OKC Thunder: Having solved the fourth quarter, Thunder failing in the third

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AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill (3), center Brook Lopez, center, and guard Wesley Matthews celebrate in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari, right, late in the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019, in Oklahoma City.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Maybe the Thunder are figuring it out one quarter at a time.

Lately, the fourth has been terrific. In successive games against New Orleans, Orlando, San Antonio, Golden State and Milwaukee, Oklahoma City outscored the opposition four times.

The Thunder (4-6), who tip off at 6 tonight at Indiana, were in the game late in each of their first four losses, yet failed to close.

That’s changed.

In those last five fourth quarters, Oklahoma City has averaged 27.8 points and given up 24.

In the first two, the Pelicans and Magic both failed to score 20 points in the fourth quarter.

In their last two, against the Warriors and Bucks, the Thunder rose offensively, netting 30 and 39 fourth-quarter points.

However, like a game of whack-a-mole, as the Thunder have plugged one leak, another has sprung: the third quarter.

Not only has Oklahoma City been outscored in four of its previous five third quarters, but in three straight games the points allowed have been alarming.

At San Antonio, the Spurs outscored the Thunder 36-27 in the third quarter. Against Golden State, it was 41-24. Against Milwaukee, it was 37-24.

Exiting the Golden State game, the issue was on Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan’s mind.

“One of the things we’ve got to get better at is, we’ve got come out of the locker room [after the half] as a group,” he said. “We’re fortunate we had a little bit of a cushion.”

They did and they won.

That was not the case Monday, when the Bucks turned a 56-50 Thunder advantage into an 87-80 deficit.

After his team scored 39 fourth-quarter points, at one point turning a nine-point Milwaukee edge into a tie game in less 2 minutes, Donovan was not inclined to criticize any of his team's third-quarter issues.

Point guard Chris Paul did anyway.

“I think the biggest thing is,” he said, “we’ve got to figure out third quarters.”

Season-long numbers tell their own story.

Oklahoma City is the rare team to hold a positive net rating while nonetheless carrying a losing record.

That rating — plus 1.9, 13th in the league — is a reflection of how many points it scores per 100 possessions (104.9) than it allows per 100 possessions (103.0).

Yet, in the third quarter, the Thunder’s net rating is a horrendous 15.8, better than only Charlotte (-22.8), Sacramento (-28.0) and Memphis (-32.2).

The issue is more defensive than offensive, as Oklahoma City’s third quarter offensive rating — 102.8 — is very close to its four-quarter number. Yet it’s fourth-quarter defensive rating — 118.6 — is miles from its four-quarter number.

Paul was calm but frustrated following Sunday’s loss to the Bucks.

Afterward, he was asked if what the Thunder accomplished offensively — seven players in double figures, 39 fourth-quarter points — was something to be proud of.

“Yeah, I guess, but our defense has got to be better … We’ve had a number of games like this where we feel like they’re winnable games,” he said. “I think we’re getting better, but we’ve got to find a way to start winning them.”

The answer can be in the eye of the beholder.

“In this case, just make shots,” forward Danilo Gallinari said. “We played a tight game, but we didn’t shoot very well.”

However, the truth was Gallinari (4 o 17) did not shoot well. As a team, OKC shot 49.5 percent (47 of 83), better than it's 46.1 season average.

Paul had it right.

The Thunder failed in the same place they’d been failing.

The third quarter.

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