The Thunder had the looks, but the ball has to cooperate too. Down the stretch it did for the Minnesota Timberwolves, while the Thunder was left looking at some prime missed opportunities to come away with a hard-fought victory on the second night of a back to back.
Ultimately, even after displaying remarkable effort and resolve, the Thunder fell 114–112 to the Timberwolves, after Paul George’s heave three fell awry. Head Coach Billy Donovan drew up a pet play to get George the ball at the top of the key with 3.9 seconds to go, from the same spot on the floor where he hit a game-winner in Brooklyn a few weeks ago. The inbounds pass spilled off of George’s outstretched fingers, disrupting any timing or rhythm he might have had and his shot went off track.
One possession before that, the Thunder had another straightforward chance for a game winner, With Russell Westbrook coming off a dummy screen by George to barrel downhill into the lane. His drive was shut off, as was a dump off to Steven Adams and a kick back to George up top, but Alex Abrines was left wide open on the wing. Westbrook hit the Spanish sharpshooter, but the jumper glanced off the rim, forcing Westbrook to commit his sixth and final foul on the rebound.
“I had shot three layups in a row, they collapsed this time and Alex was wide open,” said Westbrook. “Whoever it is, always make the right play and live with the results.
The build-up to those two Thunder misses was epic, and controversial. Both Northwest Division squads threw darts at one another, in congruence with their styles of play. The Timberwolves buried 14-of-27 three-pointers, including 5 in the fourth quarter as their rested legs allowed them to get 7 crucial second chances that resulted in 13 points. The most pivotal one of all came after Adams had scored on a pump fake and finish under the rim, then Westbrook charged down the lane for a slick righty layup from the left side of the basket.
“It’s just space,” said Westbrook, who finished with a 23-point, 10-assist, 11-rebound triple-double . “Obviously they know that’s coming. They pack the paint. My job is to make the right play.”
Up by two with 53 seconds to go, the Thunder just needed a stop and some free throws to finish off Minnesota. Karl-Anthony Towns slipped free down the middle of the lane for a sure-thing dunk, but Jerami Grant flashed over and made a ridiculous block right in front of the rim.
“I saw him roll. I kind of knew they were going to pass it but I tried to meet him at the rim,” Grant said.
The ball dropped to the floor and bounced lazily once. Grant has a chance for the ball but, without a foul call, Towns’ arm wrapped around Grant’s throat to impede his dive. The ball squirted out to Minnesota and ended up in Dario Saric’s hands for a gut-punch three-pointer.
One possession later Grant took a clear out elbow to the chest by Andrew Wiggins on a driving layup. A few possessions earlier, Grant caught the tough end of the whistle while boxing out Taj Gibson, whose arm also was around Grant’s neck. The foul call on Grant and no calls on Wiggins and Towns resulted in a possible six-point swing in a two-point loss.
Yet still, the Thunder looks to itself and the other 46 minutes to determine areas of growth and reasons victory wasn’t in the cards tonight. Turnovers told the tale throughout the game, for example. With six in the first, zero in the second, six again in the third and only two in the fourth, the scoreboard tracked the way the Thunder protected the ball. Donovan’s club fell behind by 10 in the first quarter due to the giveaways.
In the second quarter the Thunder locked up, with Dennis Schröder picking up full court, George playing more physically on Wiggins and using high hands to pressure the ball better to eliminate back cuts. Meanwhile, Westbrook relentlessly attacked downhill, took a limited number of jumpers and continually found a red-hot George for good looks in the flow of the offense. That attacking style resulted in a 27-9 edge in fast break points in the game for Donovan’s squad, plus a 58-42 advantage in points in the paint.
“When we can get shots up on whatever possession it is, that’s better than turnovers,” Grant noted. “Second quarter was probably our best quarter.”
The turnovers returned, however, in the third quarter as the Timberwolves battled back with an 18-4 run to turn a 12-point Thunder lead into an eventual 10-point fourth quarter deficit. Westbrook and George hit back to back three-pointers to start a final Thunder charge, and Westbrook’s drives gave his team enough punches to keep up with Minnesota’s three-point barrage to make it a fight to the finish.
“We did a good job going down the stretch,” said Grant. “We could have made a couple more shots and got a couple more stops but I’m comfortable with what we did.”
“We fought. That’s all you can ask for,” said Westbrook. “We did a good job of executing. They made some tough shots.”
Highlights: Thunder vs. Timberwolves