Fourteen seconds into Sunday nightâ€™s game, Jeff Green sank a 20-foot jump shot off a feed from Russell Westbrook to give the Thunder a 2-0 lead over Utah.
The play couldnâ€™t have been more costly.
The Thunder, it seemed, saw similar long-range shots as the key to success from that point on. As a result, Oklahoma City suffered its first defeat of 2010-11 â€” a 120-99 loss to a determined Jazz team seeking its first victory of the year.
Offense wasnâ€™t the primary problem Sunday. Defense was. The Thunder allowed the Jazz to shoot 53 percent, score 18 second-chance points and rack up a whopping 32 assists.
But OKC showed in its first two outings that it can withstand dents in its defense. What the Thunder canâ€™t afford to do is mix shaky defense and settling on offense.
In its first two games, the Thunder shot 91 free throws, 47 in the opener and 44 at Detroit. At halftime against the Jazz, the Thunder had just 11 foul shots. The 12th and 13th attempts didnâ€™t come until Westbrook converted a pair with 6:22 left in the third quarter.
That was good enough to cut the deficit to 25.
The Thunder shot 32 of 80 from the field. Twenty-three of the teamâ€™s misses came from beyond 17 feet.
â€œWe were thinking that we were going to be able to score with this team,â€ said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Through three games, the Thunderâ€™s offense has been horrific. The team is shooting 39.9 percent from the field and has made just 11 of 53 3-pointers, a paltry 20.7 percent. That is why free throws had been, and figure to continue to be, the saving grace until the sharpshooters show up.
â€œWhen the shots arenâ€™t falling, you got to make plays at the basket,â€ Brooks said. â€œAnd weâ€™ve got some athletic guys that can put the ball on the floor and score and attack the basket and also attack for others.â€
OKC had been excellent at that in its first two games. The Thunder entered Sundayâ€™s game averaging 45.5 foul shots in its first two games but dropped to 41.6 per game after its 34 attempts against the Jazz. The aggressiveness that led to many of those 34 attempts came much too late in the ballgame.
But when the Thunder remains in attack mode for four quarters, the free-throw line can become an unstoppable assault. The Thunder ranked third with an average of 27 attempts last year and saw its 80.5 percent conversion rate rank second.
Unlike last year, though, the Thunder now has multiple players who are able to march to the stripe at will. Kevin Durant led the league with 10.2 attempts last year, and Westbrook finished second on the team with exactly half of Durantâ€™s average. James Harden ranked third on the Thunder with 3.2 attempts.
While itâ€™s still early, Westbrook has increased his average to 10.3, while Green has boosted his trips to eight a game to go with Durantâ€™s 11.6. Those figures undoubtedly will fall. But Green has proven he can get to the foul line from working off the left block, and Westbrookâ€™s explosiveness could soon rank him near Durant in free throw attempts.
When the Thunder settles, however, losses like Sundayâ€™s become the result when there is no defense is sight.