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Tramel: Don't worry yet about the Thunder's propensity for close wins

The Thunder is up to its newfound tricks.

The Thunder a year ago scripted a heartwarming story, about a team that played far above expectations, made the playoffs and took the Rockets to seven games in a first-round playoff series.

That Thunder team excelled by winning close games.

Now this Thunder team is doing the same. Oh, not so much excelling as staying afloat. The Thunder is 6-6, one sixth of the way through a season in which OKC was not expected to reach 30 wins.

And the Thunder is doing it by winning close games. OKC beat Chicago 127-125 in overtime Friday night. The Thunder trailed by 22 in the third quarter, by 16 with 4:40 left and by 10 with 1:56 to go. Yet just like a year ago, the Thunder repeatedly rallied, then won in the end.

Chicago’s Zach LaVine missed 3-pointers at the buzzer of both the fourth quarter and overtime. Either would have won for the Bulls.

The Thunder this season is 3-1 in games decided in the final couple of minutes. 

OKC won 109-107 at Charlotte, on Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s jumper with 1.4 seconds left.

OKC won 111-110 at New Orleans when SGA’s cousin, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, missed 3-pointer in the final second.

And OKC lost 110-109 to Utah, when Donovan Mitchell scored on a drive with seven seconds left and Gilgeous-Alexander missed on a drive at the buzzer.

Some are worried that the Thunder is playing itself out of prime lottery position for the draft. Too early to worry. For one thing, the schedule is about to get ferocious, starting with Philadelphia on Sunday night, then a road trip consisting of Nuggets, Clippers, Lakers, Blazers and Suns. Then home against Brooklyn.

If the Thunder is 10-9 after those seven games, let’s talk.

But just the flip the close-game results, and the Thunder record looks much different. If OKC had gone 1-3 in close games, its record would be 4-8 and among the NBA’s worst.

And flipping close-game results is not revisionist. Close games tend to even out over time. Good teams don’t win an inordinate number of close games. Good teams avoid an inordinate number of close games. Chicago didn’t lose Friday night in the final seconds. Chicago lost because it had a blowout in its hands and let it become a tossup. Tossups can be won by anyone.

A much better read on the Thunder status is point differential. OKC’s 6-6 record is among a five-way tie for 12th in the NBA. Eleven teams are better. Fourteen teams are worse.

But point differential is the best long-term indicator of team strength. And the Thunder’s minus-6.1 point differential is tied for the NBA’s fourth-worst. OKC has been blown out, big-time, three times. That’s a better gauge of a team than winning close games.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the Thunder’s propensity for winning close games. Not yet.

Related Photos
Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) reacts after a basket in front of Chicago's Garrett Temple (17) and Thaddeus Young (21) during the third quarter of a  NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls at the Chesapeake Energy Arena., Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) reacts after a basket in front of Chicago's Garrett Temple (17) and Thaddeus Young (21) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls at the Chesapeake Energy Arena., Friday, Jan. 15, 2021....

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-b96a5ba2e31dcb645e7a3d2406cebc81.jpg" alt="Photo - Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) reacts after a basket in front of Chicago's Garrett Temple (17) and Thaddeus Young (21) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls at the Chesapeake Energy Arena., Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman" title="Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) reacts after a basket in front of Chicago's Garrett Temple (17) and Thaddeus Young (21) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls at the Chesapeake Energy Arena., Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman"><figcaption>Oklahoma City's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) reacts after a basket in front of Chicago's Garrett Temple (17) and Thaddeus Young (21) during the third quarter of a NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Chicago Bulls at the Chesapeake Energy Arena., Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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