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The Gauntlet: Blazers burn, Timberwolves tumble, and Alvin Gentry unbuttons his shirt

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Thunder battling their way into the contender conversation.

“Can’t touch this”
Ron Turrene @ Getty Images

The sun is shining a little brighter in Oklahoma City after the Thunder pulled off their biggest win of the season in Toronto. As expected, the Western Conference standings keep shifting daily and there is no place to hide, so let’s get started.

Current NBA Western Conference Standings

via ESPN

Recent Game Results

Saturday, 3/17/2018 - After a 10-game winning streak, the New Orleans Pelicans have dropped 4 of their last 5 including a 107 to 101 loss to the Houston Rockets at home. The Rockets led the game other than a short span of the second quarter and were never challenged in the second half, leading by as much as 20 points, until Jrue Holiday got fouled on a driving lay-up that cut the Houston lead to 4 with 17 seconds remaining. Holiday appeared to attempt an intentional miss on the free throw attempt, but Chris Paul cut in and grabbed the rebound to seal the win.

As things tend to go when you’re talking about the Rockets, there was plenty of post-game fireworks from Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry:

And so then it comes down to a few plays in a game, you can’t guess on plays when you got teams playing for playoff spots,” Gentry said. “You can’t guess on a foul. When a guy’s got his hands on his chest, and he’s got his hands in, and you call a three-point shot [a foul], that’s not right. That’s not correct. That’s not the way you do it. And then you give them the ball back on another play when they undercut a player, that’s not right either. That’s not correct. That’s not the way you call the game. It’s not. And then when you can get called for a technical foul for walking AWAY from a guy, then this league has really changed. I walked away from him so I wouldn’t get a technical.

The loss dropped the Pelicans from #6 to #8 in the Western Conference race. With 9 of their last 13 games against +500 opposition, the Pelicans need to regain their winning form quickly or see their once promising season end with only a lottery pick to show for it.

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As expected, the Utah Jazz handled another sub-500 opponent, but not before the Sacramento Kings made it interesting. After winning the 1st quarter 32 to 27, the Jazz offense faltered and the Kings went into intermission with a 4 point advantage. Utah recovered in the 3rd and took a 1-point lead into the final quarter, but it wasn’t until that 4th quarter that the vaulted Utah defense was really able to take control, holding the Kings to just 18 points and securing the 103 to 97 win.

The win lifted the Jazz past New Orleans and Minnesota and into the #5 spot just 1 12 games behind the Thunder.

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In the big game of the day, the Minnesota Timberwolves got manhandled by a surging San Antonio team that is obviously not ready to concede this season. The game started well for the T-Wolves as they grabbed a 9-point lead with just under 3 12 remaining in the 1st quarter but it was all Spurs from that point on. The win was the Spurs best performance since beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, 114 to 102, on January 23rd.

Three straight wins have vaulted the Spurs from outside the Western Conference playoff picture to #7 and a very intriguing possible 1st round match-up for whomever they may face. Still no word on when or if Kawhi Leonard will return to action, but even without their best player, a match-up with the Golden State Warriors on Monday that just a week ago looked like a lost cause, has become a very winnable affair for the Spurs with all 3 of the Warriors primary weapons (Curry, Thompson, Durant) out of commission.

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The Denver Nuggets suffered a devastating 101 - 94 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Already sitting at the bottom of the possible contenders for the last 6 playoff spots in the Western Conference and facing 6 road games, 5 against +500 competition, this was a must win. Look for the Nuggets to start making summer vacation plans any day now.

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The Portland Trail Blazers took the lead over an ornery Detroit Piston squad just 2 12 minutes into the game and never looked back. The Pistons played physical but never seriously challenged after giving up an early 2 point lead and lost 100 to 87. The Trail Blazers have now won 12 in a row.

The win gives Portland a full 2 game lead over the Thunder for the #3 seed. If there is any hope for the Thunder overtaking them it starts now as the Trail Blazers face +500 competition in the next 5 games. A road game against a desperate LA Clipper in the second game of a back to back will tell us a lot about this Portland team.

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Sunday, 3/18/2018 - Thunder gets huge road win over red-hot Toronto Raptors, 132-125. See WTLC recap.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Toronto Raptors
“Have Mercy!!”
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The win keeps the Thunder at #4 in the Western Conference. Even with a loss, the Thunder’s #4 spot was safe, but the win put a valuable 12 game in the bank... just in case.

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The New Orleans Pelicans picked up a huge home win of their own by topping the East’s second seed Boston Celtics, 108 to 89. Coming off 2 consecutive losses, including a loss to the Houston Rockets the night before, the Pels were in desperate need of a win after dropping 2 spots in the Western Conference standings to #8. The game was a tale of two halves, the Celtics controlled the 1st half before the Pelicans seized control and ran away with the game early in the third quarter.

The win moved the Pelicans, who currently hold the tiebreaker over the Spurs, to #6. New Orleans has 3 home games in a row, before traveling to Houston on March 24th and on paper, the Pelicans should win all three, but Dallas forced the Raptors into overtime on the road, the Lakers are a whisper from being winners of 3 of their last 4, and Indianapolis, the only +500 team the Pels play during the rest of this home-stand, are battling for position in the Eastern Conference playoff race. After finally getting over the hump in a tough 3-game stretch, the Pels must guard against a letdown. As the saying goes, many a slip between cup and lip.

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The Minnesota Timberwolves managed to keep their game against the Rockets at the Target Center in Minneapolis interesting for about 4 12 minutes and then Houston ran away with it, dealing the T-Wolves their second loss in a row, 129-120. Minnesota just isn’t the same team without Jimmy Butler and they face another tough test when a desperate LA Clipper team comes to town on Tuesday.

The loss dropped the T-Wolves to #8.

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The Portland Trail Blazers kicked off their toughest run of remaining regular season games on the road at the LA Clippers. The Clippers entered “The Gauntlet” winners of 7 of their last ten and looked like a team on the rise. That was 3 games ago and the Clippers haven’t won a game since. Oh they made their match-up with the Blazers interesting for about 20 minutes, but once Portland survived the Clippers strong second quarter and took a 6 point lead into intermission it was over.

Within 4 minutes of the 3rd quarter, the Portland lead was double-digits and the Clippers never got back in it and lost, 122 to 109.

The win opened Portland’s lead over the #4 OKC Thunder to 2 full games. The good news for Thunder Nation is that the Blazers go up against the Rockets on Tuesday, but then they get the beat up Celtics on Friday before facing the Thunder on Sunday, March 25th. As I wrote in the first installment of “The Gauntlet”, the Trail Blazers already have the lead in the standings, an easier schedule, and the season tie-breaker over the Thunder. Those Thunder losses against weak opponents have caught up with them and it’s highly unlikely the Thunder finish ahead of Portland.

The loss sent the Clippers to #10. The bottom of the contenders and just a breath or two from Davy Jones’ locker. I told you the Clippers schedule was tough. Now they have to go on the road to face Minny on Tuesday, the Greek Freak on Wednesday, Oladipo and the Pacers on Friday, and then finish the road trip against a very pissed-off bunch of Raptors on Sunday.

I gave the Clippers some love about making it to the playoffs, but it’s time to face facts, the loss of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Jamal Crawford just proved too much for Doc to overcome, they ain’t gonna make it. Sing it to ‘em, Don:

Monday, 3/19/2018

The Denver Nuggets dropped a 2 OT heartbreaker to the Miami Heat last night, 149-141. In a game both teams needed to have to keep their postseason hopes alive, it was the Heat who had a little bit more offense while the Nuggets had to play without their starting PG, Gary Harris. While the game pushes Denver down 2 games out of the 8th seed, hope is not all lost. The Timberwolves continue to crater, having fallen from the 3rd seed to the 8th spot, and the Clippers are no gimme, either.

The Upcoming Thunder Trifecta

Tuesday, 3/20 - Boston Celtics

In the opening post of this series, I said the Thunder needed to win this game to claim 2 of the first 3 and nothing has changed other than the Thunder could be 3 and 0 after this one and not 2 and 1.

As reported, the Celtics are a beat-up basketball team that just lost to the New Orleans Pelicans on the road. They will be much tougher at home, but still missing Marcus Smart for the rest of the season. Jaylen Brown is still in the league’s concussion protocol and doubtful for Tuesday’s match-up with the Thunder. And most importantly, Kyrie Irving has been listed as out for tonight’s game against OKC.

The Thunder must guard against a let-down on Tuesday after a huge win over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday.

Friday, 3/23 - Miami Heat

If there is a trap game in our midst, this one could be the one. Home after a tough east coast road trip, playing on 3 days rest against probably the weakest of the 11 +500 teams the Thunder play in a row with a monster match-up just two days away? For this Thunder team and their history.... scary. And as noted above, they just knocked off the getting-desperate Nuggets.

Sunday, 3/25 - Portland Trail Blazers

The Thunder have already lost the season series to the Trail Blazers. in fact, the Thunder have not beaten them in 3 attempts and haven’t looked great in any of them. Some experts say they can’t, here is Donovan and the Thunder’s last chance to prove those experts wrong and it won’t be easy. The Trail Blazers check off almost every box on the Thunder’s list of defensive weaknesses.

If there was ever a game that fit “The Gauntlet” mantra, this one is it.....”Just win, baby”

Prediction

In these two wins, the Thunder have looked like the team we all hoped to see before the season began. It’s been a long time coming. It’s served me well so far and I believe if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, so I’m staying the course and saying the Thunder need 2 of these 3 games, and again, I don’t care how they get it done. Fall out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down as far as I care, “Just win, baby.”