By Randy Renner
The trap was set in the wee hours of Thursday morning when the Thunder sent the Clippers packing back to Los Angeles after a solid beatdown sending a message.
Now all everyone could talk about was the upcoming showdown in San Antonio. The Thunder beat the Spurs in the opening game of the season and have generally matched up well with them.
Big game already in the bag, huge game coming up. The promos were already running on both ESPN and ABC.
Trouble is a wolf was waiting to huff and puff and steal some thunder when no one was watching or at least no one in a Thunder uniform was paying attention.
That’s the main reason for this 99-96 Thunder loss to a team that now has as many wins (21) as the hometown guys have losses.
Maybe their minds were on lunch plans at San Antonio’s legendary Mi Tierra Cafe or even a midnight snack there, the place never closes you know.
Whatever Thunder players were thinking come tipoff time against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night it clearly wasn’t the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Thunder trailed 13-4 before some fans had even gotten to the front of the beer line and they finished the first quarter with more turnovers (8) than made baskets (5).
Amazingly they trailed by just three, 24-21, even though they hit just 21.7 percent of their shots overall and an even worse 16.7 percent of those from beyond the arc. At least the T-Wolves were having trouble hitting the broad side of a barn too, shooting 38.5 percent.
Nope defense, at least for most of the game, wasn’t really the problem. The problem was turnovers. Stupid, silly, self-inflicted, shoot yourself right in the big toe turnovers.
24 of them. 24!
Asked if he thought his team was caught flat-footed looking ahead to the Saturday Spurs showdown head coach Billy Donovan thought for a moment before saying, “I hope not.”
Superstar Kevin Durant was a little more assertive in his answer to the same question.
“We didn’t look forward, we didn’t think about the next game. They were just better than us.”
A team that had lost 17 of their previous 19 road games and 12 straight inside Chesapeake Energy Arena was “just better” than the Thunder?
I think I would have preferred hearing KD say he was distracted worrying about Kawhi Leonard’s defense or even the tacos at Mi Tierra rather than the Timberwolves were “just better.”
Durant finished the game with 28 points to lead the Thunder and six turnovers which also led the Thunder and was exactly half the number of turnovers the entire Timberwolves roster committed.
KD, who has been spectacular this month averaging 31 points, 11.5 rebounds and 7.3 assists, has also been the team leader in turnovers and he knows that has to change.
"Wish I could take all of them back, man," he said when asked about his turnover epidemic. "I've just got to watch film and see where I can be better. But I've got to control those turnovers because it's bleeding into the rest of the team, and as a leader, I take full responsibility."
And Durant took it a few steps further.
“Overall, I've got to be better in every part of the game," he said. "I can't turn the ball over. I've got to shoot better shots. I've got to rebound better. I've got to make the right play every time. I've got to be better at encouraging my teammates. I've got to be better at breathing life into my teammates, cheering for them. So I take full responsibility for it. It's my fault."
To his credit Durant has never shied away from throwing himself under the bus but there’s plenty of blame and some bad luck to go around on this one.
Russell Westbrook, who scored 26 points, had five turnovers. Serge Ibaka, who battled foul trouble all night, fouled out with 0 points to show for it. Zero. On 0-for-4 shooting. He had two turnovers too and just two rebounds.
And then Andre Roberson, who might have been guarding Ricky Rubio on that last second 3-ball, tweaked his left ankle in the first half and couldn’t come back in. And Enes Kanter, who finished with 17 points on 7-for-9 shooting and 14 rebounds, didn’t play the final 5:44 of the game.
“The coach is making those decisions,” Kanter answered when asked about not playing late. And right after Kanter was out of the lineup the Thunder took and missed three straight 3s while the Timberwolves were erasing a 5-point OKC lead.
Still with all that, the Thunder led by four at 94-90 with 59.6 seconds to play.
But Steven Adams was called for a moving screen, the Thunder’s 24th turnover of the game, and Karl Anthony-Towns hit a 12-foot floating jumper at the other end and a 14-foot turnaround fade-away after Anthony Morrow missed a long three.
Adams saved the game for the moment with a nifty putback off a Durant miss to tie it at 96 with :10.8 to play but then Rubio drained an open 3 when the defense collapsed on Andrew Wiggins’ driving to the basket and he kicked it out to Rubio standing all by his lonesome just beyond the line.
Game over. The 11th time this season the Thunder have blown a lead in the fourth quarter and gone on to lose.
This one leaves an especially bitter taste, but hey, there’s always lunch at Mi Tierra.