the stagnant late-game offense in Oklahoma City. To do so, both the roster and the entire star-centric philosophy of the franchise must change.