Late-game execution escaped Oklahoma City again in a 96-95 loss to Houston on Wednesday night inside the Toyota Center.
But unlike past performances — most notably last year's Western Conference Finals — the team's crunch-time struggles in this one weren't solely a product of settling for jump shots. This time, the Thunder tried different means of manufacturing some pivotal points.
The iron was just too unkind.
Long-range shots lipped out. Mid-range shots missed the mark. Driving shots didn't go. And point-blank looks, the most critical being a 3-foot tip-in attempt by Russell Westbrook with 3.2 seconds remaining, even refused to drop.
After making 10 of its first 15 shots in the fourth quarter, the Thunder missed its last nine attempts in the final 2 minutes, 10 seconds. The last hoist, however, was a desperation fling from three-quarters court by Westbrook.
“Down the stretch, we missed some shots that were good looks,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “We normally would make a few of those. We had good rhythm in that fourth quarter, and then we just couldn't make a basket. But they were good looks. The execution was good.”
Many national analysts have labeled the Thunder a jump-shooting team, some even going as far as predicting that recipe will fail to harvest positive results come playoff time. Three of the final eight meaningful attempts Wednesday were indeed 3-point launches, but none were forced and all were relatively sound shots given the time and score.
The other five attempts all came from 16 feet and in, three of them from 10 feet or closer and two being layups.
Kevin Durant, who on Jan. 7 in this same building lifted the Thunder to a three-point win by burying the go-ahead jumper with 22 seconds remaining, uncharacteristically misfired on four straight attempts. He saw a 15-footer from the left elbow rim out, a 3-pointer and a 16-footer fail to go and a 10-foot runner bounce long. Westbrook rebounded Durant's final miss by tapping it straight back toward the rim, but it rolled off as well.
The Rockets, meanwhile, pulled within 95-94 on a putback layup by Kyle Lowry before taking the lead on a pair of foul shots by Kevin Martin with 23.6 left to play.
“At the end of games, those are great looks. Not good looks. Those are great looks,” Brooks said, altering his choice of words after a minute of reflection. “Our guys are going to make those shots more times than not.”
The Thunder fell to 22-7 after a defeat that certainly felt like foreign territory. Oklahoma City entered the night 5-1 in games decided by four points or less. The lone loss was a three-point stunner at Washington back on Jan. 18. Save that blemish, and a stinker down the stretch at Sacramento, the Thunder has been terrific this season in late-game situations.
“It happens like that sometimes,” said Westbrook, who finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “It wasn't a bad loss. We fought. It wasn't like we gave up or anything.”
Durant scored a game-high 33 points with eight rebounds, and James Harden added 17 points off the bench.
Turnovers, though, were much more of a problem than too many jump shots. The Thunder finished with 22 turnovers, leading to 26 Rockets points. In the fourth quarter, the Thunder had six, but only two were in the final five minutes. Westbrook (six) and Durant (four), the All-Star duo who entered the night as the league's highest turnover tandem with 223 turnovers, combined for 10.
As a team, the Thunder entered Wednesday leading the league in turnovers at 16.89 per game. OKC is now up to 17.1.
“The thing is, what we've been trying to correct all season long and we must get better at, is the turnovers,” Brooks said. “I don't know how we do it. We're in every game and we give up the ball too many times.”