WASHINGTON — Before the opening quarter had grown eight minutes old, a female fan seated in Section 119 pulled out a stack of papers and a purple highlighter. While her boyfriend appeared focused on the action that actually brought the couple out, the woman deemed it a better use of her time to review a market report for her consulting company.
By the midway point of the third quarter, an adult male fan halfway down Section 102 was slumped in his seat…sleeping.
Throughout the remainder of the arena, rows and rows of empty seats represented the apathy that has set in for fans of the professional basketball team in our nation's capital.
This, much more than the league-worst Washington Wizards, was what the Thunder was up against on Wednesday night. It was the ultimate test of mental fortitude, an opponent headed nowhere fast, looking for a fleeting, feel-good win against basketball's best team, whose lone goal is centered on a championship and whose preseason objective on the journey there was to not get bored with blips like these on the NBA schedule.
And, boy, did Oklahoma City blow it?
The Thunder got hit in the mouth early and often before the final haymaker finished it off and resulted in Oklahoma City walking out of town with a 105-102 loss that snapped a seven-game winning streak.
After the game, few in the Thunder's party chose to concede that they actually had fallen prey to the same pitfall of indifference that pervaded the Verizon Center. But it was clear to everyone that the Thunder was as bored as the lady with the highlighter.
“We weren't as focused as we needed to be, for sure,” forward Nick Collison finally admitted. “We've been much sharper than that for a lot of the season. So we were nowhere near as focused as we needed to be.”
The Thunder fell to 12-3, which still has it atop the Western Conference standings. But you can't help but think about what could have been. Entering the Wizards game, the Thunder's next five opponents had a combined record of 15-52. The Wizards were the most woeful, coming into the night just 1-12 after losing by a league-worst average margin of 11.85 points.
When the Wizards walked out of the first period trailing by only four — thanks in large part to six Thunder turnovers that told the story of OKC's stoical approach — the probability of this outcome occurring became predictable.
“When you give any team confidence in this league, you always expect a fourth-quarter game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
But even as the league's most inept team gift-wrapped the game and prepared to serve it on a platter by converting just 12 of 20 free throws in the final 3 1/2 minutes, the Thunder's utter disregard prevented it from accepting it. Nothing hammered home that point more than the Wizards' fifth-to-last trip to the stripe.
Washington guard Jordan Crawford made the first of two to give the Wizards a five-point lead with 30.9 seconds remaining. He clanged the second, giving the Thunder a shot to make it a one-possession game and put enormous pressure on Washington to get a bucket in the closing seconds. But the Thunder watched second-year forward Trevor Booker and his 79 games of experience rebound the miss under the board. When Booker missed a point-blank layup, Crawford recovered the ricochet that had squirted out near the sideline.
“They just played harder than us,” said forward Kevin Durant.
In what has become a recurring theme for Thunder opponents through the first 15 games, Washington bullied Oklahoma City on the boards, out-rebounding the Thunder 52-43, including an eye-popping 19-6 advantage on the offensive end. Wizards center JaVale McGee (game-high 11 rebounds) and power forward Andray Blatche (10 rebounds) both finished with double-digit rebound performances. Together, they had more offensive rebounds (nine) than the Thunder had as a team.
That inability to close out possessions, coupled with poor offense that was defined by a lack of ball movement (15 assists) and too many turnovers (21) ultimately is what doomed the Thunder.
In spite of it all, OKC had one final chance to tie the game in the closing seconds. Durant, however, saw his 27-foot 3-point attempt from the top of the arc bounce off the right of the iron with 1.9 seconds remaining, trickling the final seconds off the clock as teammate Thabo Sefolosha scrambled for a rebound. Though from a different spot, it was the same shot, off the same play, that Durant drilled at the buzzer against Dallas on Dec. 29. This time, though, the Wizards fought harder through the double screen set by James Harden and Kendrick Perkins and forced Durant into a second option rather than a rhythmic catch-and-shoot.
“I still got a wide-open look,” Durant said. “I just happened to not make it. It happens, man.”
It wasn't supposed to, a loss like this.
Not this year.