Tramel: Thunder showing that epic NBA comebacks are becoming almost normal
The Thunder trailed the Portland Trail Blazers 82-58 midway through the third quarter Tuesday night. The game seemed over. But it never is. Not in the modern NBA.
Soon enough, the Thunder had regained the lead, up by five, 102-97, with five minutes left.
Then Damian Lillard turned into Damian Lillard, and Portland went home a 115-104 winner. But the Thunder had staged a remarkable comeback.
But was it so remarkable? It wasn’t even the last 24-point comeback of the night. Later Tuesday, the Suns led the Netropolitans 73-49, but Brooklyn stormed back and beat Phoenix 128-124.
Such comebacks are becoming a little less epic.
The Thunder’s six biggest comeback victories all have occurred in the last 24 months. The Thunder won after trailing by:
23, Brooklyn, December 2018
26, Houston, February 2019
26, Chicago, December 2019
24, Memphis, December 2019
22, Miami, August 2020
22, Chicago, January 2021
Look at that list. Home, road, Orlando bubble.
A couple of Russell Westbrook-led teams. Three Chris Paul-led teams. A Shai Gilgeous-Alexander-led team. And the Thunder rallied Tuesday night without a star; SGA was sidelined with a knee sprain.
Quality opponents. Inferior opponents. Superior opponents.
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No reason, no rhyme. No Thunder player was involved in all seven comebacks.
It’s clear, the NBA has changed rapidly in recent years. Few leads are safe.
When Al Horford came into the NBA in 2007, the game was slower and 3-point shots were rarer. In 2007-08, NBA teams averaged 99.9 points and 18.1 3-point shots per game. This season, NBA teams are averaging 112.1 points and 34.9 3-point shots per game.
“It’s a big difference,” said Horford, who had 12 points and five rebounds for OKC on Tuesday night. “Now, with teams shooting so many 3’s and the game being played much faster, you can’t count any team out.
“Once you got down over 20 (in Horford’s early years), it was very difficult for teams to come back. And rarely would you see a comeback. I feel like the way we’re playing now, shooting more 3’s, playing with more possessions, it’s not as safe to have that kind of lead.”
The long ball was instrumental in the Thunder comeback. During the 13 minutes that the Thunder staged that 44-15 run, it made five of nine 3-pointers. The rest of the game, OKC was five of 24 from deep.
And Portland’s comeback from 102-97? The Blazers made all six of their 3-point shots in the final five minutes, after going 14-of-41 before that.
“It’s a 48-minute game,” said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault. “And there’s a pretty violent point swing, because of the short shot clock, long game, good players. Lot of variance every night.”
Daigneault, digging into analytics, said the average swing in games (variance between each team’s biggest lead) is 24, “so that’s kind of baked into the cake.”
But give the Thunder credit. Few teams have shown the resolve to consistently come back. And it’s not like this team or the previous two OKC squads were even above league average in 3-point percentage.
“As it relates to our team, just having competitive guys, resilient guys that keep playing,” Daigneault said. “When you have that type of makeup, condensed schedule, down by 24, you give yourself the best chance when you have players of that character. Those are the types of players that I know we try to identify here. That’s the type of players we have in this locker room.”
The young Thunders seemed to take pride in their never-say-die attitude.
“You gotta have heart,” said Isaiah Roby, 23, who played all of 11 NBA minutes before this season. “You gotta have fight. You can’t give up. Those are all things you gotta need to come back.
“A team without heart would have been demoralized and given up and thrown the towel in a long time ago. That’s something we were able to do, just come back and fight. They kept on making shots, but we never gave up. Just keep on fighting.”
It didn’t hurt that Luguentz Dort got hot and scored eight points in a span of 80 seconds late in the third quarter.
That ignited the Thunder offense, which scored on 15 of 17 possessions. Hamidou Diallo, Roby, Mike Muscala, Justin Jackson. That’s not James Harden and the Nets. Yet in the modern NBA, lots of players can score in bunches.
“We was just desperate,” said Diallo. “We all knew we needed to win. We all on the floor was willing to do whatever it took to win. It just takes will and fight. With this group of guys that we have here, we’re never going to give up no matter what we’re down.”
That much is apparent. The new-order NBA gives teams the chance to rally. The Thunder keeps proving that it’s more than willing to do just that.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.