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The Thunder fight valiantly, but losses are piling up

Oklahoma City keep losing heart-breaking close contests

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In another down to the wire contest that could have gone either way, the visiting Oklahoma City succumbed late to an injury-hit New Orleans Pelicans.

Playing without Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum, New Orleans leaned on Zion Williamson’ scoring and playmaking to deal the Thunder their 13th loss of the season. The former top overall pick finished with 23 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, and 3 blocks.

SGA shot just 7-of-21 from the field but 16-of-18 from the foul stripe, finishing with 31 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. His 7 turnovers were a slight blemish, but OKC coughed up the rock 19 times overall and New Orleans finished the game with 19 points off turnovers.

In what Thunder Coach Mark Daigneault felt was a 50/50 play, Shai was called for a charge in the dying seconds. Oklahoma City were prevented from tying up the contest and Herb Jones was allowed to walk to the line. The sophomore then proceeded to ice the contest at the foul stripe.

The Thunder rallied in the final minutes and even took the lead following a triple by Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who played crunch time minutes. Oklahoma City showed resilience and a willingness to keep battling against good opposition.

Initially, New Orleans’ 7-point lead late in the game was erased thanks to Aleksej Pokusevski and SGA’s long-range bombs. The latter earned trips to the charity stripe and kept the Thunder’s momentum moving forward.

The Pels countered right back and Coach Willie Green drew up a play involving Williamson and Jose Alvarado. An inverted pick and roll provided Williamson the runway to complete an and-one.

Despite shooting worse overall from the field (37% vs 45%), OKC kept within striking distance because they out-shot New Orleans from downtown (12-of-38 vs 9-of-32), aided by a weird 1-of-10 long range shooting display by the Pels from the corners.

Unfortunately for the Thunder, they could not stop Zion and company from getting to the rim, where they converted 25-of-38. For comparison, OKC was 14-of-26.

The Thunder outplayed their conference opponents in transition (+5.9 pts/100 possessions against -1.8 pts/100 possessions) but found themselves out-dueled in the halfcourt (86 points/100 plays vs 70.8 points/100 plays).

It is common for a younger team without a dominant interior big man to play more effectively in fast-paced situations rather than slow, methodical half-court play. However if the Thunder want to make the postseason, they will have to learn to excel in that type of blow-for-blow action. In the playoffs, shot creation against set defenses is a necessity not a luxury.

The Thunder have now lost 5 of 6 games since that emotional win in Washington. Two of those defeats came in late-game situations against playoff-quality foes, albeit with some key injuries.

OKC has now also been limited to below 110 points in its last two games after scoring at least 110 points in 9 straight games.

Are opponents beginning to figure them out?

The good news is the next test against the struggling Spurs at home provides a pick-me-up opportunity.