By Randy Renner
On Wednesday night the Thunder will finally learn if they've made the NBA playoffs, but really they've been playing what amounts playoff basketball for weeks.
First trying to get back into the race, then trying to hold on to positioning and now trying to get back in again.
Before Monday night's game against Portland head coach Scott Brooks told reporters, "if there is ever a must win game in an 82 game schedule it's tonight. We HAVE to win this game."
The Thunder did, 101-90, and now their reward is playing another "must win" game on Wednesday night at Minnesota.
"We're blessed that we have a chance," said Thunder superstar point guard Russell Westbrook. He finished with 36 points which should provide enough cushion over James Harden to win the scoring title. Westbrook also had 11 rebounds and seven assists.
The Thunder two-man game between Russ and center Enes Kanter worked well early and again late. Kanter finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds. Those two combined hit 26 of their 47 shots, no one else on the roster came close to that kind of percentage. Dion Waiters struggled through a terrible shooting night, just 4-for-21, and once again the Thunder didn't do very well at the free throw line where they were 19-for-27 (70.4 percent).
But they appeared much improved on the defensive end except for what Meyers Leonard did to them. Leonard was the fill-in starter for All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge but there wasn't much fall off in production. Leonard scored a career-high 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting and hit five 3-pointers.
Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard though had a tough night dealing with Westbrook at both ends of the floor. Lillard couldn't defend Westbrook and wasn't able to get his offense going either, scoring just 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting (1-for-4 on threes).
The Thunder won't practice today, they'll get some treatment on their aches and pains, watch some film and head to the airport for their mid-afternoon charter to Minneapolis. Then they will focus in on the Timberwolves who were beaten last night by the Pelicans for the 10th straight loss.
The players and coaches can't pay much attention to what else will be happening Wednesday night but you can bet Thunder fans will be paying close attention to New Orleans where the Pelicans will be playing a "must lose" game against the San Antonio Spurs.
At this point a Thunder win on Wednesday only gets the team halfway to the playoffs, that win has to be coupled with a New Orleans loss to finally push OKC ahead of the Pels and into an extended season.
"It's a one game season for us now," said Brooks after last night's game. "We can't think about what (the Pelicans) are doing. We have to take care of our business and then hope we get some help down south."
Old friend and rival Gregg Popovich and his Spurs are being counted on to give the Thunder that help. The Spurs are still fighting for the Southwest Division championship and the #2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Word out of the Alamo City is that they want both so the Spurs will go for it against New Orleans.
On the face of it, Wednesday night sets up well for the Thunder. Yes, they're going on the road where they have struggled lately, but they'll be playing a team that now has the worst record in the NBA thanks to that long losing streak.
At the other end of the country the Pelicans will be playing at home but their opponent is on a long winning streak and right now is playing the best basketball of any team in the league and the Spurs will be motivated to win.
Yep looks awfully good.
And that's exactly what scares me.