Why aren’t the Thunder beating the league’s elite teams?

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This season against the league’s top four teams — Miami, San Antonio, Memphis and Denver — the Thunder are just 3-9.

Against the rest of the league, the Thunder are 47-10 with a double-digit scoring margin.

That’s got some concerned. And for very good reasons. The Thunder beat up on bad, average and even good teams. They’re completely rolling about 85 percent of the league. But against the top 15 percent, OKC hasn’t had much success at all, especially lately where they’ve lost their last five against those top four teams.

(Now, the Thunder are 3-0 against the Clippers, a top four Western team, but also one than many agree is fool’s gold. Add in those wins and the Thunder are 6-9 against the league’s top five. Still not great.)

In those 12 games against the top four, the average margin is just -0.4 points per game. The total score of those 12 games is 1220-1215. Which is honestly appropriate, because in the losses, for the most part, the Thunder have fallen in tight games. In the three wins, OKC has an average winning margin of 17.0. They beat the Spurs by 14, the Nuggets by 20 and the Grizzlies by 17, all games in Oklahoma City. Which means they’re 0-6 on the road against the top four.

If the Nuggets or Grizzlies had that kind of record against other elite teams, everyone would be using it as the top citation to illustrate why they aren’t contenders. The Thunder seem to get away with it because that trip to the Western Finals is still fresh in everyone’s brain and they’ve proven themselves. Except, of course, that team last season was different.

So how worried should Thunder fans be? Well, consider this: Last season the Thunder were 8-5 against the top five teams (Spurs, Bulls, Heat, Grizzlies and Lakers). So they definitely had more success last season against elite teams.

Against playoff teams in 2011-12, the Thunder were 22-13. This season, the Thunder are 20-15 against (current) playoff teams. And there’s this note too, via an astute DT commenter: Last season the Thunder were 22-6 at one point against playoff teams, but lost their final seven against playoff squads.

What happened in those 12 games though against the 15 percenters? Just bad luck, or is there a deeper issue?

Nov. 1 at San Antonio: 86-84 (L)

The Thunder’s first game of the season with it coming just three days after trading James Harden. The Thunder actually were in perfect position to win this game, in possession of the ball with a chance at the final shot of regulation. A sketchy pass from Russell Westbrook and a lazy catch by Kevin Durant resulted in a turnover that led to Tony Parker nailing a game-winner. But even before that, the Thunder led 84-81 with 47 seconds left, but Westbrook blew an easy layup after a terrific pass from Kevin Martin, which led to Parker drilling a corner 3 to knot the game at 84-84. A game of missed opportunities for OKC.

Nov. 14 Memphis: 107-97 (L)

The Thunder got off to an iffy 1-2 start, but won their next five games to sit at 6-2 heading into a home game against Memphis. The Thunder rolled out of the gate with a big first quarter, but lost the game with a terrible second where OKC’s bench got absolutely abused. Memphis took the second quarter 36-15 after OKC won the first 30-20. The second half was won by OKC 52-51, but it didn’t matter because of the hole dug in those second 12 minutes.

Dec. 17 San Antonio: 107-93 (W)

The Thunder rushed the Spurs and used a big third quarter to inspire Gregg Popovich to sit his starters the entire fourth quarter. Serge Ibaka had 25 points and 17 rebounds with Martin adding 20 off the bench.

Dec. 25 at Miami: 103-97 (L)

Hard to forget this game. The Thunder were down 96-95 with 44 seconds left but a miscommunication on a double-team allowed Chris Bosh an uncontested dunk. A Durant jumper and a couple free throws from Ray Allen, had the Thunder down three with 10 seconds left. KD went for the hero 3, rimming it out, but Westbrook gathered the offensive rebound and fired another with three seconds left, while claiming he was fouled. He missed and the Thunder came up short against Miami, again.

Jan. 16 Denver: 117-97 (W)

Westbrook went for 32, Durant 20 and Martin 20. OKC led 67-47 at the half and basically cruised in for a 20-point victory over a lethargic Nuggets team playing a second game of a back-to-back.

Jan. 20 at Denver: 121-118 OT (L)

The Russell vs. Rocky game. The Thunder trailed by 11 with 3:03 left. Westbrook stole queso from Denver and then sparked a Thunder run. A layup, two free throws, a Durant 3, a Martin 3 and then finally the Westbrook game-tying 3 to send it to overtime. The Thunder failed to execute anything in overtime, making only two baskets. Part of the problem was that they kept setting illegal screens which resulted in horrible turnovers. Still, both Durant and Westbrook had 3-point attempts to tie, with Durant’s clanging short and Westbrook’s getting blocked.

Jan. 31 Memphis: 106-89 (W)

The first game for Memphis after trading Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies were clearly emotionally zapped and were missing their new players. The Thunder worked them over pretty good, but the Westbrook tantrum stole the spotlight and potentially opened the door for Memphis to go on a little run to make things mildly interesting late in the third. Westbrook checked back in and played very well guiding OKC to a nice 17-point win.

Feb. 14 Miami: 110-100 (L)

A horrific slow start for OKC that only snowballed as LeBron played a brilliant first half, going on a 9-0 run by himself to close the first 24 minutes out. The Thunder made a little push in the fourth cutting the lead to 10 a few times, but LeBron provided multiple daggers and handed OKC a sixth straight loss to the Heat.

March 1 at Denver: 105-103: (L)

Another painful close call. OKC led 99-96 with 2:49 left, but missed a couple jumpers as Denver regained the lead. Durant tied the game at 103-103 with 17 seconds left, but Ty Lawson broke Thunder hearts with a game-winning jumper with 0.2 seconds left.

March 11 at San Antonio: 105-93 (L)

A tale of two runs for the Spurs. Playing without Tony Parker, San Antonio withstood a hot Thunder start and outscored OKC 28-10 to close the first half, then withstood a spark by Westbrook to close the third by opening the fourth with another run. The Thunder just didn’t have the depth to hold up against the constant waves of San Antonio offensive pressure.

March 19 Denver: 114-104 (L)

A high-flying first half for both teams, but the Thunder failed to keep pace with Denver in the third as the Nuggets opened the second half on a 15-4 run taking complete control of the game. OKC couldn’t dig out and despite cutting the lead to five with five minutes left, failed to get the necessary stops to get over the hump.

March 20 at Memphis: 90-89 OT (L)

A blown six-point lead the last 45 seconds and a Marc Gasol tip-in with 0.8 left that resulted in yet another stinging close loss.

A couple other notes on these 12 games: In the losses, KD is averaging 31.5 points on 46.8 (88-188) shooting. Westbrook is averaging 25.1 on 37.0 percent (74-200). Martin is averaging 11.8 on 43.0 (31-72). Ibaka is averaging 10.6 and 7.4 rebounds. Doesn’t take Hubie Brown to know that you lose when your best players don’t play well, and while the Thunder’s four best guys aren’t playing bad, they aren’t playing great.

And I think there’s something to the fact that Durant averaged 20.8 shots attempts in those nine games, Westbrook 22.2. No, not because Westbrook took more, but because they’re clearly dominating the ball more as a duo. There’s a trust issue here I think. Without Harden there’s not really that third option that forces Durant and Westbrook into the backseat a bit. It’s their game now.

So, what did we learn here? Five of the losses really were on a knife edge and could’ve swung the Thunder’s way had a play or two gone their way. Obviously they didn’t and that’s the fine line between winning and losing in the NBA. Last season and postseason, the Thunder were the ones making those plays late in games and coming up big in clutch moments. They haven’t done it as much this season, especially against the league’s best teams.

Is that a Harden issue? Could be. Hard to ignore the fact he’s not on the team this season and when he was last season, the Thunder had more success in these situations.

The overhanging question to all of this though is if these losses are any indication of future success, or lack thereof, in the postseason. I don’t know. No clue. And really, we’re just going to have to wait to find out.

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