By Randy Renner, Senior Writer
The Thunder’s magic number to clinch the #3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs remains at 1 after OKC lost at Houston on Sunday and the Clippers beat Washington.
On paper both the Thunder and the Clippers would seem to have good chances to win their games tonight. The Clips are playing the Lakers and well that’s probably enough said on that and the Thunder are playing a Nuggets team that’s lost four of their last five.
Denver’s last two losses have come against short-handed teams with worse records than their own.
"You look at the last two games, we played against a depleted Pelicans team, got our butts kicked," said Nuggets guard Will Barton. “We played a depleted Sacramento team and got our butts kicked. It's a terrible effort. Just a bad effort."
Barton has contributed to the problems going 0-for-17 in those two games but at least scoring eight points at the free throw line.
The Thunder had won eight straight before losing a week ago in Detroit when both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka sat out for rest. OKC beat a short-handed Clippers team on Thursday but they had to withstand a massive 3-point barrage from backups Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers. Then Sunday the Thunder had a different set of problems giving up 22 offensive rebounds to Houston and turning the ball over 21 times.
Those troubles led to the Thunder blowing a fourth quarter lead and going on to lose for the 13th time this season, more than any other team in the NBA.
After that game Russell Westbrook wasn’t on board with the “blowing a lead” narrative.
"I don't agree with us 'losing the lead' if we're up two points going into the fourth quarter because, to me, that's not losing the lead," said Westbrook, who finished one assist shy of his 17th triple-double this season. "To me, that doesn't make any sense. I think we've been doing a good job of playing well and closing out games, so I'm not worried about that."
Billy Donovan wasn’t really on board with the narrative either saying it was really just a “one possession game” going into the fourth quarter. He has a good point but OKC led by six later in the fourth quarter but even more concerning was the way the Thunder finished.
Allowing a team they’d held to 35 percent shooting through the first three quarters to hit 61.1 percent of their shots over the last 12 minutes. Those offensive rebounds and turnovers are also of more concern to Donovan.
“Half-court defense we’ve been a Top 5 team all year long,” he pointed out after OKC’s Monday practice in Denver. “Where we’ve struggled has been in transition defense and second chance points. 40 percent of Houston’s points were either on second chance points or in transition so we’ve gotta do a better job and obviously some of the turnovers contributed to that.”
Good news for the Thunder tonight is the Nuggets having been doing so well in those categories lately and Denver scored just 35 total points in the fourth quarters of their last two games combined on just 26.7 percent shooting overall and 2-for-16 (12.5 percent) on threes so it might be kinda tough for the Nugs to mount a big time rally in the fourth quarter if that trend continues.
Speaking of trends the Thunder have beaten the Nuggets five straight games and will be going for their first season sweep of the Nuggets since moving to OKC.
Durant has scored at least 20 points in 61 straight games and he’s averaged 32.5 in his last four games in the Mile High City.
The Thunder are expected to go with the regular lineup tonight, hoping to win and clinch third place. They then could and most likely would, rest at least a couple of players tomorrow night in Portland.
Tipoff is set for 8:10 Oklahoma time and you can see the game on Fox Sports Oklahoma.