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The Gauntlet: Oklahoma City Thunder’s race to the NBA Playoffs

Thunder grind out big win to kick off tough finishing stretch.

Layne Murdoch @ Getty Images

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Oklahoma City Thunder never let up and earned a big win over the Los Angeles Clippers to hang on to their #4 spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

Carmelo Anthony struggled to get his shot to go down all night, Paul George got off to a slow start, and Russell Westbrook ended the first quarter with just 2 points, but the Thunder bench stepped their game up early and cut a 9-point Clipper lead to 3 by the end of the 1st quarter.

Current NBA Western Conference Standings

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Recent Game Results

Friday, 3/16/18 - Only one game with any implications for the last 6 playoff spots in the West so this will be short, and for Thunder fans, sweet.

As stated earlier, the Thunder came out tight and spotted the Clippers to an early 13 to 4 lead with 8:09 remaining in the first quarter. Coach Billy Donovan stuck with his starters a little longer than usual but only saw the Clippers lead cut to 7 before making his first substitutions with 1:43 remaining in the opening frame.

The situation was turning bleak when the Clippers’ Milos Teodosic sank a 3-point shot to regain LA’s 9 point advantage with just under a minute and a half remained in the quarter when Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton exploded for 8 points and cut the Clippers’ lead to just 3.

Los Angeles rebuilt its lead to 7 on back to back makes to open the second quarter, but the Thunder reserves were ready and answered with a 16 to 4 run that gave the Thunder a 5 point lead before Donovan started rotating his starters back on the floor with just over 7 12 minutes left in the half. The starters road that momentum to a 12 point advantage and other than some lulls in the Thunder’s infamous “Tird Quarter” in which the Clippers cut the lead to 3, never trailed again and won the game 121 to 113.

Corey Brewer was the story for the Thunder against the Clippers. His energy and hustle kept the offense moving with 22 points (season high), 3 assists, and the Thunder defense engaged with 6 steals (season high). Since coming to the Thunder, Brewer is reborn. He is knocking down threes at a torrid 41.6% pace and 48.2% of his shots overall, but it’s what the 10-year veteran has brought on the defensive end that has Thunder fans talking.

Brewer is no Andre Roberson defensively, but it’s time to put that to rest because honestly, who is? There was not a soul the Thunder could have brought in to replace the best perimeter defender in the league, but Brewer’s commitment and experience has breathed life back into a Thunder defense that had become pitiful and his constant motion has been a tonic for an offense that has been stagnant at many times during the season.

Rookie Terrance Ferguson led the bench mob scoring with 12 points including this possession saving finish with 10:06 remaining in the game:

Ferguson also hit the 3-pointer that gave the Thunder their first lead of the night:

The Rook has a way to go defensively, but over his last 10 games, TFerg has quietly knocked down 10 of his last 17 3-point attempts, a mere 58.8%. On the defensive front, Ferguson also led the reserves tonight with 3 steals. Good to see the youngster figuring it out.

Russell Westbrook recorded the 101st triple-double of his career, just 6 behind Jason Kidd for 3rd All-Time:

The win kept the Thunder at #4 but the loss dropped the Clippers into the basement of contenders at #10.

Upcoming Thunder Trifecta

Sunday, 3/18 - Toronto Raptors

The Raptors collected their 11th win in a row when they edged the Dallas Mavericks 122-115 on Friday night. Toronto is the hottest team in the East and hitting on all cylinders now. If the Thunder want to come away from this one with a win they will have to put together a much more consistent offensive effort than they produced against a tired Clipper team. The biggest notch on the Raptors recent winning run was knocking the Houston Rockets off their 17-game winning perch and they will be looking to avenge a 17-point loss to the Thunder on December 27th.

This will be a tough one.

Tuesday, 3/20 - Boston Celtics

The Thunder are catching the Celtics at the right time as the injury bug has infested Boston Garden. Marcus Smart is out for the season, and if he returns by Tuesday, Kyrie Irving will be nursing a chronic knee issue that will eventually need surgery. Al Horford returned after a bout with the flu, but it is unlikely that Jaylen Brown, the team’s second-leading scorer, will be released from the league’s concussion protocol before next Friday.

This one is winnable, but the Thunder can’t overlook a very well coached and determined Celtic team on their home court.

Friday, 3/23 - Miami Heat

After a tough east coast road test, the Thunder return to OKC to face the Miami Heat and get an extra days rest to boot. The Heat, currently the #8 seed and in a tight positioning battle of their own in the Eastern Conference, are probably the weakest of the 11 straight +500 opponents the Thunder will face, but that just makes it that much more important for the Thunder to handle their business and give the hometown crowd a big win.

Prediction

The Raptors scare the bejeezus out of me and that hasn’t changed in the last 24 hours. The Thunder could and should win 2 of these and kick off the 11-game “Gauntlet, 3 and 1.

“Just win, baby.”