Thunder In A Fight For Their Playoff Lives
By Randy Renner
The Thunder haven't been out of the Western Conference playoffs since their first season in Oklahoma City.
But right now that's where they find themselves. OKC is tied with New Orleans in the loss column going into Tuesday night's games but since the Pelicans won three of the four games they played against the Thunder this season, they have the tiebreaker.
So if New Orleans and Oklahoma City both win the rest of their games, the Pelicans will be in the playoffs and the Thunder's snakebit season of injuries will be over.
Tonight both teams face games that will be difficult at best to win. The Golden State Warriors, arguably the NBA's best team right now, are in New Orleans. The Thunder are hosting the team that clobbered those Warriors the other night in San Antonio. The Spurs have now won seven straight and appear to be rolling like they usually are this time of year.
They're allowing just 87.6 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting during their winning streak. The Spurs ended Golden State's 12-game run with a 107-92 home win Sunday, the first time the Warriors failed to reach at least 100 points in 14 games.
Kawhi Leonard matched his career high with 26 points and recorded a personal-best seven steals. He has averaged 19.4 points and 2.8 steals while shooting 54.2 percent over his last 19 games. He and Thunder superstar point guard Russell Westbrook are the only players averaging at least 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is notorious for resting players as the playoffs approach and even though they are safely in the final eight they still have something to play for.
The Spurs (51-26) are 17-3 since February 27th, pulling within one half-game of the fifth-place Los Angeles Clippers. They could still earn home-court in the first round with a fifth-place finish if their record bests that of Northwest Division-leading Portland.
Though the Spurs are third in the Southwest, a fifth straight division title is still possible with Houston only two games ahead. They haven't finished worse than second in the division since a sixth-place finish in 1996-97.
Oklahoma City (42-35) is hoping to reach the playoffs for a sixth straight year but continues to deal with a barrage of injuries.
Playing without starters Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson and also key rotation player Nick Collison, the Thunder have lost five of six and three in a row for the first time since a season-worst six-game skid November 14-23. They've also dropped two of three at home after winning 20 of their previous 22 inside The Peake.
The Pelicans had won four straight before losing Saturday at Portland.
Oklahoma City's attrition has left a heavy burden on Westbrook, who is averaging 30.6 points, 10.6 assists and 9.1 rebounds with nine triple-doubles in 22 games since Durant last played. He has averaged 40.2 minutes over his last five.
"He understands that the rest is important to come back with a full tank every night, and he has done that," coach Scott Brooks said. "He's a special player, and he's at a high level in that regard. He has the energy that can fill an entire arena, and he's done a good job of recharging his batteries night in and night out."
While Durant is done for the season, Roberson is now listed as day to day. He participated in some of the Thunder's practice session yesterday. Collison and Ibaka have each increased their invidual workouts with the training staff but still have not been back to practice with the team.
The Thunder and Spurs split two earlier meetings with San Antonio winning 130-91 at home on March 25th to end a six-game series slide. The Spurs shot 58.0 percent with seven players scoring 10 or more. Westbrook was 5 of 16 for 16 points after scoring 34 in a 114-106 win at San Antonio on Christmas Day.
Spurs center Tiago Splitter sat out against the Warriors with a tight right calf and is expected to miss at least the next three games.
We'll be at shootaround later today and then at the game tonight for updates and continuing coverage.
Tonight's game tips at 7:15 and is an exclusive national telecast on TNT. Be sure to check out our Twitter feed page for live game updates from inside the arena.