NEW ORLEANS — It’s like the Oklahoma City Thunder are on a mission to prove that momentum is a metaphysical concept.
The Thunder couldn’t hold onto it Monday in New Orleans. They couldn’t even quite touch it.
They got out to a 25-6 lead over the first six minutes against the Pelicans. A 50-point quarter was within sight for those who obsess over what teams are on a pace to do. Turns out, it wasn’t. OKC couldn’t grasp the momentum it created.
New Orleans responded, eventually taking a 38-37 lead on free throws from star big man Anthony Davis at the beginning of the second quarter. A 19-point lead gone in nine minutes, another double-digit lead rendered useless after the Pelicans pulled away for a 114-107 victory.
“It’s everybody. Everybody’s got to contribute. Everybody’s got to help and chip in,” coach Billy Donovan said. “That includes us as coaches, as well. Everybody’s got to help.”
It didn’t take long for momentum to turn over during the third quarter, either. The Thunder could have taken over after fellow Pelicans star big man DeMarcus Cousins was called for a flagrant 2 foul when his elbow connected with Russell Westbrook’s face. They didn’t, even though Cousins was ejected.
The Thunder led 76-72 at the time of the ejection, tacking on another point with a free throw from Westbrook after the foul. They somehow trailed by one at the end of the third quarter.
Call it whatever you want. It could be capitalizing in moments of the opposition’s vulnerability. It could be, as the expression goes, stepping on the other team’s throat. Whatever that concept is, one as abstract as momentum, the Thunder have failed to grab it it over their first 16 games.
Oklahoma City has won 7 of 16 games. It’s let go of a double-digit lead during 6 of 9 losses. It’s dropped two straight after a three-game brought it back to .500. And they haven’t been the most attractive losses. A lost 19-point lead Monday followed a lost 23-point lead at San Antonio Friday.
“I don’t feel like it’s in our guys’ heads. It’s not like they’re playing like, ‘All right, we’re waiting for them to come back,’” Donovan said. “We’ve got to do things at a higher level or consistency level than we’re not doing.”
Even the end of Monday’s game didn’t quite play out the way everything before it implied it might.
The Thunder had let go of a big lead, sure. But they did it mostly with their bench. Their starters knocked the Pelicans’ out for the first 38 minutes. And when the first unit returned with about eight minutes remaining, OKC was down just three points. There was opportunity.
The Thunder had outscored the Pelicans by 13 points while Westbrook was on the floor, by 20 when Steven Adams was on, by 15 when Carmelo Anthony was on. No bench player who had played more than 10 minutes, in contrast, was better than minus-13.
Yet, Oklahoma City let the deficit drop more with the starters in down the stretch, amidst a fourth-quarter run filled with OKC clanks and domination from Davis, who finished with 36 points and 15 boards.
It’s been theme No. 1 this year: the only predictable part about this is the unpredictability. And it’s coming for all sorts of reasons.
“It’s different. It’s not the same thing,” Donovan said. “The constant is the leads evaporate.”