Horning: Clutch and fun, Thunder enter All-Star break so far from where they began

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AP Photo/Matthew Hinton

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari celebrates a score against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.

Maybe if the Thunder never play at home again, they’ll never lose again.

Seems that way.

Because Thursday night’s 123-118 victory at New Orleans made it eight straight beyond Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Oklahoma City hasn’t lost out of town in more than a month, when the 76ers beat them in Philly on Jan. 6.

Also, here we are at the All-Star break and this team is 11 games over .500, it’s 33-22 record Dallas’ equal, both the Mavs and Thunder occupying the sixth spot in the Western Conference.

OKC's even closer to third place (four games) than out of the playoffs in ninth (five games).

It’s not quite where the Thunder found themselves a year ago, when they took a 37-20 mark into the break. But you know what that team did when it returned?

It lost six of eight.

That team, led by Russell Westbrook and Paul George, wound up winning 49 in the regular season and had to win its last four just to do that.

It’s hard to figure how this group wins less considering what it’s done since Thanksgiving, going 27-11, logging more wins than all but Milwaukee and fewer losses than all but the Bucks and Lakers over the same span.

Thursday’s contest was interesting, because the nature of the victory begged a question.

Would it have been a better triumph had the Thunder maintained the 13-point edge forged late in the third quarter off a run fueled by, of all people, Lu Dort and Mike Muscala?

Or was it a better win how they actually won it, once again asserting themselves as the league’s best clutch team?

Clutch is an actual statistical designation that comes into play when a game in the last five minutes is separated by five or fewer points. In such scenarios, per 100 possessions, the Thunder have outscored the opposition by a league-best 27.1 points and, since Thanksgiving, a ridiculous 36.1.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but go with the last one, because it reasserts OKC’s identity following a rare clutch loss to Boston on Sunday as well as a plain old loss to San Antonio on Tuesday.

Even better, it was Danilo Gallinari, rather than Chris Paul, who became the go-to guy at the end, netting 11 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter and shooting 12 of 18 overall and 3 of 5 from 3-point land one game after making just 4 of 16 and 2 of 7 against the Spurs.

It’s the best of all possible worlds. Guys who aren’t supposed to be the drivers, Dort and Muscala, still had their moment, while a cornerstone like Gallinari got to be the difference.

That such questions can be asked is testament to the unexpected success of this team, a flavor of success that’s just fun.

Because the most fun team to follow is the overachieving team, the squad that gets along and makes the most of what it’s got and that’s exactly what Oklahoma City’s doing.

Early, it couldn’t win a close one. Since, but for that Celtic game, it can’t lose one.

Many thought it would be broken up by the trade deadline, yet it became too good to break up.

Paul can’t wait to impart his wisdom and a whole bunch of guys can’t wait to lap it up.

When Steven Adams scored Thursday’s first basket with a slam, the camera caught the Thunder bench, in the distance and out of focus, as the Pelicans brought the ball back up the court.

The only player you could really make out was Dennis Schroder, who believes he should start and wants to start and who, despite not starting, scored another 22 points on Thursday.

He was smiling this huge smile.

He’d rather start, but that fact he’s not hasn't diminished any of his enthusiasm for his team.

It’s just too fun.

The Thunder are off for a week.

Oh, how far they’ve come.

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