Knuke the Knicks

So they asked Raymond Felton what it’s like to play your former team. Felton didn’t flinch: “You want to beat the crap out of them.” It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be rude to them — when Thunder expats Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott were introduced, Loud City gave them a standing ovation — but still, you’re gonna play ’em tough. And the Thunder did exactly that; the Knicks showed occasional flashes of brilliance, and forward Kristaps Porzingis put together an impressive 31-point/12-rebound performance. but OKC finished the first half on a 13-2 run and spent the rest of the game finishing off New York. How finished were the Knicks? Porzingis, game-high, was -17 on the dreaded plus/minus scale. And as Felton dribbled it out, everyone knew it. Oklahoma City 105, New York 84, and Carmelo Anthony came out to give Porzingis a hug.

‘Melo had a decent night himself: 22 points. Paul George knocked down 28 points and hauled in six boards. And dare we ask? We dare. Twenty-one points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds for Russell Westbrook, his first triple-double in, um, one game. And Steven Adams went 5-for-5 for his share of the double figures. Andre Roberson? Shot well (3-7), rebounded likewise (six), and nobody fouled him.

Weird to see Kanter wearing the double-zero. He did hit 5 of 10, collecting seven rebounds and three steals. Nobody else from New York hit double-figures, but you have to figure Porzingis had all the marbles tonight. Certainly nobody kept the rock very well: the Knicks gave up 26 turnovers, which the Thunder were happy to turn into 38 points. And I guess I’m amused that perennial D-/G-League stalwart Dakari Johnson played the last three minutes, his first in the actual NBA, collecting four points.

The Jazz await in Salt Lake City Saturday night, and, well, most of these guys won the Northwest Division last year, so a cakewalk it isn’t. I think. With 81 games to go, it’s kind of hard to tell.

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Five and thirty

I don’t think anyone here ever thought they’d see this again:

It was an unusual sight walking into the Oklahoma City Thunder’s practice facility Tuesday and seeing No. 35 on the wing, attempting 3-pointers with assistant coach Vin Bhavnani.

No, Kevin Durant was not visiting his old stomping grounds. It was the Thunder’s newest signing, undrafted rookie P. J. Dozier, who signed to a two-way contract Tuesday.

KayDee, of course, spent nine seasons in Thunder blue as #35. Dozier, a former Gamecock from South Carolina, says he didn’t even think about that:

Despite any apparent awkwardness, Dozier said he simply saw the numbers available, asked for 35 and got it. He said he didn’t think about who had previously worn the number when he asked for it.

“Honestly I didn’t even think twice about [Durant having it] when I said it because I had it in preseason when I was with Dallas,” he said. “I just saw it was open and took advantage of it.”

Turns out Dozier’s second cousin was the late Reggie Lewis, whose #35 jersey was retired by the Boston Celtics.

I have to believe Russell Westbrook, who signed his max contract extension on Kevin Durant’s birthday, laughed when he heard about it.

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Not quite stale in Pepsiland

In the third quarter, the Thunder appeared to have put a lot of hurt on the hometown Denver Nuggets: they led by 21 points despite never (well, hardly ever) making any foul shots.

Cut to 6:37 left in the fourth quarter. Suddenly the lead is down to one. But this is that point you’ve seen often before, where you can practically see the gears shifting. Result: a 13-2 burst. The one starter who played in the fourth quarter, Paul George, seemed to stabilize things for the younger guys. George finally got to rest with the Thunder up twelve, and the youngsters did a decent job of running out the clock. OKC 96, Denver 86, and that’s it for the preseason.

Interestingly, the Thunder Big Three’s numbers fell right together: George with 19, Russell Westbrook with 20, Carmelo Anthony with 15. Then came Josh Huestis, who made some ghastly near-rookie errors and performed some amazing acts of athleticism, sometimes within mere seconds. (He finished with 15 points and nine boards.) Game-high on the scoreboard, though, goes to Denver swingman Will Barton, who came off the bench for a lovely 26.

But enough of that. The Real Stuff is coming Real Soon Now.

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Nearly upended from down under

Melbourne United plays in Australia’s National Basketball League; they’ve won four NBL titles over the years, which suggests that they’re aren’t likely to be pushovers, if only because they lack the pushover mindset.

They certainly didn’t seem fearful in Oklahoma City, forcing the Thunder to work seriously hard to manage to edge Melbourne, 86-85. How hard? Josh Huestis blocked two Melbourne shots in the last few seconds to preserve that one-point lead:

This makes 2-1 for the preseason, which makes it totally meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but we did learn two things:

  • Oz plays some pretty mean roundball, as Steven Adams, who hails from New Zealand, probably could have told you;
  • This season is not going to be a walk no matter how delighted we were with the George and Anthony signing.

Last preseason game: Tuesday, in Denver.

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Where the Birds are

The Thunder wandered over to New Orleans for their second preseason game, and it was a bit more successful than their first. Russell Westbrook actually started, but played only 10 minutes; he picked up 9 points and four assists. But mostly this was Let’s Give Everyone Minutes: the only double-digits player was Paul George, who hung around for 27 minutes and scored 25. The master of the plus-minus proved to be rookie Terrance Ferguson, +13 in 24 minutes, and he might have gotten more if he hadn’t fouled out. The Pelicans core performed decently, though Dante Cunningham went bucketless and Rajon Rondo was on for only seven minutes, gathering six points. The 102-91 final is a W, which is always nice, but it’s still preseason, so take it with several grains of Gulf sea salt.

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Opening act

Once a year, the Thunder play an exhibition game at the BOK Center in Tulsa. It’s a darn nice arena, drawn by the legendary César Pelli and stuffable with nearly 18,000 roundball fans. It’s not quite as loud as Loud City, and tonight the Houston Rockets, with two of the Association’s more dramatic actors — James Harden and Chris Paul — brought their traveling show. And it wasn’t as much fun as it could have been, since (1) three Thunder stalwarts were on the bench with various ailments, and (2) Harden did his level best to strangle Steven Adams. On the upside, the two new All-Stars showed well, with Carmelo Anthony knocking down 19 and Paul George adding 15 more despite not getting a whole lot of help, and Raymond Felton looking pretty good in the point-guard position in lieu of Russell Westbrook. And if we learned anything from this experience, it’s that the Rockets seem even more dependent on the trey than before: they shot 54 of them, making 24. The final was 104-95, which of course counts for nothing, this being the preseason. Next outing: against the Pelicans Friday.

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Somewhere near Cloud Nine

It takes a while before the rookie gets fan mail — unless, of course, somebody does something about it:

I just wonder how Patterson drew 208. I checked the local copy of the postal database, and the alleged “Thunder Drive” is approved by the USPS for 200 through 299 inclusive. There’s a fan mail drop in the arena, but not everyone happens to walk by Section 318 on a regular basis.

And Patterson does have 190,000 Twitter followers and 138,000 Instagram followers.

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There is NO Game Six

How discombobulating a series? The Oklahoman ran this at the top of page 1A on Monday:

Game 4?

Of course, the team was headed for the Toyota Center for Game Five, and as previously noted, there is no Game Six. But you’ve seen all this before: the Thunder grab a first-quarter lead, the Rockets take over in the second, and OKC spends the rest of the game trying to play catch-up. In this game, however, the Thunder actually managed to regain the lead in the third, and went into the fourth up by five. But we all know what happens in the fourth, and sure enough, it happened again tonight. (tl;dr: OKC missed twelve shots in a row.) The Rockets, when the chips are down, simply have been executing with more sheer skill, and if there’s an iconic image from this series, it’s a scene from the last minute: Andre Roberson missing a free throw, looking like he was going to miss the second one, and somehow hitting it. Figures, doesn’t it? Houston 105, Oklahoma City 99, that’s all she wrote, and if you had “Rockets in five,” come up and claim your prize. (Not me; I figured it would go six.)

I would have bet, however, that the last couple of points would be from James Harden at the charity stripe, and that’s the way it fell. The Beard hit 16 of 17 on his way to 34 points, and it’s scant comfort that he was even worse than Russell Westbrook from the three-point line: two out of 13. Russ hit five of 18. Those of us who thought these teams were jacking up too many treys feel vaguely vindicated. And Westbrook had exactly the line you’d expect on a night when the season grinds to a halt: 47 points, 11 rebounds, 9 (of course not 10) assists.

Oh, well. For now, at least, we’re Spurs (or conceivably Grizzlies) fans, and not just to beat the East either, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

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We have all been here before

For the fourth game in a row, the Houston Rockets came up strong in the fourth quarter no matter what they say about Russell Westbrook’s clutchiness; down 77-73 after three quarters, the Rockets were up five in the last minute. Steven Adams pulled a nifty stunt, missing a second free throw which Westbrook turned into a three-pointer. The Rockets responded with a barrage of free throws, and it ended with Westbrook near the circle and Patrick Beverley apparently giving him the stink-eye. Houston 113, Oklahoma City 109, and the scent of elimination is in the air.

Then again, the miraculous aspect of all this was that Adams made the first free throw; he was 2-5 from the stripe. Still, this was better than Andre Roberson, upon whom Mike d’Antoni chose to inflict The Hack. Dre hit two of eight, which was bad enough, but he’d already missed four. Ultimately, the Thunder managed to connect on only 18 of 32 from the stripe, a dismal 56 percent. Westbrook contributed only one miss, hitting 12 of 13, and had already collected a triple double by halftime, ending with 35-14-14. Still, he shot only 10-28.

This did not quite offset overall poorer Houston shooting (44 percent versus 49), and an indifferent showing by James Harden (5-16, 0 of 7 treys, 16 points). But the Rockets’ three-man bench was more than enough to compensate; Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each contributed 18 points to the cause, and Nené went 12-12 (!) for 28 points. (The entire Thunder bench scored only 22.) And the Rockets outrebounded the Thunder, 45-40, never a good sign.

So it’s back to Houston for Game Five on Tuesday, with the Rockets up 3-1. It’s not impossible for the Thunder to win three straight and move to the second round, but I’m not holding my breath either.

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Maximum narrowness

Game Three, unlike the first two, took place in the hallowed hollow that is Chesapeake Arena. Some things happened that were better: Russell Westbrook turned in his triple-double without monopolizing all the shots, the Thunder actually hit three-pointers on a regular basis (nine of 19), and OKC proved more adept at serving up assists (24-10). But some things were distressingly familiar: failure to close quarters strongly, long periods where the Rockets seemed to do all the scoring, and entirely too many fouls against James Harden, especially when the Beard is putting up a trey. An example of the latter, inside the two-minute mark, left the score at 110-108. It was tied at 111 when Harden didn’t exactly travel. Well, he did, but he slid across the floor, and he quickly called a timeout. With 9.5 left, Westbrook was going for a slam, but Patrick Beverley got in his way. It was Beverley’s sixth foul, so that was sort of gratifying, but Westbrook dropped one of the two freebies. With 8.8 left, Westbrook fouled Harden to make sure he couldn’t hit a trey. Harden duly sank two free throws — he made all 18 he tried — and it was 114-113 Thunder. Half a second later, Westbrook drew another foul and somehow nailed only one of the charities. The last Rocket volley missed, and the final was OKC 115, Houston 113. Suddenly it’s a 2-1 series, and Game Four looms on Sunday afternoon.

The Thunder couldn’t do much about Harden, who racked up 44 points seemingly without effort, although the Beard ended up with seven turnovers versus six assists. They did, however, make life miserable for Beverley, which might have been more emotionally satisfying: while the B did reel in seven rebounds, the only shot he made all night was a free throw. Still, they have no answer for Lou Williams. Westbrook was 32-13-11, though he did manage to miss three of his last six free throws. More delightful: more Taj Gibson, who rolled up 20 on 10-13 shooting.

Game Five will be Tuesday night in the 713. If nothing else, by then we’ll know if there’s a Game Six.

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I told you so

She asked, and I answered:

I figured I’d screwed up royally, once the Thunder really got going, leaving the Rockets behind by as many as fifteen. And then OKC let it slip away: with just over eight minutes left, Houston blasted their way to their first lead, and the Thunder’s collapse was, if not epic, certainly difficult to watch. At the 3:16 mark, there was a tie, and there was still a chance. Then Houston rolled up ten unanswered points, and the writing was on the Toyota Center wall. With 1.9 seconds left, the score was, yes, Houston 115, OKC 111, and James Harden obliged me by missing his last two free throws.

Harden was, if not heroic, certainly capable: he shot an okay 7-17, but he made his first 18 free throws before flubbing the last two. Aside from The Beard, most of the Houston offense came from the reserves: Eric Gordon with 22, Lou Williams with 21, and Nené with 7. That’s it: Mike D’Antoni played only eight men. The weird part of this is that the top plus/minus guys, at +18, were Williams and, um, Steven Adams, who fouled out in the fourth. Mention must be made of Patrick Beverley, who got 15 points and two shots to Russell Westbrook’s head. (Neither foul was ruled flagrant.)

Westbrook, in the meantime — well, yeah, he had 51 points, a playoff record, 10 rebounds and 13 assists. The jaundiced eye will look past the triple-double and note that His Zeroness shot 17-43. That’s forty-three shots. The rest of the team went 23-54, which is marginally better, but 41 percent doesn’t make it in the playoffs, especially if your #2 scorer is Andre Roberson, who squeezed out 12 points. Then again, you’ve got Doug McDermott, who led the bench with 11 points in 14 minutes, and you start asking yourself why McBuckets is out there for only 14 minutes.

Friday in the friendly confines of Chesapeake. Drop one of these, and it’s pretty much all over. (Drop two of these, and it’s literally all over.) It’s too early for me to make any predictions, and anyway, since when I was right about anything? (See above.)

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Only a flesh wound

For 48 minutes, anyway, the Thunder learned what will work against Houston, and the answer, apparently, is “Not a damn thing.” Early on, they managed to hold off the Rockets’ three-point attack; Houston duly went down the middle toward the rim. Eventually Houston’s prowess from outside returned, and with OKC having gone from two up after the first quarter to fifteen down after the third, well, let’s say a lot of the reserves saw some unexpected minutes. You can compare lines between Russell Westbrook (22-11-7) and James Harden (37-7-9), but the really scary line for Thunder fans will be Patrick Beverley’s (21-10-3). Areas where OKC normally excels — points in the paint (62-38), rebounds (56-41) — went totally south. And look at this: the Rockets took 10 more shots than the Thunder (91-81), but made 15 more (45-30). In light of these collapses, it’s probably surprising that Houston won this one by a mere thirty-one: the other three first-round games were decided by a total 23. With a 118-87 defeat hung on them, the Thunder are going to have to do some serious soul-searching between now and Wednesday.

Marginally bright spot: Andre Roberson came up with 18 points on 7-10 shooting with seven rebounds. And that’s about it. At the other extreme, Victor Oladipo went 1-12 for a whole six points. This was a thrashing in the behind-the-woodshed sense of the word, and I can’t blame the Rockets for wanting to celebrate it.

There are a lot of calculations that will come out of this game, and the one I want to see is the one that explains how the Thunder got 29 points in the first twelve minutes and 33 points in the last 24. They were no worse than the Rockets on the three-ball (9-29 versus 10-33), but they weren’t making the inside shots worth a darn. If this doesn’t improve … well, you know the rules as much as I do.

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But a whimper

The evening started out with Oscar Robertson singing the praises of Russell Westbrook, and ended with radio guy Matt Pinto wondering where the hell this motley bunch of kids was supposed to be finding any offense. It wasn’t going to be from Westbrook, who played the first half only and finished with a stunningly irrelevant 5-5-8. Andre Roberson and Doug McDermott sat. The Thunder scored 38 in the second quarter, only 41 in the third and fourth, and the Nuggets gradually worked themselves into a 10-point lead before winning it by six, 111-105. Nor were these the regular Nuggets: Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari saw no playing time. Of course, this game meant nothing except the fact that it was the last regular-season game; Denver had already been eliminated from the playoffs — lest we forget, by the Thunder — and we know that it’s going to be Houston/OKC in the first round. Still, one hates to go out with a shrug.

Denver big Nikola Jokić came up really big for the Nuggets, with 29 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists. This may be explained partially by Mike Malone’s decision to play only seven men, leaving Jokić in for 40 minutes. Of those seven, five scored in double figures, and Juancho Hernangomez just missed with nine. (Mike Miller made no shots, but claimed eight boards.) High scorers for OKC were Taj Gibson and Jerami Grant, with, um, 13 each. And the big difference, really, was at the foul line, where the Nuggets were 26-32 and the Thunder 11-17.

Now forget all these numbers. The season is over. OKC finishes 47-35, which is probably a tick or two better than anyone anticipated after the defection of that Durant guy. Give Westbrook credit where it’s due, and let’s hope he’s up to the task of dealing with the Rockets, who were 3-1 against the Thunder this year.

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Sleeping through it

Both the Thunder and the Timberwolves began back-to-backs tonight. It’s Game 81, of little importance to either. But it was a home game for Minnesota, so Tom Thibodeau opted to bring out the usual hometown favorites. Meanwhile, Billy Donovan decided to rest Andre Roberson, Taj Gibson, and, yes, Russell Westbrook. This sounded like a brilliant idea after the first quarter, with the Thunder up 33-16. But the momentum gradually shifted in the middle quarters, and a 5-0 run by the Wolves put Minnesota up 98-97 with 44 seconds left. A mere six-tenths of a second later, Norris Cole tied it up with one of two free throws. Karl-Anthony Towns somehow missed a layup; with 6.3 left, Victor Oladipo sent up a jumper to make it 100-98 Thunder, and Andrew Wiggins’ three-pointer at the horn went nowhere.

If nothing else, this experiment redeemed both Norris Cole (12 points) and Kyle Singler (11 points). Oladipo’s last shot gave him 20; Domas Sabonis rolled up 19. Perhaps what’s most important, though, was the idea that it can be done without the presence of the Great Zero God: Westbrook’s seeming invulnerability is not, after all, a given.

Towns outscored everyone else on the floor with a solid 26 points and 12 rebounds. Wiggins and fellow forward Gorgui Dieng picked up 18 and 19 respectively. And Ricky Rubio popped up a double-double of his own, with 14 points and 10 dimes. The Wolves, we may safely say, are not the doormats they were two years ago, but still: 50 losses, plus tomorrow night at Houston. It seems unlikely James Harden will get the night off.

Nuggets at Thunder tomorrow night. We may safely assume that Denver would like some measure of payback for Sunday. And they might get it, if the Thunder are allowed to sleepwalk through that game the way they did through half of this one. And with the Rockets coming up this weekend, well, the opportunity for distraction, or worse, will present itself whenever the Fates are so moved.

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Several doors close

Were you a Denver Nuggets fan, you had a chance at your best possible outcome: you got to see Russell Westbrook collect his 42nd triple-double of the season, breaking Oscar Robertson’s 55-year-old record, and you got to watch the Thunder, who too often seemed like they were gasping for breath, and not because of the altitude either, stumble all over the place. And the Nuggets had serious motivation: they started the day a game and a half behind the Trail Blazers for the eighth and last playoff spot in the West, and a loss would mean elimination. Then Westbrook did his usual fourth-quarter stuff, because that’s what he does. With 2.9 seconds left, Denver had had its lead shaved to two, at 105-103, and the ball, inevitably, came in to Westbrook, 36 feet from the rim. He sailed it over the Nuggets, and they watched it go in, just a breath or two before the horn. Oklahoma City 106, Denver 105, the season series is swept — the Nuggets haven’t beaten the Thunder in over two years — and if this doesn’t sweep Westbrook into the MVP slot, nothing can.

And it took Westbrook-style heroics to pull this one off, too. Andre Roberson was back, but for limited minutes, and he seemed unwell. Doug McDermott was a late scratch, and Victor Oladipo seemed to be walking wounded. (VO was 3-15 from the floor, missing all six three-point attempts.) Against this, you have both Danilo Galinari and Wilson Chandler collecting double-doubles, Gallinari knocking down a season-high 34, and Nikola Jokić good for 23. The Nuggets shot 6 percent better than the Thunder, and their 11-34 for three eclipsed the Thunder’s feeble 6-25.

But none of that matters, because Westbrook. We’re talking 50-16-10. And if you need a reminder of how this team works: Semaj Christon scored exactly three points — off Westbrook’s tenth assist, the one that nailed down the record. The brothers Stache had 25 points between them; nobody else managed even ten.

Just a reminder:

And that’s 80 games. Two remain: at Minnesota on Tuesday, and at home against some rather cheesed-off Nuggets on Wednesday. Those games are valuable to the statisticians, but not, I suspect, to anyone else.

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Bottom-feeders chow down

The Phoenix Suns have been scraping the bottom of the Western Conference most of the season, and after 13 consecutive losses, you’d think they might be somehow demoralized. Not so. They’d beaten the Thunder once this season already, and tonight, they were in fine form to do it again. Perhaps you could blame the absence of Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson, but we’re not buying: the Suns came out fighting, and they didn’t let up for even one of those 48 minutes. (We’re also not buying the notion that Russell Westbrook might be playing for stats; he clinched that triple-double season average early on, and if anything, he was flailing about randomly late in the game before exiting in favor of Semaj Christon.) The Thunder shot a miserable 37 percent and hit a mere seven of 30 three-pointers on the way to a staggering 120-99 loss to the Suns, who earned a split of the season series. And if anyone looked Westbrook-like tonight, it was Phoenix guard Devin Booker, who picked up 37 points on 13-29 shooting, five of nine treys, and a tie for game-high +21 with teammate T. J. Warren (23 points). Seems only fair, given that Booker, a week and a half ago, rang up 70 points against the Celtics, and the Suns still lost.

Doug McDermott got his first start in Thunder blue; he knocked down 11 points in 40 minutes. Steven Adams was in decent form with a double-double (12-11), and as usual, Enes Kanter led the bench with 17. But all of them took too many shots for too little return: McBuckets and Adams both went 4-10, Kanter 5-14, and, lest we forget, Westbrook 6-25.

The last three games of the season are against Northwest rivals, though the division standings are not likely to change: Utah wins the division outright, Denver and Portland are still in a race for third, and Minnesota is mired at the bottom. Two games against the Nuggets and one against the Wolves will leave at least three of five positions unchanged. Houston has third in the conference locked down, so the Thunder will play the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. It would be unwise to speculate beyond the first round, especially after tonight’s poor road showing.

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Coffee for Westbrook

Oklahoma City. Memphis. FedEx Forum. You can practically smell the bodies hitting the floor. The Thunder barely kept the Griz at bay through three quarters; Memphis started the fourth with an 8-0 run to claim the lead. At the 1:47 point, it was tied at 95-all. On the next two possessions, Russell Westbrook served up a dime to Doug McDermott, who knocked down a trey, and then Westbrook sank a trey of his own. With 0.8 to go, Andrew Harrison snagged a layup to make it 101-100; Westbrook stole the inbound, was fouled, and sank two free throws to put it completely out of reach. OKC 103, Memphis 100, the season series is won, and sixth place in the West is assured.

And no, no triple-double. He missed it by one rebound: 45-9-10. Still, Westbrook’s ability to close ’em out is unequaled, and that’s what he did, getting 14 of those points in the fourth quarter despite missing three free throws. (Just about everyone in Thunder blue missed free throws: the team was a dismal 15-24.) Both sides had injuries to deal with: Mike Conley of the Griz and the Thunder’s Alex Abrines were unavailable, and Andre Roberson exited early. The usual Memphis suspects did the bear’s share of scoring, with Marc Gasol coming up with 23, Zach Randolph with 20 off the bench, and Tony Allen with 14 on 7-10 shooting. The Griz actually outshot OKC, 47 percent to 44; Memphis came up with 9 treys out of 26, while the Thunder managed an improbable 14-31. Most of those came from, yes, Russell Westbrook, who was 8-13 from downtown.

So that’s Game 78. Four left. And none of those four against winning teams: Phoenix, Denver and Minnesota on the road, followed by Denver again at home. Then again, any of these clubs can wallop a sleepwalking Thunder, so staying awake is of the essence. Fortunately, Westbrook is a closer, so he gets coffee.

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Bucks spent

The Milwaukee Bucks have not yet formally clinched a playoff spot, though they remain two games over .500; a mere four games separate the fifth-place Deer from the tenth-place Hornets. And I really expected them to put up more of a fight tonight, especially with the Thunder stumbling of late. It didn’t happen. Oklahoma City utterly destroyed Milwaukee, 110-79, on a night when nobody looked at the score. It’s that triple-double thing that Russell Westbrook does. He’s done it forty-one times this season; the record for a single season is held by Oscar Robertson with, um, forty-one. And the Thunder have five games yet to go.

There have been detractors, those who have suggested that if Westbrook did a bit less work the rest of the team would step up and then some. Tonight might have been an illustration of that possibility: Westbrook scored only 12 points, tied with Taj Gibson and Alex Abrines (who was locker-room bound after a knee sprain) and behind Enes Kanter (17). Still, Westbrook had 13 rebounds and 13 assists. And for what it’s worth, which is plenty, the Thunder bench came up with 65 points, making it unnecessary for Westbrook to play more than 27 minutes, essential considering the Thunder has to play the Grizzlies. Tomorrow. In Memphis.

The Bucks’ bench also performed well, with 48 of Milwaukee’s 79 points; reserve Michael Beasley showed up with 14 points to lead the team. (The only starter in double figures was Giannis Antetokounmpo, with 11 points and 10 rebounds.) At 36 percent, the Bucks didn’t shoot well at all, and 18 tries from outside the three-point circle garnered only nine points.

Meanwhile, while the thought of a back-to-back ending in Memphis is none too comforting, the Grizzlies have been busy tonight also, in beautiful downtown San Antonio. At the end of regulation, it was Griz 84, Spurs 84. A few of us will urge Kawhi Leonard on.

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Streaks and counterstreaks

Two points being made before this game:

  • The Charlotte franchise has never won at Chesapeake Arena;
  • The Hornets and the Chicago Bulls are the only opposing teams against which Russell Westbrook has never scored a triple-double.

Both of those statements are now inoperative. Westbrook duly produced a triple-double, his 40th of the season and one short of Oscar Robertson’s season record. And it wasn’t enough to keep the Hornets from collecting its first win in Oklahoma City; the Thunder defense was conspicuous by virtue of its absence, and Charlotte, trying hard to get into the Eastern playoffs, pulled to within a game and a half of the #8 spot by thoroughly thrashing the Thunder, 113-101.

Charlotte presented plenty of offense, shooting 48 percent from the floor and bagging 28 of 32 free throws. They admittedly gave up 16 turnovers, but the Thunder coughed up the ball 24 times, leading to 35 Hornet points. The third quarter was a disaster for OKC, with a six-minute dry spell and scoring only from Westbrook and Enes Kanter. And Kanter had what can only be called a bad day, with nine points. Worse yet, those nine led the bench. Next to this, Westbrook’s 40-13-10 was basically an afterthought.

Meanwhile, six Hornets made it to double figures, led by Kemba Walker with 29 on 10-20 and 6-12 from the three-point line. Frank Kaminsky led the reserves with 18, and Thunder castoff Jeremy Lamb knocked down 18 for Charlotte.

There’s only one playoff spot open in the West, and the Trail Blazers have opened up a 2½-game lead over the Nuggets. The Thunder aren’t going to fall out of the playoffs, but they might not finish sixth after all: the Clippers own fifth for now, and the Grizzlies are right on OKC’s tail. It doesn’t help that the next two games are against playoff teams: the Bucks in OKC on Tuesday, and the Grizzlies in Memphis on Wednesday. Still, you have to figure Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record is about to fall to Russell Westbrook, and the Big O says he’s fine with that.

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The comeback kids in black

By general agreement, Andre Roberson is among the NBA’s elite defenders, but there’s only so long an elite defender can keep the lid on Kawhi Leonard, and that’s what happened tonight: once Leonard popped through, there was no stopping him. The Thunder, up by as many as 21 in the third quarter, wound up tied with the Spurs at 85 with three minutes left, and in the last minute LaMarcus Aldridge gave San Antonio the lead at 94-93. Russell Westbrook dug into his seemingly endless supply of dimes to set up Steven Adams for a slam; Aldridge came back with a bucket to make it 96-95 with 18.7 left. And then Kawhi grabbed a loose ball, earned an and-one, and after the last shot piled on one more free throw. San Antonio 100, Oklahoma City 95, the Spurs win the rubber game of the season series, and the Thunder don’t drop to seventh, which is probably just as well since the Spurs are pretty much locked into second.

Leonard finished with a startling 28 points. Pau Gasol, coming off the bench, picked up 17; Aldridge, after a slow start, put together a 14-10 double-double. Westbrook had a perfectly average, for him anyway, triple-double, 32-15-12. Nobody really shot well — the Spurs didn’t quite make 44 percent, the Thunder were barely over 40 — but this is the time of year when the defense needs to shine, and tonight, Thunder defense sort of went away midway through the third and never came back. (First half: OKC 54, SA 41; second half, SA 59, OKC 41.)

Loud City, of course, was silenced, at least temporarily. They’ll regroup for Sunday’s matinee matchup with Charlotte. Then this happens: the Bucks come to town on Tuesday, and then the Thunder have to go beard the Grizzlies in their Memphis den. I have a really bad feeling about that two-game sequence.

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