By Randy Renner, Senior Writer
Going into the fourth quarter the Thunder had only turned the ball over 10 times and the Spurs had only made 13 of their 22 free throw attempts.
Even better the Thunder didn’t have a lead to lose, the Spurs were up by three, so everything seemed to be leaning OKC’s way.
But then again it was the start of the fourth quarter and it was the Spurs, a team acclaimed for not beating itself, going up against the Thunder, a team becoming more and more known for doing just the opposite.
And sure enough in those last 12 minutes, the last six really, everything turned around. The Thunder lost their handle on the ball giving it back to the Spurs four times, three of those in the last 3:25 of the game and two of them coming on consecutive possessions.
While the Thunder were giving the ball back to the Spurs, San Antonio finally started hitting free throws the way San Antonio usually hits free throws going 11-for-12.
That combination was too much for OKC to overcome.
“There’s things we have control over that we need to do a better with,” said head coach Billy Donovan who had just watched his team blow a fourth quarter lead and lose for the 16th time this season.
The fourth quarter is only magnified because it’s at the end of the game and there’s not as much time to recover from self inflicted wounds..
But the Thunder had been blundering the entire game, credit to them for also coming back and never quite giving in to finally giving up.
Even those three terrible turnovers, two by Russell Westbrook and one by Kevin Durant, in a less than two minute span late in the game, weren’t enough to kill the Thunder.
They were down by seven at that point with 1:37 to play but cut the margin to just two, less than a minute later when Westbrook hit two free throws with :46.8 to play.
LaMarcus Aldridge, who turned back into a human after going 33-for-44 in the first two games, missed his 13th shot of the night as the clock ticked under 30 seconds.
The ball was up for grabs and the Thunder who had led the world since November in rebounding had an opportunity to get the ball and then have a chance to regain the lead once more.
As Loud City roared its loudest in swooped Spurs superman Kawhi Leonard to take the ball away from Enes Kanter for just the Spurs fourth offensive rebound of the night but perhaps their most important of the season.
“Yeah, that play was huge,” admitted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who's not known for that sort of hyperbole.
And of course the Spurs calmly sank four free throws to close out the game and perhaps any realistic hopes the Thunder had of winning this series.
The three big turnovers stand out because the Spurs got points off every one.
Westbrook about to try a left-handed pass (?) to an open Serge Ibaka (who was 5-for-6 on threes by the way) but changing his mind in mid-motion and then losing the handle. Aldridge was there to scoop up the mistake and toss to Leonard on a fast break. Ibaka stopped a dunk but Leonard converted the free throws.
A minute and a half later Russ tried to dribble between his legs but Leonard made the steal himself this time and hit a layup and then on the very next possession Durant tried a cross-court pass which ended up in the seats. He might have been passing to Westbrook or he might have been passing to Ibaka, at least those were the guys closest to where the ball ended up. David West his a bank shot right after.
Three Thunder turnovers caused by bad or maybe even reckless decisions leading directly to six San Antonio points in a game that finished with a four point margin.
You just have to shake your head sometimes.
“Can’t turn the ball over, especially with the game on the line, gotta do a better job and lock in,” Westbrook was talking about himself there and continued. “Gotta take responsibility when the ball’s in my hands and make plays for my teammates. I didn’t do that tonight.”
Westbrook usually does. He seems to relish giving up the ball to teammates who are then in a better position to score.
Last night Steven Adams, who was 5-for-6 in Game 2, took only one shot. Ibaka, probably didn’;t get the ball enough either, especially since he’s been blistering hot in the playoffs and perhaps the most shocking number of the night, Westbrook missed more shots (21) than Durant took (18).
Westbrook also admitted in the postgame interview session he took too many shots. He seemed to get frustrated by missing at the rim and being fouled on some of those drives but not getting the calls. So instead of driving and kicking, or continuing to attacks himself he settled for jumpers, 10 of them from out beyond the arc.
It all proved once again to be a deadly combination...for the Thunder.
This team has bounced back from disappointing losses before and likely will again Sunday night at The Peake.
But the reality of this season, turnovers and bad decisions at the most critical times, is clearly not something the Thunder can fix. Billy and Russ and KD can talk about learning from mistakes and getting better all they want.
But another reality is standing in their way now.
It is running out.