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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Family tricksters

If it’s occurred to me, surely it’s occurred to Billy Donovan that if you don’t fall behind by double digits, you don’t have to crank up the energy in the waning moments. At one point in the third quarter, the Magic had rolled up a 21-point lead over the Thunder; in the waning moments with Russell Westbrook doing the Full Russell Westbrook thing, OKC finally managed to erase most of that lead. With 14 seconds left, Orlando, in possession, led 101-99; Nikola Vučević got one of two free throws, but Westbrook hoisted a trey over two Magic defenders and tied it at 102. Overtime ensued, and Westbrook, clearly in his element, finished the job with the triplest of all triple-doubles in NBA history: 57 points (one short of his career high), 13 rebounds, 11 assists, and assorted chants of “M! V! P!” from the Orlando crowd. If you’re gonna lose to the Thunder, which the Magic did, 114-106, at least you got to see history being made. OKC now clinches a playoff spot, 43-31 with eight games to play.

Most of the Thunder comeback was engineered by playing small, perhaps motivated by the twin double-doubles posted by Orlando’s bigs: Vučević had 11 points and 16 boards, Bismack Biyombo 12 and 11 off the bench. Evan Fournier knocked 24 to lead the Magic, but he was hardly heard from after the third quarter. (Andre Roberson modestly claims the responsibility.) The Magic led in rebounds for most of the game, but fell behind 57-53 after 53 minutes.

And, well, there weren’t going to be too many high scorers on the Thunder side of things, what with Westbrook scoring literally as much as the other 11 guys combined. (For the record: Westbrook hit 21-40, the other guys 22-62.) So let’s congratulate Enes Kanter for leading the reserves once more, with 17, and Victor Oladipo, a Magic man most of his career, for picking up 13 more. For amusement value: Jerami Grant, who did not score, was +30 for the evening, while Westbrook was, um, +8.

Back home now: the Spurs on Friday night, the Hornets on Sunday afternoon, the Bucks on Tuesday, before venturing out again.

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Under the Texas heat

Actually, it only got up to 74 degrees in Dallas today, and come to think of it, the Mavericks weren’t all that hot. But the cold-shooting Thunder managed only ten points in the second quarter and trailed at halftime 50-35. Perhaps something magic might happen in the locker room? If so, it faded quickly: OKC started the third quarter with an 11-0 run, but never pulled even with Dallas until the literal last minute. Over the last 3:30, a late 14-0 run — 12 of those 14 by Russell Westbrook — utterly stunned the Mavs, 92-91. “Quite MVP-y,” said ESPN’s Royce Young.

You had to ask? Westbrook did post another triple-double, though he’d gotten there long before that final push. (He finished 37-13-10.) And it was needed, inasmuch as the bench was decidedly unproductive: six players, 17 points. (Dallas’ four reserved scored 30.) And you gotta wonder how they got 35 points in that fourth quarter when they managed only 35 in the first two. But no matter: it’s a W, the 42nd of the season. If you asked Westbrook, he’d just grin. You can make a case, though, for Taj Gibson as second in command: four offensive rebounds, three in the fourth quarter, six of 10 shooting, and +27 for the night, a game high. And here’s the weirdest statistic I can think of: four of the Dallas starters made double figures. The one who didn’t? Dirk, who hit only 3-9.

On Wednesday, the Magic will be waiting. Orlando is lottery-bound this year, but they can make life miserable for a visiting team. And then it’s back home to take on the Spurs, the same Spurs who have won five straight and who sit only two games behind the almighty Warriors. (Golden State, as it happens, has won seven straight.) Welcome to the crunch of all crunches.

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A glimpse into the future

Had the playoffs begun today, the sixth-place Thunder would be playing the third-place Rockets in Houston. The playoffs are still nearly a month away, the Thunder played the Rockets in Houston, and the Rockets slapped them around unmercifully; you have to figure that if you come up with 59 points in the first half and you’re behind by 20, things are clearly not going well for you. The Rockets opened with a 9-0 run, shot more than 60 percent all day, hit twenty three-pointers, and a late Thunder rally couldn’t cut that margin down below eight points. Houston 137, Oklahoma City 125, the Rockets’ third victory in the four-game season series, and if this is a harbinger of things to come, OKC will have to be extremely lucky to make it to the second round.

They weren’t particularly unlucky today: the offense was good enough, after all, to come up with 125 points, six men in double figures, 50-percent shooting, and yet another Russell Westbrook triple-double (39-11-13). But defense was conspicuous by its absence, and if you think James Harden is tricky to guard, be grateful you weren’t assigned to follow Lou Williams around. Coming off the Rocket bench, Williams hit his first eight shots, finishing with a highly respectable 11-15, and knocking down seven of eight three-point tries for a total of 31. (Harden, by comparison, had a modest 22 points and 12 assists.) The Thunder were dominant on the boards, as usual, with 42 retrievals, 16 offensive — the Rockets garnered a total of 36 boards, two off the offensive glass — but it doesn’t really matter how many rebounds you can collect when the opponents are hitting 63 percent of their shots.

So game one of this road trip is a bust. Game two is tomorrow evening, in Dallas, followed by a Wednesday session in Orlando. The Thunder, having won 41 games, can finish no lower than .500. They’re going to have to prove they can do better than .500.

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Played great, less Philly

This year’s Sixers are so much better than last year’s Sixers it isn’t funny. Admittedly, 26-45 (so far) is probably not much to write home about, but 10-72, posted by the previous edition, is the stuff of bad comedy routines. That said, Philly was somewhat depleted coming in, missing Tiago Splitter, Jerryd Bayless, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but they put up quite a fight early on, and they were down only seven after the first quarter. Still, the Sixers have never won in Oklahoma City, and they weren’t about to start now. With the starters mostly cooped up, the Sixers bench got a chance to shine, with Nik Staukas posting a team-high 20 and the reserves grabbing 62 of Philadelphia’s 97 points. Just their luck, the Thunder bench was destined for 63 tonight, as OKC swept the Sixers for yet another year, 122-97.

The dominance of the Thunder in the usual statistical categories was pretty much total, with 55 percent shooting, a 54-29 advantage on the boards, and 26-19 on assists. (One exception: three-point shots, at which the Thunder managed only four of 16, while the Sixers made eight of 25.) Russell Westbrook had one of his more efficient outings, bagging a triple-double (18-11-14) on a mere six shots and six free throws; he didn’t miss a shot all night. Victor Oladipo came up with 18 of his own, but team high, once more, went to Enes Kanter, who hit eight of nine for 24 points. Things were going well enough that Nick Collison was pried off the bench for eight and a half minutes; he responded with seven points and five rebounds.

So ends a 2-1 homestand. Now the road beckons for three, at Houston Sunday afternoon, at Dallas Monday evening, and at Orlando Wednesday evening. The Thunder remain in the #6 slot, a game and a half behind the Clippers and a game ahead of the Grizzlies. In the first round of the playoffs, sixth seed plays third seed, which will likely be the Rockets. But you gotta beat ’em this weekend first.

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And that was the end of that

This, I think, summed up the entire four-game series:

And this game was in doubt for maybe the first twelve minutes, but no longer: the Warriors doubled up on the Thunder 34-17 in the second quarter and kept a double-digit margin, usually a substantial one, until everything dissolved into the bleakness of a 111-95 final. The Thunder couldn’t hit the three-pointers, but then they could barely hit the two- pointers. Then again, OKC had five in double figures, led by, um, Victor Oladipo with 17; the Warriors had only three, but Klay Thompson hung around long enough to collect 34, and Steph Curry bagged 23. Both of those guys hit seven treys; the Thunder in aggregate made only four.

The game had its absurd moments, most notably a second-quarter dustup that resulted in quadruple technicals. (I am not making this up. Ticketed: Curry, allegedly the instigator; Russell Westbrook; Semaj Christon; Draymond Green.) Westbrook didn’t even come close to a double-double, let alone a triple. (Enes Kanter had the only double-double on either side: 15 points, 10 rebounds.) Golden State had a smallish 46-40 edge in rebounds, a bigger one — 28-18 — in assists, and were at least marginally acceptable at the free-throw line, collecting 16 of 21. The Thunder had no trouble getting to the line, the Warriors’ reputation for Never Ever Fouling notwithstanding, but it didn’t make much difference, as they missed 14 of 31.

Twelve games to go and 40-30. Now what? OKC probably can’t really aspire to a finish much higher than fifth or sixth. The Grizzlies, also 40-30, got to that point by winning four straight. It’s highly unlikely the Thunder will slump their way out of the playoffs entirely. The next game, against the 76ers, should come close to icing that playoff spot.

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Return of (some) Kings

Today’s version of the Sacramento Kings could fairly be described as “depleted”; Tyreke Evans, Rudy Gay and Ben McLemore were not available, and Arron Afflalo did not travel with the team for personal reasons. The 63-41 halftime score reflects this situation to a certain extent; however, the Kings who remained put up a decent fight in the second half, outscoring the Thunder 53-47. It wasn’t enough to give Sacramento the win — OKC tucked the W away, 110-94 — but it did make for a more entertaining spectacle than one might have expected.

The Sacramento reserves, in fact, collected bigger numbers than did the starters. Big man Georgios Papagiannis put together a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds; Skal Labissiere followed with 13. (The top scorer among the King starters was Buddy Hield, who pocketed 11.) Still, everyone in purple was on the minus side, and all the Thundermen were plus except Jerami Grant, who played one minute of garbage time.

Once again, OKC shot 50 percent, and two double-doubles were recorded, by Russell Westbrook (28 points, 10 assists) and Steven Adams (16 points, 13 boards). And the rise of Doug McDermott, who shot 8 of 9 for 21 points (4-5 from the three-point line), elicited several delighted eruptions from Loud City. Still, the Thunder were not all that wonderful in the second half, and Billy Donovan will give them a tongue-lashing or two before Monday night, when the dreaded Golden State Warriors arrive. There’s slightly less dread than usual — Kevin Iscariot is not going to suit up — but GS is still the top team in the West, if by less of a margin than they were early in the season. And the Thunder have lost three in a row to the Warriors; it would be nice to trounce them in front of the home crowd.

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Extinction alert

No, the Raptors aren’t dead. Far from it. But for much of tonight’s game in Toronto, they looked like they were far from their final form. The Thunder owned the first quarter, 29-24; the Thunder owned the second quarter, 29-24. Third quarter, you ask? 39-22. Fourth quarter, and there wasn’t much point in bringing out the starters for the stretch. Despite that, all five Thunder starters made it into double figures, and Russell Westbrook had the by-now-usual triple-double (24-10-16). Oklahoma City 123, Toronto 102, tying the season series at 1-1.

The offensive barrage notwithstanding, what won this game was defense: DeMar DeRozen (22 points) was hardly DeFended into insignificance, but the other four Raptors in double figures managed only 10 to 13. (Serge Ibaka had 10.) And guard Cory Joseph somehow compiled a -30 over just under 30 minutes. And the Raptors’ prowess at the three-point line seemed to have taken leave of them: they hit only five of 20, and four of those were scored by the reserves. This is perhaps not what one expects from a team ten games over .500.

Then again, the Thunder only just crawled back to ten games over .500, and are now a game up on Memphis for the #6 seed in the West. (If anyone cares, the Brooklyn Nets, thrashed by the Thunder on Tuesday last, are the first team eliminated from the playoffs.) If they can keep shooting over 50 percent — not to mention a whopping 14-25 from beyond the arc — they might gain some ground on the frontrunners: Golden State (of course) and San Antonio (one game back).

And I’m throwing this in because it’s funny:

The honey badger of point guards, Westbrook is.

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