Another Back-To-Back Begins
By Randy Renner
The Oklahoma City Thunder have faced a murderous schedule the last month or so of the season and their record has suffered because of it.
Six sets of back-to-back games in the span of 30 days is difficult enough but sprinkle in some injuries and some minutes restrictions and the plan of holding Russell Westbrook out of one game of each of those back-to-backs and you have a difficult situation.
The latest (and next to last) of those pesky back-to-backs begins tonight in Sacramento and ends tomorrow night in Los Angeles against the hard charging Clippers.
The Thunder rolled into the All-Star break in high gear and on a winning streak. They've come out slipping and sliding and struggling and are just 12-9 after the break.
The game against the Kings probably comes at a good time, the Thunder have lost three straight road games (they haven't lost four straight since 2009) but they've beaten the Kings in nine straight games.
Oklahoma City (55-21) has missed a chance to pad its one-game lead in the standings (two games in the loss column) over the Los Angeles Clippers for the Western Conference's Number 2 seed, suffering two straight losses to start this four-game road trip.
The Thunder allowed the Suns to shoot 58.4 percent, the second-highest mark yielded by them all season in in that 122-115 loss in the desert on Sunday.
"Defensively when we had to get a stop, we didn't come up to the plate and get that stop," Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said after the game.
The Thunder, who allowed 61 second-half points in a 111-107 loss at Houston on Friday, last dropped four in a row away from Chesapeake Energy Arena during an eight-game road slide in January and February of 2009. The Peake wasn't even The Peake back then, it was called the Ford Center.
It's uncertain if Westbrook or Kendrick Perkins will play tonight. The club is keeping both out of both games back-to-back contests and may choose to use them Wednesday against Los Angeles instead of tonight in SacTown.
The Thunder shouldn't need either player against the Kings. Kevin Durant has averaged 28.7 points in three wins this season over Sacramento (27-50), which hasn't beaten Oklahoma City since a 106-101 victory February 9, 2012.
The Kings fell 93-91 at home to Dallas on Sunday, allowing 17 second-chance points and committing 13 turnovers that led to 21 points.
"Good teams don't beat themselves and that's the step that we have to take," coach Michael Malone said after the game. "We have to stop beating ourselves and if somebody's going to come in here and win the game, make them win it, don't give it to them."
The Kings played their seventh straight game without starting point guard Isaiah Thomas (right quadriceps contusion), who is averaging 20.7 points and 6.4 assists. Rookie Ray McCallum, who's father was an assistant coach on Kelvin Sampson's staff at OU, has started in his place, but he's totaled 12 points on 6-for-26 shooting in his last two games after averaging 17.6 points over his previous five.
McCallum started the last time the Kings played the Thunder also.
Rudy Gay scored 32 points and DeMarcus Cousins added 28 and 10 rebounds for the Kings on Sunday, but neither has played well in two matchups with the Thunder this season.
Gay, averaging 20.2 points, has totaled just 13 on 6-for-18 shooting. Cousins is scoring 22.3 per game but has totaled only 20 while going 8-for-25 from the field against OKC.
The Kings are shooting a league-worst 29.5 percent on 3-pointers in their 19 contests since the start of March. The Thunder are allowing opponents to shoot 39.5 percent on 3s in 17 games in that span, the third-worst mark in the NBA.
So maybe the Kings again will provide some relief to what's been less than stellar perimeter defense by the Thunder lately.
Durant of course still has his streak going, now 41 straight games scoring at least 25 points. Oscar Robertson's mark of 46 straight in the 1963-64 season is the next target, but the other night in Phoenix KD didn't sound like a guy taking dead aim on that.
"I don't really care about it," he said. "I can't wait until it's over."
It does seem like, at least in the last few games, the burden of the streak has worn on the Thunder superstar. Maybe now that he's passed Jordan that burden will ease.
Nothing will help cure what ails this team more though, than a return to playing stingy defense and getting a couple of big back-to-back wins on the road.