Thunder Comes Up Short in Valiant Back-to-Back Effort – OKC 116, SAC 119

Nobody would have blamed this Thunder team for sputtering out on Saturday night. Nobody except the Thunder itself at least.

Coming off of a dramatic double-overtime victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday in a late-tip off at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder started Saturday evening’s game against the Sacramento Kings just 18 hours after players and coaches had just left the arena. Somehow, despite the adversity of playing 58 minutes the night before, the Thunder gave itself to create the same kind of magic that Paul George mustered with 0.8 seconds to go on Friday. This time, however, George’s game-tying three-pointer fell short, and the Thunder dropped one to the Kings 119-116.

“That team runs and plays at a high speed, a high pace. We came out and we challenged them,” said George. “We competed. We were right there to win this game.”

In the first half, the Thunder’s weary legs showed themselves fully, yielding 12 straight first quarter points to former University of Oklahoma standout Buddy Hield as the Kings took a lead that it would hold for nearly all of the first, second and third quarters. The Thunder struggled with 6 first quarter turnovers, allowed the Kings to score off of those giveaways and then gave Sacramento too many open looks, falling behind 63-49 going into the halftime break.

Coming out of the locker room, Russell Westbrook ignited this Thunder group into a spirited third quarter start – a 15-4 burst that cut that Kings lead down to just two at 69-67. Westbrook was relentless in his downhill attacks into the paint and even added some marksmanship from behind the three-point line. He was at his best slicing through the defense to get to the rim and on catch-and-shoot jumpers, and helped rally the Thunder back multiple times, including when the team trailed by as many as 11 in the fourth quarter.

“I just tried to stay in attack mode. Sometimes based on how the game is going it determines how and what I’m able to do,” said Westbrook. “The game will tell you what to do. I’ve always said that and I believe in it. Tonight was trying to stay in attack mode and trying to score to give ourselves a chance to win.”

“(Westbrook) is our leader. A vocal person. He leads by example, all of that. We definitely look to him for a boost and he sparked that,” said guard Terrance Ferguson. “We got on a run, our energy level changed and that’s when we started playing our type of basketball.”

Westbrook racked up 41 points on 15-for-30 shooting and a 5-for-12 mark from the three-point line, including a catch-and-shoot corner look on a pass from Terrance Ferguson with 1:01 remaining to tie the game at 116.

After that the Thunder forced a De’Aaron Fox miss on a block by Jerami Grant, but Westbrook missed a pull-up jumper and Fox was fouled in the open floor on the way back down court. Sacramento’s speed resulted in 26 fouls by the heavy-legged Thunder, and 34 free throw attempts. None were more crucial than those by Fox with 29.3 seconds left.

Fox made both, and after Grant missed a three the Thunder had a second chance A bang-bang charge call went against Westbrook on a drive and the Thunder tried to foul for 7.2 seconds before finally getting the call. Harrison Barnes made one of two shots, giving the Thunder a chance for the tie. George, who had an extremely rare poor shooting night, tried to shake free at the top of the key and nearly gave himself enough daylight for a clean look, but it wasn’t meant to be for the Thunder on this night.

That much was also apparent when it came to the defensive end of the floor, even in the second half. While the Thunder didn’t defend to its liking in the first 24 minutes, it did a much better job of forcing low quality shots in the second half. The Kings still managed to knock them down, hitting 13-of-21 (61.9 percent) of its non-paint two-point jumpers. For comparison, the Kings typically shoot just 39.4 percent on those midrange shots for the season. The Thunder denied the Kings much traction from the three-point line with just 7 makes on 19 attempts, but the damage Sacramento did in the low-efficiency midrange was enough to get the job done in this one.

“For the most part we made them shoot some tough ones and they made them. It was just a night where they made midrange shots,” said George. “Our whole focus was to run them off the line and force them to make those.”

Despite giving an incredible effort, after the game Thunder players were far from okay with the performance. There’s just too much competitive juice in the locker room to acquiesce to a moral victory. It’s a sign of focus and determination, and a vital quality this Thunder squad must carry on in the remaining 23 games of the regular season and beyond.

“The way we played, the way we started wasn’t good. It’s not a good feeling,” said Ferguson. “We get paid for this. We don’t have any excuse. We didn’t come out with the right intensity and all that, so we came up short.”