OKLAHOMA CITY — Carmelo Anthony was readying to check into the fourth quarter of Sunday's eventual victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
The game was somehow close, even with the Spurs missing most of their consequential roster. Just as San Antonio point guard Dejounte Murray errantly tossed a ball out of bounds, Anthony started to walk onto the court. It would have been an illegal substitution. Players can’t enter the game after that type of stoppage.
So, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s official scorer, Chris Doyle, yelled over the crowd noise for him to come back. “You can’t go in,” he told him.
Anthony smiled and turned toward Doyle, hoping he could have slipped through the cracks. (He wouldn’t have.)
“Y’all on my side!” he joked. “Not their side!”
He got into the game for real a play later with the Thunder down 79-78. They spurred to a 9-0 run immediately following. He scored only two of those points. It was indicative of the difference in a 90-87 win over the Spurs.
“We just had to relax a little bit, calm down,” Anthony said. “We went a little bit too fast at that time. So, once we settled the game down, then we got into our sets. We ran what we wanted to run.”
Anthony went for just nine points during his 31 minutes. He shot just 4 of 10 from the field. It was the second straight game he scored in single digits following his nine-point, seven-shot performance Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
He sank the bucket that gave the Thunder the lead just after coming into the fourth Sunday. A Raymond Felton floater, a Russell Westbrook finger roll and a rare Paul George 3 on a night when George shot just 2 of 17 competed the run.
The Thunder mostly didn’t make shots otherwise. They failed to hit one in the final 3:34. Neither team scored over the final 1:59. They made only six 3s and missed 11 of their 21 free-throw attempts.
It wasn’t recommended viewing. Yet, it was encouraging.
The Thunder have let go of leads all year similar to the 14-point one that nearly slipped away Sunday. They have played ugly fourth quarters. They just haven’t been ugly for the same reasons. Normally, final periods consist of the big three going into isolation. Coach Billy Donovan attributes the trend to players falling into their comfort zones, going back to what they did for the first however many years of their basketball lives.
He’s been trying to change their habits over this 10-12 start.
They missed shots Sunday. But at least they moved the ball. They got good looks. And that’s a positive for a team that’s trying to concentrate on the process behind their shots instead of what happens after they leave players’ hands.
Over the larger sample, bad shots fall short or long. Good ones tend to go in.
“We generated really good shots. We didn’t get stagnant,” Donovan said. “And I think those guys really know that’s how they really have to play.”
It’s one of those situations when missed shots bode well for the future — as long as the team replicates them.
George failed to hit on all three of his corner 3 attempts. Each was a catch-and-shoot. Each was reasonably open. The Thunder shot 2 of 10 on corner 3s as a team.
Those are good shots. They didn’t sink Sunday.
The Thunder took 50 of their 87 shots in the paint. Anthony took just three mid-range jumpers. George took only two. These are positive trends.
“The ball is just moving. You see it,” George said. “Melo’s been taking a huge sacrifice in terms of his shots and his ability to move it and make plays. Russ, myself, it’s moving.”
The Thunder should not have played what remained of the Spurs so closely. San Antonio was missing stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, point guard Tony Parker, veteran bench helper Manu Gibobili and more. Yet, it came a missed Brandon Paul 3-pointer with seconds to go away from tying the game.
The optics there, the optics after such a trying shooting night aren’t promising.
But if there’s reason to be discouraged when shots are going in the right way, then the opposite must be true. There’s reason to praise a performance that included more practical shot creation than this team usually produces.
Who knows if it will carry into Tuesday’s game against the Utah Jazz? The Thunder have been inconsistent all season. But for a night, there appeared to be progress.
“We’re starting to understand and take what the defense is giving us rather than try to attack it at all times and sometimes at the wrong time,” Anthony said. “I think for us to get the ball moving from one side and to another side, keep the defense guessing, not knowing what to do, I thought we did a great job with that.”