Clutch Time, as defined by the NBA, is “the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is 5 or less points.”
It can also be defined as the thing the Oklahoma City Thunder emphatically led the league in prior to the shutdown. The Thunder have played a league-leading total of 42 games in the clutch, winning a league-leading 29 of them. To put in bluntly — the boys get it done when it matters most.
As play soon resumes inside the NBA bubble in Orlando, it may be easy to forget the late-game heroics from the regular season that got the Thunder into the 5th-place in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. There were buzzer-beaters, unlikely comebacks, and of course, “Untuck-Gate”.
Someone needed to recap all 42 of the Thunder’s closest games — Part 1 consists of the first 14 clutch-finish games of the 2019-2020 season. Even though the team went 6-8 in these games, it’s safe to say the Clutch Thunder were forged in fire and learned a lot about what it takes to win these sort of games later in the season.
Establishing an Identity of Clutch
Prior to the start of the 2019-2020 season the Westgate sports book projected the Thunder to win 31.5 games, the seventh-worst win-total in the NBA. Other outlets such as Draftkings (33.5) and Fanduel (32.5) were marginally more generous. Everyone in the league, including a large portion of the’ fan base, believed the team would tank and rebuild for the future of the organization was upon them.
Fast-forward 21 games into the season, the Thunder ball club owned claim to 17 clutch time finishes and had established itself as a team that was also capable of hanging with the elite teams of the league. The product on the floor was “fun”, a refreshing stress-free overachieving team that gave themselves a chance to win in nearly every game they played. It didn’t take long for the collective NBA to take notice, or for the OKC fans to put the future on hold, and believe in the present for at least one more year.
Oct 23 @ Jazz | Loss 95 – 100
The season opener was a thriller that was close down to the final minutes of the match. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed OKC fans what he could do, scoring 26 points on a 10/23 shooting. Ultimately, Donovan Mitchell was too much for the Thunder as he poured in 32 points to go along with 12 rebounds. Mitchell also discovered a weakness in the armor of the Thunder defense, a lack of personnel to defend larger/dominant wings. Nerlens Noel went down with an injury in the first quarter revealing a second weakness that stuck with the Thunder the entire season — depth at the center position.
Oct 25 Vs. Wizards | Loss 85 – 97
The second game of the season ended with the same result as the first. With as little a 4 minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, the score was tied at 83. A poor Thunder defensive effort and an inability to hit shots down the stretch led to a double-digit loss for the team. Shai once again was a bright spot pouring in 28 points on 59% shooting.
Oct 28 @ Rockets | Loss 112 – 116
Oklahoma City lost another close one in Russell Westbrook’s 1st career game against the Thunder. OKC walked out proud after holding Westbrook to a stat-line of 21 points, 12 rebounds, and just 9 assists, ensuring he would not achieve a triple-double against the only team remaining on his hit-list (he got it in the second meeting). The Thunder were in the game to the very end but came up short due to an inability to keep from putting James Harden on the free-throw line where he shot 21-22 on the night.
Oct 30 Vs. Blazers | Loss 99 – 102
In a game without Steven Adams, or the slightest notion of 3-point shooting (4/27), the Thunder managed to keep the game close and within winning range. The team held a lead as late as the 4:24 mark in the 4th quarter of play. However, a familiar feeling swept over the arena as Damien Lillard, with a lot of help from Rodney Hood, slammed the door shut on OKC. After the game, Chris Paul was quoted saying “Shots are going to start falling, so we’ve just got to keep playing the way we’re playing.”
Nov 2 Vs. Pelicans | Win 115 – 104
Call it a good game, or call it a break-out game. Darius Bazley gave Thunder fans something to get excited about in this November 2nd game against the Pelicans. The rookie scored 17 points in just 19 minutes of play, with a majority of those points coming from a sizzling hot shooting night going 3-of-6 from three-point land. Bazley added 5 rebounds and an impressive block to cap off his big night. OKC picked up its first clutch win of the season.
Nov 5 Vs. Magic | Win 102 – 94
The Thunder found themselves in another tight game against Orlando on November 5. The score stayed within five points for nearly the entire match-up, until Chris Paul and company ratcheted up the defense in the final five minutes of play. Once Clutch Time was engaged, the Thunder allowed the Magic to muster only 5 points, while they poured in 14 to cruise to the victory. Another noteworthy event came prior to the game when the Thunder organization honored the families of the 168 killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Families were presented with custom jerseys with the number 95 on them, along with the last name of their loved one.
Nov 9 Vs. Warriors | Win 114 – 108
On November 9 the Thunder beat the Warriors for the second time on the season. This win, however, was quite ugly, with the Thunder actually squandering two large leads. OKC saw a 23-point lead erased by the close of the third quarter, which they bounced back from by building another 14-point lead. That advantage also crumbled by the mid-point of the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City ultimately proved to be resilient by surviving its no-show defensive effort through an impressive 3-point shooting night going 14-of-30 (47%) and by registering 30 assists on 43 made field goals.
Nov 10 Vs. Bucks | Loss 119 – 121
The Thunder lost a nail biter to the Bucks at home on November 10. It was a back and forth game that saw OKC on the high-side for a large majority of the first half, but once again, the game came down to the final 5 minutes. With 32.3 seconds remaining in the game, Danilo Gallinari stepped up and nailed a 3 point bucket that tied the score at 114. The tie was short-lived, however, 6.9 seconds to be exact. Brook Lopez drained a three in response that took all the wind out of the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Gallinari missed a three-pointer on an open look as time expired and the Thunder took the loss.
Nov 15 Vs. 76ers | Win 127 – 119 (OT)
Many have stated the atmosphere at this game on November 15 felt like the “old days” of the Thunder. The team gave the fans something to hope in as they overcame a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime. The fourth-quarter comeback was led by none other than Captain Clutch, Chris Paul himself, who dropped in 12 of his 27 in that period alone. With 2:22 remaining in overtime Gallinari sank a 3-point bucket that elevated the lead to 6 and the crowd noise from loud, to the familiar deafening roar the Peake has been known for since the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City. Ultimately, the overtime win was secured by OKC as they outscored Philly 20 to 12 in the extra period. This was the best win of the season up to that point in time, but it was also the night Thunder fans began to believe this team might be something special.
Nov 18 @ Clippers | Loss 88 – 90
Oklahoma City’s match-up with the Clippers yielded yet another close game that could have gone either way. It was an extremely entertaining game that saw five lead changes in the final five minutes, and also a massive go-ahead bucket by Paul George with 25.9 seconds remaining in regulation. The following play, Mo Harkless was called for a foul on Gallinari driving to the bucket, and the ruling was challenged by Doc Rivers and overturned as a non-foul resulting in a side-out inbound for the Thunder. With four seconds remaining, Gallinari hoisted and missed a wide-open shot from the top of the key that would have sent the game to overtime.
Nov 19 @ Lakers | Loss 107 – 112
With 3:22 remaining to play in the fourth quarter, the score was 109-98, advantage Lakers on November 19. LeBron James had just nailed a 3-pointer that seemed to awaken the clutch Thunder from their sleep. Two Danilo Gallinari free-throws, a CP3 to Nerlens Noel alley-oop, an SGA and-1 conversion, and two more Gallo freebies resulted in nine straight points for the Thunder, along with all the momentum in the game. Tides turned for OKC when an offensive rebound bounced into the hands of Danny Green after a well-defended Anthony Davis 3-point attempt. Green passed the ball to teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who drilled a 3-pointer, pushing the Laker lead out to five with under a minute to play. Once again the Thunder hung tough with one of the best teams in the NBA but finished the night with a loss.
Nov 22 Vs. Lakers | Loss 127 – 130
Oklahoma City’s rematch with the Lakers came just 3 days later, and the results played out in similar fashion. OKC was in the game from the tip, scratching and clawing to keep up with the league-leading Lakers, winners of six straight, and owners of a 13-2 overall record at the time. The final 11.8 seconds of the game saw Chris Paul hit a clutch shot to bring the Thunder within one, Anthony Davis then hit 2 free-throws after being fouled. SGA then dropped in a lay-up with 4.2 seconds to go that brought OKC back within one. to bring the game back to one. Davis again knocked down 2 free-throws and ended the game.
Nov 26 @ Warriors | Win 110 – 97
Sixteen games into the regular season the Thunder finally captured their ever-elusive first road-victory. Regardless of the young Warrior bench being down to just eight players, OKC had to fight all 48 minutes to secure the win and get over the hump. With just over 3 minutes left in regulation the Warriors held a 97-87 advantage. Like clockwork, Oklahoma City flipped the clutch switch and trimmed their deficit to four in less than one minute. Once in striking distance the Thunder then secured the win by going on a 13-0 run, forcing a turnover on all five of the Warriors remaining offensive possessions, and going 2-for-2 from the field and 2-for-3 from the line.
Nov 29 Vs. Pelicans | Win 109 – 104
Rounding out part 1 of the Clutch Time season recap is a statement win over the Pelicans. In this game the Thunder actually built and squandered a 16-point lead, but once again took care of business when it mattered most. With 1:24 left on the clock, Chris Paul knocked down one of his signature late-game mid-range jumpers to put the good guys back on top 105-104. Following the CP3 make, the Thunder offense was all Steven Adams for the rest of the game. Big Kiwi imposed his will on the under-skilled Jahlil Okafor the last two possessions, the second of which was an emphatic slam in his face to ice it.
With 14 clutch time finishes under their belt, Oklahoma City firmly established themselves as a team no one wanted to trade punches with down the stretch of a close game. With lockdown defensive ability and four legitimate scoring threats, the Thunder made every game seem winnable.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, where the next 14 Clutch Time performances of the 2019-2020 season will be reviewed. Spoiler Alert: they’re about to do a lot of winning.