Entering the fourth quarter with a comfortable 108-81 lead Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder had seemingly finally amassed a large enough lead to feel at ease. After all, Billy Donovan’s outfit is the worst fourth-quarter team since the all-star break, and has blown 12 fourth-quarter leads this season, a mark that leads the rest of the field.
“If you look at some of our games, the point swings have been astronomical,” Donovan told ESPN.com this week. “We’ve got to recognize that. We’ve got to take some responsibility and accountability on ourselves to try to stop them.”
True to form, the Thunder were outscored 28-22 in the final quarter, bringing the team’s post-all-star game fourth-quarter net rating to an abominable minus-21.2, nearly three points worse than the lowly Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers. In the 14 games played since Feb. 18, the Thunder has outscored opponents in the final 12 minutes precisely four times. With the Thunder losing eight games in four weeks after losing just 14 in the first 15, conversations continue to grow in intensity and volume over whether or not this franchise can make a run at a title. If the team continues to trend toward utter collapse in the waning moments of games, Oklahoma City won’t stand a chance.
The meltdowns have been biblical, too: In a road game against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 2, the Thunder squandered a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter; the next night, the Thunder took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors and lost by 15. Many of the losses seem to produce thousand-yard stares from Russell Westbrook, the team’s alpha creator and lightning rod of a point guard.
Many of the final-quarter messes can be attributed to attrition and turnovers.
“Sometimes we have these lapses, these self-induced lapses,” Donovan said. “There’s certain things where we’re doing the right things, we’re playing the right way, it’s just they’re playing better than we are right now and the momentum of the game has swung. The ones we have to eliminate is when we’re generating the momentum changing in the favor of the other team.”
Oklahoma City isn’t exactly an elite team at taking care of the ball, ranking 25th in turnover ratio (15.7), a metric calculating turnovers produced per 100 possessions. But that ratio worsens substantially in the fourth quarter: Oklahoma City ranks 29th in the metric, producing 1.3 more turnovers per 100 possessions in the final 12 minutes than it does the rest of the game. For a team that ranks outside the top 10 in assist points created — often opting to run the offense through Westbrook and former MVP Kevin Durant, two of the most dynamic, self-starting scorers in the game — Oklahoma City struggles even more to facilitate in the fourth quarter, ranking 23rd in assists per 100 possessions and 29th in assist-to-turnover ratio. The tandem hasn’t been playing any less since the break — in fact, Westbrook is playing 1.4 more minutes per contest since the break — but bench players are contributing 2.4 fewer points per contest over the past 14 games.
Moreover, for an explosive offense capable of producing triple digits on a nightly basis, that the Thunder’s offensive rating ranks last in the fourth quarter since the break is alarming. Oklahoma City’s scoring 0.96 points per possession in fourth quarters since the break, a mark which ranks 29th in the league and is a far cry from its 1.1 points per possession average over all quarters this season, which ranks second to the Warriors.
Looking to prior seasons for context, only one team the past two seasons — last season’s Wizards — qualified for the postseason with a post-all-star game net rating lower than minus-10 in the fourth quarter. Washington was outscored by 14 points per 100 possessions, and was promptly bounced in the second round of the playoffs; Oklahoma City is being outscored by 21.1. The average post-all-star game fourth quarter net ratings among playoff teams in 2013-14 and 2014-15 were plus-2.78 and plus-0.55, respectively.
With the Thunder staring down an arduous remaining schedule — nine of the 14 remaining opponents have winning records — and riding out a noteworthy trend of collapsing when it matters most, there’s reason to be skeptical about a playoff run. The team has two of the top players in the game but, should it continue, self-destruction will keep the franchise from a title.