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FiveThirtyEight

In Monday night’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks made his first substitutions eight minutes into the game. Nick Collison and Caron Butler came in for Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka with the Thunder down four points.

This wasn’t the first time the Thunder’s starting lineup had been outscored in its first stint of a game — it was the 48th this season (including the playoffs). The first few minutes of a game are a relatively small sample, of course, but it’s a telling trend: The Thunder’s starters have put them behind in 53.3 percent of the team’s games. And yet the Thunder have won 70 percent of all games so far.

Monday night, though, they didn’t. Everything tightens in the playoffs; small weaknesses become magnified and exploited. The narrowest of margins in the beginning can become the deciding factor between victory and defeat. For the Thunder, figuring out how to start building a lead right from the opening tip could be the difference in extending a playoff run.

All season, the Thunder have struggled with their starters. In part because of injuries, the Thunder used nine different starting lineups by the time the playoffs rolled around. Those nine different starting lineups had a raw plus/minus of -10 in the 589 minutes they played before the first substitute came in, which is an average point differential of -0.8 per 48 minutes. That number doesn’t seem overwhelmingly negative until we compare it to the Thunder’s season-long differential of +6.3 per 48 minutes using all lineups.

In other words, the Thunder’s ability to recover from slow starts is a reflection of their immense talent. Their starting lineups play an average of just over six minutes a game, and in that time the -0.8 per 48-minute point differential works out to just hundredths of a point per game. Their win percentage is almost identical regardless of whether their starters build a lead or dig a hole, 74 percent to 67 percent.

But there is an enormous difference in the Thunder’s margin of victory between those two scenarios. In games where the starters build a lead to begin the game, the Thunder have won by an average of 10.86 points. In games where the starters have left the team behind, the Thunder have won, but by an average of just 1.77 points. The Thunder are good enough to eventually overwhelm almost any opponent, but the lead, or lack thereof, that they create for themselves at the beginning of a game carries enormous weight in determining the final margin of victory. It’s something to keep in mind as the Thunder’s starters take the court on Wednesday for Game 2.

A methodological note for those interested: The lineup data for this post came from the gameflow charts at popcornmachine.net. I took the game results, final-point margins and number of starting lineups from Basketball-Reference. The per-48-minute differential for all lineups came from NBA.com. I’m kind of a stats polygamist when it comes to sources.

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