The Oklahoma City Thunder had a short week, playing only two games back-to-back on Thursday and Friday, but those two games had a dramatic effect on the top of the standings in the West.
Here are the Western playoff seedings as of April 6:
Thursday night, the Thunder took on the San Antonio Spurs in what was considered by many as OKC's most important game remaining this season. At stake was not only the #1 seed but also the confidence that the Thunder could compete with the Spurs this season. Trailing the Spurs 1 ½ games in the Western Conference standings, the Thunder were looking to secure a win on their home court before traveling to Indiana the following night to face a red hot Pacers team who had just returned home from a 4-0 road trip.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Against the Spurs, the Thunder played an impressive game, getting off to a quick start and finishing the first quarter strong, leading 29 to 18. At the half, Derek Fisher led the Thunder with 12 points, all of which were made beyond the arc. Fisher finished the game with 17 points in all, connecting on five 3-pointers, a shooting performance he has not had since 2008. Russell Westbrook led all scorers with 27 points to go with 7 assists and 3 steals. Kevin Durant had 25 points and 9 rebounds. Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha both scored 11 points.
For the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard didn't disappoint. The 2nd year up-and-comer had 24 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists. Tim Duncan also continued his strong season with 24 points with 11 rebounds. Point Guard Tony Parker had only 2 points and 4 assists in 25 minutes of play and had to leave early with a leg injury. He left the court early in the fourth quarter and did not return to the game.
The Thunder controlled most of the game, and at one point in the 1st half, led by as many as 20 points. OKC then withstood a San Antonio late fourth quarter surge that cut the lead to one possession. Rugged defense sustained the Thunder, enabling them to go on a 13-4 run that put the Spurs away, and led to a 100-88 victory.
The Pacers were 10-4 against Western Conference opponents at home. A win Friday night would have given them the title in the Central Division in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Thunder was 8-0 against the East since the All-Star break. Both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka entered the Pacers game with active streaks in the NBA, Durant for scoring 20+ points in 13 straight games and Ibaka for at least 1 block in 22 straight games. Both Durant and Ibaka would leave Friday’s game with their streaks intact. The Thunder dominated the Pacers, again playing (what Coach Brooks called) a great defensive team game.
"We just wanted to make sure that they didn't get a lot of points in the paint or a lot of offensive rebound tip-ins or easy threes." - Scott Brooks
The Thunder held the Pacers to a season low in fourth quarter scoring while outscoring them 25-8, and out-rebounding the #1 rebounding team in the league, 53-31. Eight different Thunder players recorded at least 4 rebounds.
"I thought rebounding was the key," Westbrook said. "Winning all the 50-50 balls and allowing us to get easy points. We've matured as a team. We’re doing a good job of playing together at the right time. Mentally we wanted to come out and play the right way. It was important for us to come out and be aggressive. We didn't want to wait around and see how they were going to play."
Durant led all scorers with 34 points and had 9 rebounds. Westbrook had 24 points and 9 assists. Ibaka scored 12 points and blocked 1 shot. The Thunder bench combined for 20 points, topping the Pacers bench that scored 16. Thunder won 97-75.
After the game, Durant had this to say:
"Guys just left it all out there on the floor. We played for each other tonight on both ends and that’s a joy to see. We've been building this thing for the last few weeks. It’s starting to look good, so we have to keep it up."
What did we learn about the Thunder this week?
We all have to be encouraged after witnessing two dominating performances by the Thunder on two consecutive nights against two of the best teams in the NBA. As the Thunder head into the post season, they are peaking at the right moment. Kevin Durant described the Thunder’s progression as something they have been building for the last few weeks. I get the feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The Thunder are coming together before our very eyes.
General Manager Sam Presti was interviewed before the game Friday night. He, of course, was impressed with the win over San Antonio the night before, and he answered a question concerning the caliber of competition that the Thunder still face in the six games remaining on their schedule and how those games could help the Thunder prepare for the playoffs.
"Anytime you get to play against quality teams, you know, it’s going to make you establish your own standard of play. Every game we play is an opportunity for us to improve, understand ourselves… and understand what’s driving our wins." – Sam Presti.
So, if it's top-shelf competition that the Thunder seek to continue to sharpen their skills, they are in luck. Out of the six remaining games, four are against playoff-level teams: New York Knicks, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors, and the Milwaukee Bucks. The week starts off featuring the Thunder against the Knicks Sunday afternoon, and the game should be an eventful one as it pits the two best scorers in the NBA against each other. Durant and Carmelo Anthony are mere hundredths of a points apart from each other in their points per game average, and this game will help decide who gets the scoring title.
Regardless, the Thunder are focused on the real prize- a championship. Said Durant regarding the scoring title:
"He can have it."