Thunder’s Continual Comebacks All Fall Shy – OKC 104, PHI 108

It should be no surprise by now that relentlessness is in the Thunder DNA. Always has been since the team arrived in Oklahoma City, regardless of who was on the court. Tonight, MVP candidate Paul George was missing from the lineup due to shoulder soreness, but there the Thunder was again, giving itself a chance in the fourth quarter to make magic happen.

Turns out, the Philadelphia 76ers had a card up their sleeve every time it had to respond. Four times in the fourth quarter and twice late in the third the Thunder pulled to within two points, but the foe who hadn’t beaten Oklahoma City since 2008 swatted back at each turn. The clock ran out on the comeback hopes, and the final result stood 108-104 as the Thunder dropped its fourth of five games.

It was clear the Thunder had to adjust to the game without George and wasn’t itself as a team during the first quarter. By the time the 12 minutes ended the Sixers led 37-26 getting open three-pointers from Tobias Harris, Jonah Bolden and Mike Scott. Right off the bat Philadelphia started 9-of-11 from the floor, with the Thunder shooting just 4-for-13. The defense was out of sorts and it bled into a rhythm-less Thunder offense as well. 

The tide turned starting in the second quarter, when the Thunder at least held serve and tightened things up defensively. Head Coach Billy Donovan mixed and matched his groups, starting Markieff Morris in place of George, bringing Steven Adams in early to start the second quarter and giving some minutes to Patrick Patterson and reserve guard Raymond Felton. After allowing 37 in the first period the Thunder gave up just 23 in the second quarter, setting a tone for the rest of the night. 

“We got some stops. It was too easy for them early on,” said point guard Russell Westbrook, who recorded his 25th triple-double of the season with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. “We put them in a rhythm and it was kind of tough for us to come back when we needed to.”

In the second half the Thunder played with more confidence, a sure-handedness and tempo that was lacking as it felt out the court balance without George. Westbrook was able to attack downhill with more tenacity, Jerami Grant was devastatingly efficient with 9 of his 23 points in the third quarter and Morris got into the action with some early seals and buckets around the rim. It all emanated from getting stops, as the Thunder held Philadelphia to an average of just 23.7 points over the final three periods.

“We just had to pick up our intensity, especially on the defensive end,” said Morris. “Since I’ve been here they preach play to the end, fight to the end. That’s what we did.”

The Thunder pulled to within two at 73-71 and 77-75 late in the third quarter, only for the Sixers to rip off 9 straight points. Similar runs were parried by Philadelphia in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder pulled to within two at 86-84 and 90-88 with the Sixers getting three points on their possessions immediately after both of Thunder baskets that made it a one score game. The fourth time the Thunder pulled close, it did even better. Westbrook tied the game on a coast to coast layup at 93 with 5:06 to go. 

After that, however, the Sixers ripped off 10 straight points in an emphatic effort to take control for good. Suddenly, the Thunder faced a 103-93 deficit with 1:52 remaining. Coming out of a timeout, the Thunder was unfazed in a situation where many teams would have leaned into the fatigue and low probability of a comeback. Instead, Donovan’s group ripped off 7 straight points in 49 seconds behind a Grant three-pointer, two Westbrook free throws and a poised layup by Terrance Ferguson in the secondary break. 

Down 103-100 with 1:03 remaining, the Thunder just needed a couple more stops to get the job done. Instead, a defensive breakdown out of a timeout left Scott wide open on the wing, and he made the Thunder pay for its lapse with a backbreaking three-pointer.

“We have to do a better job of communicating in those situations,” said Donovan. “We have to do a better job of communicating, staying connected or switching.”

The Thunder was really behind the eight ball after that, trying to claw back with a Morris driving layup and a pair of Westbrook free throws after the Thunder point guard made a deflection and Grant dove on the ball to call the team’s final timeout. 

Down by two with 28 seconds to go, Donovan bet on his team to get a stop. They did, forcing a tough Jimmy Butler baseline miss, but didn’t corral the loose rebound. It was one of 8 second chances the Sixers picked up tonight, and one that left the Thunder out of time for try again.

“We got some stops on demand, but we weren’t able to get that one extra stop, that one extra rebound to give us a chance,” Westbrook said.