OKLAHOMA CITY — It happened in shocking fashion, with a vicious coast-to-coast dunk by Russell Westbrook tying the game and appearing to be a spark, only to turn into a 22-2 run by the Charlotte Hornets.
The Thunder dropped another stunning game Monday night while playing on their home floor against a Hornets team standing 13th in the Eastern Conference. With an opportunity to get back to .500, Oklahoma City gave up 64 second half points to fall 116-103.
“For the talent we have, obviously this is not where we want to be,” Thunder forward Paul George said. “But we’re going to remain optimistic, though, about the future and what we can do. Once we can find a way to really do it night in and night out, it’s no panic mode, but we have to start playing better. It’s getting to where we can’t allow ourselves to be at this point. We can say we’re going to figure it, we can say all that. But at some point it’s gotta stop.”
After 26 games, the Thunder sit ninth in the West at 12-14. They entered having won four of their last five, showing signs of correcting their rugged start to the season. After starting 0-9 in games decided by eight points or less, the Thunder the last four wins were all decided by two possessions or less.
But against the Hornets, the Thunder watched helplessly as the game got away in the third quarter with Charlotte outscoring them 40-22. On Monday, it was defensive failures that hurt them, with coach Billy Donovan, somewhat surprisingly, happy with the way the Thunder executed.
“As crazy as this may sound, I was really, really really was excited with the way we played offense tonight. I really was,” Donovan said. “I thought we generated really good shots tonight. It wasn’t a great shooting night for us, but I think the guy’s intentions of trying to do the things we’ve asked them to do, in terms of ball movement, I thought they really stayed with it for 48 minutes. I was really encouraged by that part of it.”
With Donovan at the podium, Anthony left, with the locker room still closed to reporters. No reason was given for Anthony’s early departure. By NBA rule, active players must make themselves available to media after games.
“It’s up to us, honestly,” Westbrook said when asked how the team is going to turn the corner. “Just gotta figure it out and play the same way every night.”
Third quarters have been problematic all season for the Thunder, with opposing teams outscoring them by 9.9 points per 100 possessions.
“We’re not getting off to a great start and it’s just playing it’s way all the way through to when we get late in games and for whatever reason we try to turn it on,” George said. “It just seems we’re a completely different team that last four or five minutes and that’s the way we’ve got to battle for 48 minutes.”
The Thunder have shown flashes of their potential, but their inconsistency, particularly on the offensive end as they try to sort out the fit of Westbrook, George and Anthony, has been the over-arching issue.
George returned after missing the previous two games with a calf injury to score 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting in 34 minutes, while Westbrook added 30 on 10-of-22, plus 4 rebounds and 7 assists. Anthony finished with 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
“I think sometimes people look at players, or look at a team and they kind of say what they’re forecasting for it not even knowing all the dynamics it takes to even be a good team,” Donovan said. “And I think when you’ve got half the roster that’s different, these guys have done a really good job sacrificing, they’ve done a really good job building relationships and communicating, they’ve done a really good job working and they’re trying to get to know each other on the court.”
Back to two games under and currently outside the Western playoff picture, the Thunder now head out for a testing three-game road trip against solid Eastern Conference teams, including homecoming games for George and Anthony. The Thunder take on the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, then the surging Philadelphia 76ers on Friday, and cap it with Anthony returning to New York to play the Knicks on Saturday.
“Everybody’s giving up something of themselves for the benefit of the team and I think at some point that will pay dividends for us,” Donovan said.