Horribly stung

Newspaper beat guy on this game:

Irritated fan on same game:

Knotted at 52 at halftime, the Hornets and the Thunder went their separate ways in the third, and I do mean separate: Charlotte prevailed in that quarter, 40-22, and that was the end of that. The final, almost irrelevant, was 116-103. And while every starter for both teams collected double figures, we’re talking night-and-day differences. You might have thought, for instance, that 91-year-old Dwight Howard had long since been buried, along with his legendarily iffy free-throw stroke. Not so. In half an hour, Howard produced a team-high 23 points on 9-13 shooting, pulled down seven rebounds, blocked two shots and hit 5-7 from the stripe. Kemba Walker? 6-13 for 19 points. Marvin Williams? 5-8 for 18. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? 8-9 for 17. Even Thunder outcast Jeremy Lamb managed 14 points. Meanwhile, the home team wasn’t getting near the cylinder. Russell Westbrook picked up 30, albeit on 22 shots. Paul George was 7-14 for 20. Steven Adams notched the only double-double of the night (11-10). But the bench was Fairbanks-cold, with eight players managing only 19 points. (Raymond Felton, 1 for 10? Since when?) Meanwhile, the Hornets were just flat hitting: 43 of 81 (53 percent), 13 of 25 treys (52 percent). Normally, you’d expect Andre Roberson to put a hitch in those numbers, but Dre got a little banged up against Memphis and was scratched before tipoff. At least the Thunder seemed to have recovered their free-throw mojo. knocking down 24 of 25. (Did Dre help by not being there? I’m not saying a word.)

So what happened? Let’s ask an actual NBA scribe:

The next three to lose, should that be the case, will be to Indiana, Philadelphia and New York.

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Knock-down and drag-out and whatever

There was this brief moment, around the 2:00 mark in the fourth quarter, when Russell Westbrook was guarding Marc Gasol. And the way this game went, it didn’t even seem weird. The Grizzlies were up 34-19 after the first quarter, and led 57-46 at the half. And then somehow the Thunder had a blah third quarter, but Memphis could manage only nine points in those 12 minutes. So suddenly it was a close game, and missed free throws on both sides left a 92-92 tie with 1.8 seconds left. Andrew Harrison blocked a Westbrook pullup at the horn, and while they had words with one another, overtime ensued. A Tyreke Evans trey within the last minute gave the Griz a 101-98 lead; Westbrook blasted to the rim, figuring a sure two was better than a dubious three, and JaMychal Green was fouled. Green promptly missed both free throws. At 5.2, Gasol got in the way of a Westbrook drive; Westbrook actually made both free throws for a 102-101 win as an Evans Hail Mary at the horn was swatted away by Andre Roberson.

Free throws, which once upon a time were specialties of these teams, were simply not being made: the Griz hit a dire 10-17, the Thunder a not-much-direr 18-31, both well short of the 60-percent mark that denotes a terrible performance. And OKC shot around 39 percent, versus 44 for Memphis. Evans led all scorers with a spiffy 29 and collected 13 rebounds; Gasol came up with 22, and Ben McLemore, with 17, ruled the plus/minus with +15. Marginally interesting sidelight: Alex Abrines, starting in the place of the wounded Paul George, made seven shots from the floor for 20 points, compared to Westbrook’s seven shots from the floor for 20 points. Difference: Señor Splash was 7-10 and 6-8 from long distance; Force Zero was 7-29 (!) and 1-12 (!!). Still, Westbrook posted a triple-double, 20-11-14. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams popped up 21 each, and each grabbed nine boards. And radio guy Matt Pinto wanted everyone to know that this was the second-largest comeback win for this team since ever: you’d have to check the Seattle numbers to find a bigger one.

The Hornets come to OKC for a Monday-night match, after which it’s on the road again, to Indiana, Philadelphia and New York. Things could get interesting, especially if the Thunder is expecting the Sixers to suck. They don’t.

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In the two-mile-high city

First off, why did this game begin at 9 pm? Mexico City is in the Central time zone, and if anyone in Brooklyn was watching, they had to start at ten. One might have expected some minor issues, with both Paul George and Jerami Grant a bit too sore to run. Even so, one didn’t expect to see Kyle Singler coming out in the first quarter. (Alex Abrines started at the two, with Andre Roberson moving to small forward. Sort of.) The Nets were missing Jeremy Lin. And as the game went on, Brooklyn got better, and the Thunder got worse; it was OKC by thirteen (33-20) after the first quarter, but the second and third belonged to the Nets (54-46), and the Thunder barely showed up for the fourth. Can’t be the altitude: Brooklyn’s a thousand feet closer to sea level than OKC. Whatever it was, it didn’t work for Oklahoma City, which lost its eighth straight road game, 100-95.

Let us say something kindly about Caris LeVert, a Brooklyn reserve swingman, who led all the Nets with 21 points, a career high, and 10 assists. LeVert also made six of seven free throws, one of the few players on either side who could get any numbers from the stripe. (The Nets hit only 17-28; the Thunder, 12-23.) And there was Quincy Acy, who always seems to step it up a notch against OKC: 11 points in 20 minutes. I’m sure no one expected 22 minutes from Singler, or an impromptu hair-restyling from Russell Westbrook.

One sort of expects that from the whitest guy in the league.

Next stop: Memphis, Saturday night, then back home for the Charlotte Hornets on Monday. Neither should provide much in the way of altitude issues.

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The occasional grace note

This Donovan Mitchell kid is really something. The rookie Utah guard, averaging about 16 points a game, nearly doubled himself up tonight, which required him to play a lot of minutes. And in those 36 minutes, he knocked out 31 points and pulled off five steals. But Andre Roberson managed to stop him when he had to stop him, which explains much about how the Thunder, down 17 points near the end of the third quarter, managed to beat the Jazz 100-94 and tie up the season series.

Roberson, +14 for the night, was a force to be reckoned with: despite only four points and four rebounds, he blocked three shots and kept Mitchell from running up 40, maybe 50. It didn’t hurt that the rest of the OKC starters scored like crazy towards the end: Paul George with 21, Steven Adams 20, Carmelo Anthony, and yes, another triple-double for that Westbrook guy, 34-13-14. It’s almost possible to ignore the feeble seven points produced by the Thunder reserves. Perhaps a better sign: OKC went 4-18 from the three-point circle, genuinely terrible, but in that fourth quarter, when the Thunder outscored the Jazz 32-14, they took only one long ball. (Fifty-eight points in the paint. Nyah.)

The Jazz were hurt, obviously, by Rudy Gobert’s continued convalescence: he’s still a power near and around the rim, but he’s not quite bestriding the post like a Colossus. Yet. And the Thunder have to play the Jazz twice more this season. Twice more this month, in fact. If that Mitchell kid can sustain what he did tonight, it’s going to be a very interesting pair of games. In the meantime, it’s off to Mexico City, against the Brooklyn Nets. I don’t think the Thunder will even notice that there isn’t a Taco Bell for several hundred miles.

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Underspurs

The Spurs have another game tomorrow — against the Pistons, probably a better team than the Thunder at this point — and the Popovich Protocol calls for the Big Names to rest a bit. So Rudy Gay, Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge were nonstarters in the most literal meaning of the word. That said, the second-string Spurs are no slouches, and with both Pau Gasol and Danny Green working limited minutes, they got a chance to strut their stuff, especially in the second half, when the Thunder have had problems of late. Down 54-43 at the half, San Antonio put together a 30-22 third quarter and actually took the lead in the fourth; a Brandon Paul trey with three seconds left fell short, and the Thunder managed a three-point win, 90-87.

Dejounte Murray, the Spurs’ second-year backup point guard, worked tremendously hard, picking up 17 points and 11 rebounds. Reserve forward Davis Bertans played the role of the sharpshooter, hitting 6-12 and 4-9 from outside for 16 points. And Thunder expat Joffrey Lauvergne piled up 12 points before fouling out. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook, despite blah shooting, collected another triple-double (22-10-10), and Steven Adams did another one of those double-double things, with 19 points and ten boards. One thing OKC did not do well was cash in at the foul line: they missed 11 of 21 free throws, which borders on atrocious — from underneath.

The Jazz will be here Tuesday, and then it’s off to — wait, what? — yes, Mexico City, to play the Brooklyn Nets. If I’m reading this right, the Nets are considered the home team. Ought to be fun.

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Teeth marks

Before tipoff tonight, the distance between the Timberwolves, tied for first in the Northwest Division, and the Thunder, all alone in the basement, was four games. Doesn’t sound like a lot, until you remember that Oklahoma City had won only eight games all season, none of them against Minnesota. And tonight’s game explains much about how this unhappy predicament came to be: the Thunder scored a whopping 42 points in the first quarter, stretched their lead past twenty, and for the rest of the game watched that lead dissipate. In the last minute or two, it was down to three, and at the 11.8 mark, an Andrew Wiggins pullup made it two. But this time we had some late-game heroics, with Paul George making four free throws in the waning moments and salting away a 111-107 win. PG-13 played 42 minutes and didn’t fade in the stretch: he rolled up 36 points, dished up nine assists, and hit the only three-pointer the Thunder got during that scary second half, not to mention those four free throws. In fact, he was 11-11 from the stripe. The only way to top this was what Steven Adams did: 11-11 from the floor (and 5-5 from said stripe) for a career-high 27 points.

The Wolves, as always, can hit from anywhere with anyone; Karl-Anthony Towns, despite five stitches early on from a head-on collision with Andre Roberson, came back with 23 points. (Roberson, who got four stitches, finished with 6.) Also with 23: Wiggins, who always seems to have at least 23. And Jeff Teague, without anyone noticing, put together the Wolves’ only double-double: 11 points/10 assists.

Russell Westbrook, for some reason, couldn’t hit squat: 6-21, 0-8 on three-pointers. Then again, who but Westbrook can fail to hit squat and almost get a triple-double (15-9-14) in so doing? Still, Single Zero was -3 for the night, compared to +18 for Adams — and +11 for Patrick Patterson, who took no shots at all but rebounded like crazy. (OKC rebounding advantage: 42-26. Now that’s more like it.)

Sunday night, the Spurs come to town. Kawhi Leonard is still out, which means San Antonio has only 99 ways to beat you to death. Let’s hope for the best.

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Have to believe they are

There’s something in the air around Orlando. Besides humidity, that is. The Thunder splashed 108 points tonight, Russell Westbrook collecting 37 of them, and they lost to the Magic by 13. About halfway through the third quarter, OKC was up by seven; the Magic promptly went on an improbable 26-3 run. Look at that again: 26-3. And consider that the Magic had dropped its last nine games. Now contemplate these facts. Aaron Gordon scored 20 points in the first half. In the second? Twenty more. (Plus 15 rebounds to go with those 40 points.) The Thunder took 96 shots and made 39 of them; the Magic put up only 76 — but made 45. That’s almost a 20-percent difference. And by losing by a count of 121-108, OKC finishes November with just about the worst record possible: 0 and whatever.

Nor was it all Gordon, who got 18 of those 40 points from outside the three-point line. Remarkably, the Thunder actually outrebounded Orlando, 47-37, although you really need an asterisk to deal with some of the weirder instances, such as Steven Adams bagging two fourth-chance points. (“Doesn’t that mean he missed a shot and two stickbacks?” Um, yes, it does. And Adams had a rough night, with six offensive rebounds, three on that possession, but only one defensive board and a mere six points.) You almost wonder if maybe Nick Collison could have done more if he’d been on the court for more than 16 seconds.

But maybe there’s something supernatural about these alleged Floridians. They split the series with Oklahoma City last year, despite nearly 100 points from Westbrook. (Fifty-seven in one of them, which OKC won by, um, eight. In overtime.) We’ll know for sure Friday night, when the Golden State Warriors come to Orlando. Then again, since the last time OKC beat Golden State, they’ve won … nothing.

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Failure to thrive

After beating the Warriors, the Thunder dropped one to the not-quite-as-good Detroit Pistons. That, at least, might have been forgivable. But then to drop one to the 4-15 Dallas Mavericks? All of a sudden you have to wonder if OKC’s early-season Elite-Adjacent placement was wishful thinking at best. The Thunder fell behind by as many as 26, and never got back to a single-digit margin: the 97-81 final was, at best, fairly dire.

Maybe it was just the festivities. Dallas guard Dennis Smith, Jr. turned 20 today, and he knocked down 15 points, second only to Dirk. (Yes, Dirk. Did you think he’d gone away?) Add to this Harrison Barnes’ 12-12 double-double, and you’ve got the makings of a close game with a .500 opponent. But this game wasn’t close, and OKC keeps falling farther away from .500. Russell Westbrook had a decent night, 28-12-9, but while Paul George, playing the role of the Secondary Ball Handler, did manage to serve up ten dimes, he made only one shot all night. Carmelo produced 16 points more or less on queue, but nobody else in Thunder blue came up with even ten. (Jerami Grant had nine, and a fairly inexplicable technical to go with it.) You don’t win many games with 36-percent shooting. They did pick up 37 percent on treys, but it took them 35 shots to get 30 points. The Mavs flung up 35 treys, but they got 15 of them to go. (Dirk had 4-7 from outside. Bless your heart, Dirk.)

So it’s off to Orlando on Wednesday. The Magic started strong, at 8-4, and then dropped eight in a row. Easy pickings? Probably not. And then comes a three-game home stand against some genuine non-slouches: the Timberwolves, the Spurs, and the Jazz. Two out of three have already beaten the Thunder, and the Jazz are nowhere near crummy enough to be considered pushovers.

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Lacking composure down the stretch

So said radio guy Matt Pinto late in the fourth quarter while the Thunder were passing around the ball without coming close to getting a good shot. Pinto probably would prefer that to the usual no-pass isolation shot for which the late-game Thunder is justly reviled, but the result was the same: no points. Which wouldn’t be so bad were it not for the fact that the Pistons moved into the lead early in the quarter and the Thunder couldn’t seem to catch up. With five seconds left, down 99-98, the Thunder, at midcourt, had to figure out where that last point would be coming from. Russell Westbrook guided the ball into the cylinder; the ball bounced back out, and Detroit picked up the win.

The box score looked odd: all the starters on both sides scored in double figures. Andre Drummond, even better known for his rebounding than for his scoring, had a nice 17-14 double-double; Reggie Jackson, who got the last two Pistons points from the charity stripe, finished with 12, though his understudy, Ish Smith, snagged 15, including three on a first-quarter buzzer-beater from, um, 60 feet away. Perhaps to remind us of the futility of statistics, Westbrook came up with another triple-double — 27-11-11 — though getting there was rather a lot less than half the fun, the Zero Man shooting a dismal 10-29, including 1-10 if there were three points at stake. Carmelo Anthony had 20, Paul George 16, but both missed more shots than they hit, meaning that the most consistent offense came from Steven Adams (12 points, 12 rebounds, 6-10 from the floor) and, yes, Andre Roberson, who went 4-5 for 10 points. Most of the team stats were fairly close, but the one that wasn’t is the one that loomed largest at the end: the Pistons were 14-37 (!) from beyond the arc, the Thunder a sad 8-32.

Dismal detail: on the first night of a back-to-back, the Thunder are 0-4. However, they’ve won two of three on the back side. Does this mean anything? Not in the least. Tomorrow night in Dallas, where the Mavericks are 2-9 at home. Do not be fooled.

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Mirabile dictu

First, the bad news: the Thunder’s fourth quarter was about as lackluster as their last half-dozen fourth quarters. The good news: they absolutely ruled during the first 36 minutes, running up a lead (!) on the Warriors (!!) as high as 26 points, leading ESPN’s Royce Young to ask:

For the record, I said 29. After all, it wasn’t that long ago — two games, I think — that Golden State was down more than 20 at halftime and still pulled out a win.

[Two games it was. The 76ers were up 74-52 at halftime, but the Warriors blitzed them 47-15 in the third and won by eight.]

But when the Warriors were well into the fourth and still double digits out, Steve Kerr found a traveling-white flag to wave, the starters were pulled, and it ended Oklahoma City 108, Golden State 91. If you gotta break a losing streak, this is the way to do it, and the sideshows — Draymond Green collected a technical for his eternal scowl, and double Ts were levied against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — will put this one into the history books.

How was this even possible? Twenty-two Warrior turnovers, from which the Thunder wrung 34 points, and actual shooting from the Thunder shooters. Westbrook: 34-10-9 on 13-27. Carmelo Anthony: 22 points on 8-17. Paul George: 20 points, 11 rebounds, 8-19. Steven Adams: 14-12 on 4-8. (Yeah, the bench only scored 12, half of them from Raymond Felton. You’ll get over it.)

The two guys you’d expect to garner points for Golden State did so: KD and Steph Curry each picked up 24 points — and minus-17s for their trouble. Green didn’t make a shot until the third quarter, and Klay Thompson was an improbable 3 of 12, though he got 9 points for his trouble. A lot of it, though, was simply not having the ball. (See “turnovers,” supra.) The Warriors got ten fewer shots (and eight fewer makes), and rebounds, to the tune of 50-38, belonged to OKC.

Is this some sort of turning point for the Thunder? That 14-point fourth quarter says “Not necessarily.” We’ll know more Friday night, with Andre Drummond and the Pistons in town to try to clear those boards.

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Pecked to death

The New Orleans Pelicans pay attention. Recent events would persuade even the casual viewer that the way to handle the Thunder is to let them run up a big lead early on and then watch them fritter it away, a little at a time, until it’s too late for the boys in blue to do anything about it. The big lead here, halfway through the first quarter, was 25-6. By the end of the first, Oklahoma City led by only 9; they stayed at about that distance for the next 12 minutes, and then totally fell apart. The Pelicans took the lead before the end of the third, and with 18.5 seconds left, the Bad Birds had themselves an unsurmountable lead. Yeah, I know: it was only six points. But in terms of sheer clutch, the Thunder seem to have burned up their pressure plate. And Anthony Davis, always a threat to OKC, was even more so than usual tonight, nailing 36 points and grabbing 15 rebounds as the Pelicans won by, um, seven: 114-107. And it might have been worse had not DeMarcus Cousins elbowed Russell Westbrook in the face midway through the third, earning a Flagrant Two and a free trip to the locker room.

That Davis line is instructive: 18 of 22 free throws, 9-19 from the floor, and only one futile trey attempt. The Pelicans shot 50 percent or better most of the night, finishing at 51. As is Alvin Gentry’s wont, the New Orleans reserves didn’t get much in the way of playing time, though Darius Miller’s 11 off the bench trumped any individual Thunder reserve. (Jerami Grant was the closest, with 10.) So dire was the situation that a Westbrook triple-double (22-16-12) wasn’t enough to save the day.

Were the Thunder thinking forward to the holidays? Not likely. Were they thinking forward to Wednesday and the Warriors? Possibly more likely. I suggest black ops: call up P. J. Dozier from the Sports Drink League. You’ll recognize him at once: he wears number 35.

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They knew it wouldn’t last

Of the Elite-Adjacent teams in the NBA, the Thunder have generally had the best luck, or perhaps the least bad luck, against the Spurs. And in San Antonio tonight, OKC ran off an 18-0 run in the first quarter on the way to a 23-point lead; the Spurs diligently chipped away at that lead. The fourth quarter opened to a 78-78 tie, and as they so often do, the Spurs managed to outexecute the competition. It didn’t help that the Thunder got the back of the zebras’ hooves in that fourth quarter; it also didn’t help that Paul George took four free throws in the waning moments and managed to collect only two points. A busted play seemed to bring on the horn that much closer — there’s some of that bad luck, since the Spurs didn’t have to do much beyond watch Russell Westbrook stumble — and San Antonio won it 104-101, starting up OKC’s two-game road trip behind the eight-ball.

Still, many of the numbers were close. Item: OKC shot 39-88, 44.3 percent; the Spurs hit 34-78, 43.8. But some were less close. Item: San Antonio made 14 of 35 treys for 40 percent; the Thunder, nine of 23 for 39.1. And some weren’t close at all. Item: The Spurs were 24-28 from the free-throw line, the Thunder 14-23, a good twelve percentage points (and 10 points, not inconsiderable in a three-point game).

LaMarcus Aldridge gave OKC the most trouble, pulling in 26 points and nine rebounds, five off the offensive glass. Danny Green scored 17 and took away four steals; Pau Gasol picked up 14 and a +21 for the night. The usual suspects accounted for most of the OKC scoring, with Carmelo at 20, George at 18, and Westbrook’s line was a curious 15-9-9. Shooting 5-22 will do that to you.

Not that they’re going that particular route, but the Thunder get to head east on old US 90 to New Orleans, where the Pelicans will be waiting on Sunday. The Bad Birds are 8-7 at this writing, a game in front of OKC for the moment. And they’ll have to be in the moment to win that one, because it’s too easy to be distracted by the coming of the Warriors.

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The night Chicago tried

In 1974, British songwriters Mitch Murray and Peter Callendar put together a semi-historical pop tune, a hit for Paper Lace in the UK and for Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods in the US. It was legitimately tuneful, but the Brits weren’t at all familiar with the City of the Big Shoulders: the narrative takes place on the “east side of Chicago,” which would be somewhere in the middle of Lake Michigan.

This year’s Chicago Bulls seem to be treading water: they’ve won only two of their first twelve games. And they didn’t start out auspiciously tonight: after 12 minutes, they’d scored a feeble seven points. When you come out for the second quarter down 20, and for the second half down 24, it’s very easy to say “Fark it, the next one can’t be this bad.” They didn’t say that, though, and for the last two periods they outscored the Thunder 45-34 for a reasonably respectable 92-79 final. And if the Bulls generated some terrible stats along the way, so did OKC: Chicago shot 26-75 from the floor, which is a pretty dire 35 percent, but the Thunder nearly matched for direness, at 26-72 for 36 percent. And the Bulls were better, if not exactly good, on the long ball, hitting 11 of 29; OKC put up 30 and saw only eight go in.

In fact, this may tell you everything you need to know about the game: Carmelo Anthony was back, and posted a double-double — 18 points, 11 rebounds — despite shooting a beyond-mediocre 3-10. (Off the bench, Jerami Grant produced a 15-11 line hitting five of nine.) Melo did, however, stroke sweetly from the stripe, hitting 11 of 12; the Bulls in aggregate made 16 of 20. Chicago’s big scorers were starting power forward Lauri Markkanen and reserve point guard Antonio Blakeney, each with 16. That Westbrook fellow? Twenty-one, but nothing like his triple-double days.

On the road again: Friday at San Antonio, Monday at New Orleans, just in time to welcome the Warriors next Wednesday. And as Pete Callendar noted, every place has an east side, doesn’t it?

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Go ask Dallas

The Mavericks have not been doing well this season, and the faint scent of Trap Game filled the arena, especially since the Thunder are now missing two starters: Carmelo Anthony reported in with back pain, and Steven Adams still has yet to recover from his calf contusion. Dallas was missing three players — Seth Curry, Josh McRoberts, and Devin Harris — and this is Dirk’s 20th season. The perfect time for the Mavericks to pull off the upset. But it didn’t happen: despite some serious brilliance from Harrison Barnes and some sturdy plays from the new guys, the Mavs stayed behind so long that Kyle Singler got to play. And both Paul George and Russell Westbrook had semi-epic performances, PG-13 tossing up 37 points and Brodie following with 27. At the end, it was Oklahoma City 112, Dallas 99, the Thunder shooting a solid 50 percent and a way-better-than-average 15-32 on the long ball.

Things we’d like to have explained: How come Wesley Matthews didn’t make but one point all night? Since when does Dirk argue with the officials? (He got a T for his trouble.) And whatever happened to OKC board domination? The Mavs outrebounded the Thunder, 41-37. Meanwhile, Josh Huestis made three of seven treys in 22 minutes, during which time he rolled up six personal fouls. I don’t think Billy Donovan groused too much: OKC made 25 of 33 free throws, which is not good, but Dallas only took 18, making 14. The one double-double for the night: Barnes, with 22 points and 13 rebounds.

One game remaining on the home stand: the Bulls will be here Wednesday, and we should see a Grant Brothers tieup. (Jerami, if ‘Melo is still out, will start for the Thunder; brother Jerian plays for Chicago.) If OKC prevails, they’ll be back to .500.

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Fire rekindled

It takes some doing to blow an entire 20-point lead, but the Thunder managed exactly that tonight; early in the third, they led the Clippers 82 to 62, but at the 5:36 mark, it was 105-105. It’s as though the well-oiled machine suddenly starts coughing, sounding like Jack Benny’s old Maxwell. But at some point, the Marvel Mystery Oil started working: by the time the clock dropped below 1:00, the Thunder had outscored Los Angeles 14-4, and the Clips weren’t going anywhere. The final was Oklahoma City 120, Los Angeles 111, and “Takin’ Care of Business” played as the fans headed for the exits.

What was different about this game, after that string of losses? Steven Adams was hors de combat with a calf contusion, and Dakari Johnson (!) started in the middle for the very first time. For the 23 minutes he was there, Johnson almost made you forget about the Kiwi Kid: he wasn’t the strongest rebounder to be seen, but he shot decently (3-5 from the floor, 3-8 at the stripe, nine points) and wound up +26 for the night, second only to Paul George — and PG-13 had a phenomenal night, with 42 points. With that much going on, Russell Westbrook was content to run distribution: 22 points, three rebounds, eight assists. And all those rebounds Westbrook might have gotten went to Andre Roberson, who pulled down eleven of them.

Much is said about Blake Griffin, most of it deserved, but historically, no current Clipper has been as hazardous to the Thunder’s health as Lou Williams, who came off the bench to rack up 35 points in 39 minutes. (Griffin had an okay 17, but it took him 19 shots to get there.) Austin Rivers, expected to be off for the night, played through the presumed pain and scored 17 of his own. And in the two-spot for the night was the wondrously named Sindarius Thornwell: it was the rookie’s first taste of double figures. The Clips owned the boards, 46-40, but did not assist well (13-23).

Up next: the seemingly anemic Dallas Mavericks, winners of two of their first twelve, on Sunday night in front of Loud City.

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Ta-ra-ra Mudiay

Emmanuel Mudiay wears number zero for the Denver Nuggets, which inevitably invites comparisons to that other point guard, the one in Thunder blue, who wears the cipher. Tonight, anyway, Mudiay finished with the more inspiring line: he didn’t miss a shot until the 1:30 mark, and finished 8-10, 4-4 from the three-point circle, one free throw, seven rebounds, five assists. A team-high 21 points, off the bench, even. Russell Westbrook also got seven rebounds and five assists, but shot a dire 6-22, 1-6 on the long ball, and missed all three of his free throws. Thirteen points. Not good. But maybe it didn’t matter so much: the Thunder are still having problems executing late, and the Nuggets were happy to commit a shot-clock violation in the closing seconds. Raymond Felton got a totally useless layup near the end, and Mudiay dribbled it out. Denver 102, Oklahoma City 94, the Thunder’s seventh loss against four wins.

For OKC, Carmelo Anthony did most of the heavy offensive lifting, with 28 points on 10-20, 6 of 10 from outside. PG-13 pulled 13 points. Felton’s last-second layup gave him 12, to lead the bench. Meanwhile, Paul Millsap picked up 17 for the Nuggets, and Nikola Jokić got the night’s only double-double, 15 points and 11 baords. Denver collected one more rebound than OKC; perhaps more important, Denver rang up assists on 27 of 38 made shots. The Thunder hit the same 38 shots (in eight more tries), but only managed 16 assists.

So this road trip was a total bust. The Los Angeles Clippers will be waiting when the Thunder get home. The Clips may not be at full strength: Blake Griffin will likely be his usual borderline-thespian self, but Danilo Gallinari and Austin Rivers are both unwell, and Patrick Beverley’s status is, well, Patrick Beverley. It would be nice to win that one at home, but it’s hardly a certainty, if you know what I mean.

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Kings rule

What do you do when you run out to a 25-10 lead in the first twelve minutes? If you’re the Oklahoma City Thunder, you do an abrupt about-face and score 16 in the second. And 16 in the third. The Kings were up 67-57 at the beginning of the fourth, and when a 1-8 team is up ten on you, you’ve got problems. OKC pulled to within one a couple of times, and promptly dropped back both times. At the two-minute mark, Sacramento led 85-80. With 16 seconds left, it was 89-86, following a Russell Westbrook trey, but that would be the last points the Thunder would score. The Kings, 94-86 winners, are now 2-8, and the Thunder fall to an ignominious 4-6.

For the most part, the Kings starters have been no big deal this season. But the bench tonight was superb, with Buddy Hield at a game-high 21, Justin Jackson 16, and De’Aaron Fox 10. And old reliable Zach Randolph, thought to be dead in the first half, knocked down 18, all in the second. OKC had five in double figures, including a Westbrook double-double (20 points/12 rebounds), but the Thunder shot a dire 34 percent. Worse, they put up 37 treys and made only ten. And the Kings, hitherto the worst-rebounding team in the entire Association, ruled the boards, 47-44.

Things may get better, or they may not. Last stop on this road trip: Denver. So far, Oklahoma City has beaten no one in the Western Conference, and the Nuggets, who beat the Brooklyn Nets tonight, aren’t likely to roll over and die. And once that’s done with, it’s back home on a back-to-back, against the Clippers. Yikes.

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And so it goes

It didn’t happen until the third quarter, but it seems to have set the mood for the entire evening:

Yep. Melo drew a Flagrant Two, which earned a trip to the locker room and two free throws for Jusuf Nurkić, tickled by Anthony on that play. Said ESPN’s Royce Young: “I mean … if this is ejection worthy, you’re gonna see four or five ejections a game now.”

That said, the Thunder messed up enough on their own without having to blame one particularly egregious call (and several less so). As has been the case all season, when this team is good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are wretched. The Trail Blazers led 78-67 after three quarters. Slowly OKC began to get a grip on things. With 3:40 left, they’d cut Portland’s lead to three; they’d get it down to two. With 20.5 left and the Blazers up four, Russell Westbrook missed on a trey but drew a foul; he then missed the first two free throws, deliberately missed the third — and got hit with a lane violation. And that was pretty much the end of that; with five seconds left, Damien Lillard dropped in two free throws, his 14th and 15th, and the horn seemed to be saying “Finally.” Portland 103, Oklahoma City 99, and the Thunder haven’t won a game at the Moda Center since before it was the Moda Center.

Pretty much all the Blazers’ offense came from three players: Lillard (36 points/13 assists), Nurkić (25), and C. J. McCollum (22). But it’s just about all they needed. All the Portland starters finished on the plus side, all the Thunder starters on the minus. (The reverse was true for the reserves, with Raymond Felton (15) outscoring the entire Blazers bench.) ‘Melo had 15 points before being thumbed; Paul George came up with a respectable 27, and Westbrook managed 25 despite shooting 10-25 and 2-7 from the stripe.

So OKC has yet to beat anyone from the West. They’ll get their next chance on Tuesday at Sacramento.

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Like a Bosstown

The Celtics without Gordon Hayward are damned near as scary as the Celtics with Gordon Hayward. It took a while for them to get going — the Thunder dominated the first half, jumping out to a 55-37 lead — but the second half was all Beantown, with the Celtics doing a 30-16 number on OKC in the third quarter, tying it up halfway through the fourth, and shortly thereafter jumping ahead, including an unheard-of 5-point play. (Kyrie Irving nailed a trey, Russell Westbrook fouled him, and while Irving missed the free throw, no one boxed him out and he promptly stuck it back.) With Irving and Al Horford doing the heavy lifting, the Thunder could come no closer than a single digit, and the Celtics went home with a 101-94 win, their seventh W in a row after starting 0-2.

Consider this: Irving got all of three points in the first half. He had 22 in the second. And Horford was 8-10 — 4-4 from outside the circle — for his 20 points, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter. The Celtics shot only 43 percent, but the Thunder barely broke 40. There were three Thunder double-doubles, but the guys getting them didn’t shoot all that well: Westbrook 7-20 for 19; Paul George 9-20 for 25; Carmelo Anthony 3-17 for 10. (The Celtics had one double-double: swingman Jaylen Brown, who scored only 10 but hauled in 12 rebounds.) Boston had a narrow 49-48 rebounding edge, and a less-narrow 23-20 on assists.

Things may not get better on the road: the first stop, on Sunday, is Portland, where the Thunder haven’t won in literally years. (Seven games in a row; let’s call it three and a half years.) And then it will be: Tuesday at Sacramento; Thursday at Denver; and then back home Friday, where the Clippers will be waiting. A 2-2 split will leave OKC at 6-6, assuming they can get a 2-2 split.

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No fawning

However hot these Bucks may have been, the Thunder came up with a way to cool them off. The worry, that no one would be able to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, was dealt with in a most expedient fashion: they more or less conceded him his points — the big Greek scored a game-high 28, a smidgen below his average — and concentrated on keeping him out of circulation and, if possible, making him foul. (Which he did, four times, three in the first half.) With that problem solved, the Thunder defense put the kibosh on the rest of the team — no other Deer made it to double figures — and the offense collected enough points to make it easy. The final was 110-91, and it wasn’t really as close as it sounded.

A few things didn’t happen for OKC: Carmelo Anthony’s streak of 20-plus games ended (he had 17), and Russell Westbrook missed a triple-double by one dime (12-10-9). But Steven Adams had another double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), and not only did Andre Roberson hit an actual trey, he made both his foul shots. Add Paul George’s 20, and Jerami Grant’s 17, and you have the sort of numbers that usually imply a team more than one game over .500.

The Milwaukee bench were pretty spirited for the minutes they got to play; seven of them got in, and all of them scored at least once. (DeAndre Liggins, who played for OKC in 2012-13, knocked down a three-pointer just in time for radio guy Matt Pinto to point out that Liggins is not a three-point shooter.) And the Bucks had the edge in assists, 24-23, though they were crushed on the boards, 46-31.

There’s lots of rest time between getting back from Milwaukee and greeting the Celtics on Friday night. After that, it’s a West Coast tour: Portland, Sacramento, and (not really all that coastal) Denver. The Thunder has been doing better against Eastern teams than against teams in the West, but then again, we’re only seven games into the season.

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