OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — One year ago the story was different.
The Oklahoma City Thunder had just lost to the Orlando Magic, falling to 8-12. You probably remember a somber Russell Westbrook remaining on the bench after his teammates had already left the court with a look of disbelief and disappointment.
How could a team this talented — with Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony (life comes at you pretty fast) — be this…bad?
Then Fox Sports Oklahoma and Thunder analyst Antonio Daniels ripped into the team with this now famous take:
Antonio Daniels on OKC. "This team is about talk" pic.twitter.com/2q2VMXijAP
— Brady Trantham (@BradyDoesSports) November 30, 2017
“It’s my responsibility to make sure we’re ready to play on both sides of the ball,” Westbrook said after that Orlando loss. “To get us out of this funk we’ve got to lock in. That starts with me and I’ll take ownership because I’ve been here (and) I know the standards we set.”
Oklahoma City looks significantly better a year later, yet some of the same flaws remain.
“Miss or made shots, it’s my responsibility to make sure we get a good one,” Westbrook said after a loss to the Boston Celtics in October. “I take responsibility. It won’t happen again; we on to the next.”
While Oklahoma City has the capability to revert back to their old habits — getting outscored 37-15 in the fourth quarter in Los Angeles, the 1-for-12 from three performance by Westbrook against Denver — they have shown an ability to stick to a system that’s conducive to winning.
Defense, forcing turnovers to generate fast breaks. Fast breaks that generate easy buckets. Oklahoma City ranks first in points off turnovers with 21.3 and seventh in fast break points at 15.3. This all the more important considering the Thunder only have three players shooting 35 percent or higher from three who have taken more than 25 shots.
But where exactly is Oklahoma City winning their games?
The Thunder sit at 13-7 in their first 20 games. One of the main foundations to their success is their performance in third quarters.
Top Five Teams From Left to Right
How important is this third quarter domination for Oklahoma City this season?
In the 2017-18 season, the Thunder ranked 24th in the NBA in point differential margin in the third quarter at -1. They ranked 17th in points in the third quarter with 26.1 per game. The third quarter was the culprit of many bad losses last year.
While most of the players remain, the tune has changed in favor of Oklahoma City.
As of November 29th, these are the standings in the NBA. Revisiting the quarter-by-quarter breakdown chart shows a plethora of information. For instance, Milwaukee is playing like the best team in the league right now. The dark green is everywhere!
Of the 10 teams ranked in the top five from each conference, five of them appear in the top five in points per quarter (any quarter). Oklahoma City being sixth in scoring in the third quarter lies outside this category. The Bucks are in the top five in each quarter while Golden State and Toronto are present in three. Only the Clippers appear more than once with two.
Scoring margin shows Milwaukee’s dominance once more with three quarters in the top five. Toronto and the Thunder appear twice, the rest of the teams only appear once. Remember, this is only the top five from each conference.
For Oklahoma City, the third quarter has kept them in ballgames as well as help separate them from their opponents. They are the number one ranked team in the league in scoring margin in the third quarter at +4.2. With 29.1 points per game in the third, they rank sixth.
They haven’t let injuries derail their third quarter dominance. In the 12 games Westbrook has played, the Thunder are a +5.4 in the third and +2.4 in the eight games he’s missed.
What ever pep-talk Donovan is giving the squad, it’s working.
“You have to play like that,” Billy Donovan said after a win against the Clippers which saw the Thunder outscore LA 39-10 in the third. “That’s what it takes. I think the league just in general, the game has changed. There’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of cutting, there’s so much more movement and more possessions.”
Oklahoma City also appears in the top five in scoring margin in the first quarter as well at fourth with a +1.7.
Is the third quarter the most important quarter? That’s debatable. The Thunder’s +4.2 margin is below Toronto’s +4.7 in the first and Milwaukee’s insane +5.3 in the second. The Bucks and and Raptors have the two best records in the NBA, while the Thunder’s 13-7 is only seventh in the league.
But the third is important to Oklahoma City. If they want to continue progressing and improving upon last season, look for their third quarter performances to be an indicator of how a particular night may go.