OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — With 15.5 seconds to go, the Oklahoma City Thunder (25-15) had possession following a fortuitous traveling violation on Tyus Jones. The score was 119-117 and all but two missed Russell Westbrook threes and a second consecutive Thunder loss remained
The story of the game lies with Nerlens Noel and a scary fall to the floor that led to him being carted off.
At the 5:16 mark of the third quarter with the score 81-77 in favor of Oklahoma City, Andrew Wiggins drove to the basket and attempted a slam dunk with Noel under the rim. Noel jumped to defend the attempt as Wiggins’ accidentally elbowed him in the face, knocking him backwards. In the process, Noel fell to the ground limp and his head came down hard on the Chesapeake Energy Arena floor.
— Carson Cunningham (@KOCOCarson) January 9, 2019
Westbrook and other teammates crowded around Noel’s motionless body and immediately waved for the medical staff. As the entire Thunder bench came together, the stretcher was rolled out. Minutes later, Noel was whisked away into the tunnel.
According to Billy Donovan, Noel was taken to the hospital after being carted off.
“Right now he’s at OU Medical Center getting further evaluation,” Donovan said. “Nothing more to add.”
Donovan could not comment on his thoughts on the injury as he was unable to fully see what happened.
“Obviously it was scary,” Donovan added. “When he went down, players were already waving to the medical staff. Once I got off the bench, there were so many people around him I couldn’t see.”
“It was just an unfortunate play,” Steven Adams said in the locker room. “Obviously Wiggins didn’t mean to do that, it was just one of those crazy plays. Fortunately the medical staff responded quickly and I feel like he’s in the best hands”
Wiggins tweeted this out an hour after the game.
“Said a couple prayers for him,” Jerami Grant said. “I’ll try and go check on him if I can.”
Following the injury, tempers were peaking in an already physical game that, at the time, featured 39 fouls. Dennis Schröder in particular did not take kindly to what he saw as disrespectful laughter from the Timberwolves huddle during Noel’s incident.
Schröder could be heard screaming, “What are you laughing at?” from the bench. A few minutes later, Schröder and Jeff Teague had to be separated following a nudge by both. Teague pushed Schröder away with both hands, resulting in three technicals — one on Schröder and two on Teague, who would be ejected.
Following the Noel injury, Minnesota outscored the Thunder 19-12 to finish out the third quarter. Oklahoma City entered the fourth quarter down 96-93. The deficit was thanks in large part to the Thunder fouling entirely too much and surrendering too many rebounds.
Oklahoma City had committed 24 fouls in the first three quarters allowing the Timberwolves 24 points in 30 attempts. To go a long with the poor defending, the Thunder gave up nine offensive boards. Much of this would continue in the final quarter.
With the Timberwolves leading 106-99, Westbrook and Paul George — who finished with 27 points — led the charge back to take a one-possession lead. A lead that would see-saw back and forth for the closing minutes.
A crucial possession late saw the earlier symptoms of the game come back to haunt the Thunder. Down two, Oklahoma City allowed three offensive rebounds on one possession that led to a back breaking three by Dario Šarić.
A Westbrook three would close the Minnesota lead to 119-117. The Jones travel led to the disastrous final possession.
“Yeah, we got some looks,” Westbrook said. “Missed them. Move on to the next.”
Wiggins, who scored a season-high 40 points, finished the game with 18 attempts from the charity stripe.