On the first possession of the third quarter, Durant drove hard to his right, planting his left foot to explode past his defender. With his KD 8 slipping off, Durant still elevated over Trevor Ariza to finish a slick floater, putting the Thunder up 13.
But with Durant shoeless, Russell Westbrook took a foul to let his teammate get laced back up. An innocuous, meaningless one it seemed. It was only Westbrook’s second foul, and the Thunder’s first of the quarter, but he picked up his third a minute later, and his fourth a minute after that. Westbrook exited with 9:23 left in the third and the Thunder up 71-57, and the Houston Rockets went into the bonus 30 seconds after that.
With Westbrook out, the Rockets finished the third outscoring the Thunder 25-8, taking a lead into the fourth which they rode to their first win of the season, 110-105.
Now, a whole lot more happened after Durant’s shoe came off, forcing Westbrook to foul. An entire half of basketball, actually. The Thunder turned it over 25 times, which led to 21 Houston points — “That’s why we lost the game,” Durant said. “As a leader I can’t have five turnovers and no assists.” — and still had the ball with a chance to tie in the final 15 seconds. A Westbrook 3 rattled in and out, and after a scramble, the ball found its way back to Durant, who forced a tough 3 from the top of the key that only hit the backboard.
“I just saw time was running down, but that’s my fault,” Durant said. “I should’ve gotten a better shot.”
Coach Billy Donovan said he was trying to call timeout after the offensive rebound but couldn’t get the officiating crew’s attention in time. The shot went up, it didn’t go in, Dwight Howard of all people sank two clutch, game-clinching free throws, and the Thunder had their first loss in the Donovan era. He will not go undefeated as an NBA coach.
“Heartbroken right now,” he jokingly said.
But with the Rockets throwing out scattered small-ball lineups, the Thunder’s depth was tested, without Westbrook for a large stretch, and unable to respond. They generated just 14 points in the third quarter, and with Donovan focusing on trimming Durant’s workload throughout this season, Donovan leaned on the second unit that has been a strength of the team early this year.
“One thing that I’m trying to be mindful of as a coach is having our team have things that can be sustained,” Donovan said. “And at some point, our bench, or Russell getting in foul trouble, Kevin being in foul trouble, someone needing a blow, we’re going to need those guys to step up and play.
“And those guys played so well coming off the bench, and D.J. [Augustin] in particular last game, played so well, but we’re going to need those guys in given times to step up,” Donovan said. “At one point you can just try and come to the rescue, but for us to be a balanced team, I think giving those guys the opportunity to play through those things is important.”
That’s the mindset Donovan and the Thunder are taking as they begin this season. Embracing a process to evolve instead of looking for quick fixes to win in the short-term. That resulted in Donovan giving extended time to his second unit, trying to let them play through difficulty as the Rockets made a push. Clearly it didn’t exactly work, at least in the present, as the Thunder’s second unit wilted to a desperate Rockets team.
“They didn’t want to go 0-4,” Durant said. “We were up 14 points and we didn’t put them away like we should have.”
The Thunder, though, have a unique luxury to be able to adapt and learn on the fly, using November as a testing ground for different lineups and combinations. With Durant and Westbrook, whatever transformation the Thunder are trying to undergo, there’s the reliable backstop of two superstars that can win you games almost on their own. They tried to win in Houston on Monday, combining for 54 points, which doubled up their own bench’s output. Westbrook clicked into takeover mode, and Durant was a better look away from maybe sending the game to overtime. And while the ball didn’t snap around quite as effectively as it did on Sunday against Denver, where OKC produced 32 assists, the foundation of something better appears to be there.
“We played a game yesterday where we had 32 assists, we really moved it, we shared it, we did some great things,” Donovan said. “I think that’s what we really have to create, that consistency of playing that way.”