SAN ANTONIO -- It's not typical for a dagger to come with seven minutes left in a tie game, but that's what Danny Green's corner 3 felt like on Saturday.
It wasn't just the fact it was a big shot that broke his 0-of-9 streak to open the night. It was also about the how. With the game tied 76-76, Russell Westbrook shucked his defensive responsibility on Green to make the quintessential Westbrookian gamble. He knifed in behind LaMarcus Aldridge, leaving Green alone in the strong corner to go for a momentum-changing steal. Westbrook came up empty. Aldridge swung it to a now-wide-open Green, who splashed from the corner.
"Yeah, that was my fault. My fault," Westbrook said. "I take that one."
But it's more than simply the how. It's the why. Why even go for it? Why take that risk? Why not just stay solid? I suppose asking Westbrook those kind of things is like asking a rock why it's hard, but nevertheless ...
"I already said it was my fault," he replied after being asked why he went for it. "We'll move on. Get ready for the next game."
A little more than a week ago, Kevin Durant sat at his locker completely dejected following a blown fourth-quarter lead to the Los Angeles Clippers and repeated the word "discipline" six different times. Westbrook's gamble, while not the difference by any stretch, seems to fall in that category. It's the kind of play that sort of summarizes the Thunder's uncomfortable slip after the All-Star break: Almost really, really good, but the end result isn't good enough.
"Obviously if it's a steal, we go up two, it looks like a great play," Billy Donovan said. "[Instead] it gets thrown to the corner, and obviously it put them up 3, and at that point [they] didn't trail from then on. We were kind of playing uphill from there."
Donovan, who has talked more about accountability in the past couple of weeks, didn't seem to have too much problem with it, though.
"There's a fine line there, because I don't want our guys to be robots, but certainly from a discipline standpoint of being where they're supposed to be and doing their jobs to the very best of their ability, absolutely," he said. "But in them doing their jobs to the best of their ability, there are times where they have to make certain kinds of decisions; and sometimes those decisions are great, and sometimes they're not so great."
That, in essence, is the Thunder conundrum. They have great players -- two of them, at least -- that have a remarkable ability to make great plays. That talent has spoiled them the past seven years, giving them sort of a false security in being unbreakable. They're playmakers, game-changers. Westbrook and Durant have a knack for the big shot, the big pass, the big block, the big rebound and the big steal. When they make them, the Thunder look like a contender in every sense. When they don't, they're left with an empty hand, with more questions than answers.
And now with them working to become a smarter, more-refined team, the old habits and the desired changes are at war with each other. What worked in the past -- at least to a certain degree -- was hero ball to the highest order, almost an encouraged stagnation of the offense just so long as No. 35 or No. 0 got some kind of shot. The Thunder have tried to develop a new pitch, playing in a more democratic, free-flowing way. While it might make them a better team in the end, they're going to have to deal with struggles in getting there. Example: On Saturday, they didn't make a shot over the final four minutes.
But what has cost the Thunder isn't this loss or the ones like it. Losing to the Spurs or Warriors doesn't carry much shame, outside of the could've-should've frustration. It's the head-scratchers, like losing a night ago at home to the Timberwolves, or in New Orleans to the Pelicans. Or blowing late leads against the Clippers and Pacers. With a 4-8 record since the All-Star break, it feels dumb to say, but the Thunder have actually played pretty well. They just don't have anything to show for it.
"We've got to start winning, man. That's what it is," Durant said. "We've just got to start putting it together."
The stat has become a storyline, because it's growing increasingly more stunning. Of the Thunder's 22 losses, 12 of them have come when they took a lead into the fourth quarter -- the most blown fourth-quarter leads in the league. That's two more than that of the 76ers. (Which begs the question: The 76ers have led 10 times going into the fourth quarter?) In the 12 games since the break, the Thunder have been outscored 340-282 in the fourth quarter. So is there a rising level of concern?
"Should be," Westbrook said. "We've got to find a way to get wins; 4-8 is unacceptable for our team. We've just got to find a way to get it together."
They have 18 games left before they really start counting. They don't have too much more time to find what they're looking for.