CLEVELAND — The last four losses have come by a combined five points.
On the season, Oklahoma City has lost seven games by three points or less and nine games by five points or less.
Surely there is sunshine at the end of this streak, right?
The Thunder has been left with no choice but to believe that following the latest last-second letdown, a 100-99 defeat in which LeBron James dominated down the stretch Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We’re getting stronger and stronger,” assured Russell Westbrook.
But when will these cubs develop a lion’s roar?
The progress is palpable. Last season, the Thunder lost 19 games by five points or less, the third most defeats by that margin. But already, the Thunder has turned some of those close losses into narrow victories. OKC has won seven games by five points or less at just over the halfway point in the season. It’s evidence that the Thunder not only is now competing consistently and giving itself a chance to win these close games but also learning how to close them out.
Looks on faces and the tone in voices inside the locker room Saturday said frustration has set in. But behind every admission of how tough these close defeats have been to bear came an assurance of how they will only make the Thunder better. No one walked out of the locker room with their head hung following the heart-breaker. Instead, players sounded eager to get back to practice, the only place they can apply and build on the lessons the Cavs and others have taught them.
“I am so proud of their toughness,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They are mentally tough. It is tough to lose the last four games by a total of four points. But they keep coming back. I don’t know if they know what they go through, but it’s a special group of guys that just love to compete for each other. These are tough losses. But you have to go through some tough losses to understand what it takes to win in this league and to win big in this league.”
Brooks went on to talk about how the Thunder is built to compete every night. And moments later, Westbrook backed up his coach before taking it a step further, boldly declaring what has long been evident.
“We think we can beat pretty much any team as long as we go out and compete every night and do what we need to do as a team,” Westbrook said.
The statement confirmed what Thabo Sefolosha said about the Thunder’s confidence.
“The confidence of the team, the confidence of the whole group, is as high as it can be,” Sefolosha said. “Even though we lost two in a row, we know what we have to do to win. So (confidence) can’t really get much higher right now. We just have to keep working as a team.”
And hope that soon a ray of sunshine will crack through this cloud of close losses.
- LeBron James’ block on Kevin Durant obviously was the play of the game.
- I would have liked to have seen Durant make a stronger move with the game on the line rather than relying on an off-balance, high-arching, left-handed prayer that had no chance of being answered with LeBron swooping. Give credit to Durant for taking it to the rim, though. Remember early this season when he settled for a 26-footer?
- Also give credit to coach Scott Brooks and the five Thunder players on the court on the last sequence for drawing up and executing a solid play. Again, rewind your mental DVRs to remember how some of these last-second sequences have played out for the Thunder.
- There is no way the Cavs should have won this game after blowing a 13-point lead, turning the ball over 17 times and missing 20 of 40 free throws. Goes to show how dominant LeBron is, I suppose.
- Shaquille O’Neal was huge for the Cavs. Some people think the Thunder actually have a better chance of winning against the Cavs with O’Neal in the lineup and San Antonio with Tim Duncan healthy. But even though Shaq might not be what he once was, tonight’s game roved he’s still a handful inside.
- Nenad Krstic did as good a job on Shaq as he could have, which on this night was not very good. Fortunately for Krstic, though, he made up for it on the offensive end, where he made Shaq respect his jumper.
- Krstic told me before the game that the cast he’s wearing on his sprained right thumb was pressing against the back of his thumb and into his wrist. That’s why he removed some of the wrapping Friday in Memphis. Krstic said he shot his first two free throws against the Grizzlies (both misses) without the ball ever touching anything more than his fingertips. But Krstic said the injury is starting to heal.
- I didn’t know Jawad Williams was in the NBA. I do now. His 12 points were a career-high and matched his point total from all of last season (10 games).
THEY SAID IT
- Scott Brooks on LeBron James: “He’s a special player. He does incredible things, and he makes it look very easy.”
- Kevin Durant on his driving layup attempt: “I was looking straight at the basket and i didn’t see who was behind me. (LeBron) made a good play. But I was trying to be aggressive. That’s all I was trying to do.”
- LeBron James on his game-saving block: “(Kevin) is an unbelievable player. I take just as much pride on the offensive end as I do on the defensive end. He isolated me at the top. All game I was thinking he’s been facing up and going right to get a lot of good looks. I tried to force him left to give him a different look, then stay on his hip to make a play on the ball and get a game-winning block. That was big.”
- James on his game-winning assist to Daniel Gibson: “They were up one and after Westbrook missed the shot, I pushed the ball up the court. The whole defense was geared toward me. And I have a lot of confidence in him. I found him streaking down the left wing and I gave him a perfect pass and he knocked down the biggest shot of the game.”
- Gibson on LeBron’s block on Durant: “That put the icing on the cake right there.”
- Shaquille O’Neal on James’ block: “That’s why he’s the best player in the game now. He’s a team player, gives up the ball and makes the big shots.”
- Shaq on his skeptics: “The only skeptics that can skepticize me are the skeptics that have been where I’ve been.”
- Cavs coach Mike Brown on Shaq: “Shaq kept us in the game, especially when there were droughts that we went through of not being able to score. We were able to play through him and he was able to pick up fouls on our opponent and get us in the bonus early so we could get to the free throw line 40 times.”
- Brown on LeBron: “LeBron has played fantastic basketball as of late. This stretch of six games or so, dating back to Utah or even a couple games before that, he has played extremely well. He has been very aggressive, taken terrific shots at the right time, passed the ball at the right time, defended, brought us energy and juice, rebounded and has just played like he is head and shoulders above a lot of people right now…He put us on his shoulders again tonight and hit some big shots for us time and time again.”
BY THE NUMBERS
0: Blocks by the Thunder, a season-low.
10: Rebounds by Kevin Durant, a game-high.
13: Largest lead by the Cavs.
20: Missed free throws by Cleveland.
22: Points by Shaquille O’Neal, a season-high.
38.4: Percent shooting by OKC, the lowest since Nov. 22 against the Lakers.
40: Free throw attempts by Cleveland, tying an opponent season-high for OKC.
20,562: Announced attendance inside Quicken Loans Arena.