With his night's work complete, Russell Westbrook took Phoenix’s solitary court for 45 minutes of reprieve from a relentless season-long narrative.
Each bounce, pivot, and uncontested jumper provided a blanketing oasis from the inevitable storm which resurfaces this afternoon when the MVP candidate and his Oklahoma City Thunder face a do-or-die Denver Nuggets team battling to extend its season.
From the Pepsi Center, as talk of history, and a 42nd triple-double abound, Mike Malone’s crew has but one objective: sweep its final three games, then hope for a Trail Blazers collapse.
After 79 contests, clinging to fading mathematical hope, the Nuggets trail surging Portland by 1.5 games for the conference’s final playoff spot.
Intertwined with Westbrook’s chase to surpass Oscar Robertson’s seasonal triple-double mark, Denver’s tale of a team on the verge makes for a potentially lasting exchange between these Northwest rivals.
Further, due to contrasted post-season prospects, OKC’s 2-0 lead vs. the Nuggets along this unfolding campaign should be largely discarded.
Unlike the uncertain Nuggets, Coach Billy Donovan’s overachieving unit already has its sites locked on a first-round rendezvous with former cornerstone James Harden’s Houston Rockets.
Today, from the Mile-High city, expect a dog fight.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (45-34 #6 west) vs. DENVER NUGGETS (38-41 #9 west)
- Time: 5 PM ET
- Venue: Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado
- TV: FSOK
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER KEYS TO VICTORY
- Avoid Distraction: Opposite Phoenix, Oklahoma City, and chiefly Russell Westbrook, appeared more consumed with statistics than playing winning basketball. While OKC’s opening-round matchup with Houston is set, establishing good habits going into the post-season is sound strategy.
- Value possessions: Careless point-guard play is infectious. Therefore, Westbrook must set an even tone for OKC to withstand Denver’s late-season salvo.
- Play with pace, limit anxiety: Anxiety, especially in the thin Denver air, saps the lungs of vital resources. Oklahoma City cannot allow the altitude to become a sixth on-court opponent.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
LAST 5 GAMES
- Record: 2-3
- OffRtg: #24, 103.0
- DefRtg: #11, 105.5
- NetRtg: #21, -2.5
After securing its playoff seeding vs. Memphis, Oklahoma City’s disappointing performance vs. Phoenix was enveloped by Russ’ pursuit of triple-double #42.
And while that pursuit will again dominate today’s headlines, Coach Billy Donovan must be wise about how hard he allows the unrelenting Westbrook to push himself just before the playoffs tip.
Westbrook’s legs, and mind, and body are no-doubt fatigued amid 79-consecutive load-bearing performances.
Priority A for OKC should be a careful dispersal of minutes between its main cogs, and supporting cast.
LAST 5 GAMES
- Record: 3-2
- OffRtg: #5, 114.1
- DefRtg: #23, 112.9
- NetRtg: #13, 1.2
Having split a crucial ten-game slate, Denver now finds itself peering in at streaking Portland for the West’s final playoff slot. However, winners of three-of-four, Mike Malone’s group isn’t going quietly into the night.
Today’s matchup will test the mettle of a Denver franchise that is 0-2 this season vs. OKC. As Portland finishes against San Antonio and New Orleans, Denver must win at least two of its three remaining contests —two of which come opposite the Thunder.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS/INJURY REPORTS
The Oklahoma City Thunder list both Alex Abrines (Knee) and Andre Roberson (Knee) as questionable. The Denver Nuggets list Jameer Nelson (Calf) as out vs. OKC. Emmanuel Mudiay (Ankle) is listed as questionable.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
- Point Guard: Russell Westbrook
- Shooting Guard: Victor Oladipo
- Small Forward: Doug McDermott/Andre Roberson
- Power Forward: Taj Gibson
- Center: Steven Adams
- Point Guard: Jamal Murray/Emmanuel Mudiay
- Shooting Guard: Gary Harris
- Small Forward: Danilo Gallinari
- Power Forward: Kenneth Faried
- Center: Nikola Jokic
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: +4.5
With a season in the balance, home-standing Denver is favored over the banged-up and content OKC Thunder. As stated ad-nauseam, Oklahoma City’s only stake today is Westbrook’s bid for seasonal history.
Key Matchup: Denver’s urgency vs. OKC’s strategy. A conspicuous grab at the record books backfired on Friday for the Thunder. In light of this, Billy Donovan may choose a different strategic route altogether for this evening’s tilt.
Although, Thunder Nation, and much of the sporting world sits with abated breath as the indefatigable Russell Westbrook makes his third attempt tonight at singular immortality.