With Kevin Durant putting up another huge scoring effort, the Oklahoma City Thunder got back on track defensively while moving closer to clinching a fourth straight division title.
Now the Thunder will try to replicate that winning formula while facing the offensively challenged Utah Jazz, whom the MVP candidate has torched this season.
Oklahoma City looks to stay in the race for the home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs with its sixth straight home win over Utah on Sunday night.
Durant stayed hot with 29 points on 9-of-11 shooting for the Thunder (53-19) on Friday, while Russell Westbrook added 18 in a 94-81 home win over Sacramento.
Durant has averaged 36.7 points on 54.1 percent shooting, including 47.8 percent (22 for 46) from 3-point range, over his last six games. He’s also scored at least 25 points in 37 consecutive games, the league’s longest streak since Michael Jordan’s 40-game run in 1986-87.
The All-Star forward, averaging a NBA-best 32.2 points, should be able to extend that run since he’s scored 36.3 per game in three meetings with the West-worst Jazz (23-50). Durant, though, did most of his damage from the foul line in those games, sinking 51 of 56 to offset 38.8 percent shooting from the field.
Durant matched a then-season high with 48 points in a 112-101 loss at Utah on Jan. 7 after he had scored 42 – including two free throws with 6.4 seconds left – in a season-opening 101-98 victory in Salt Lake City on Oct. 30.
In the only other meeting in Oklahoma City on Nov. 24, Durant finished with 19 points – playing 26-plus minutes – in a 95-73 win.
On Friday, the Thunder limited the Kings to 51 points and 30 percent shooting through the first three quarters en route to their fifth win in six games. They had held four consecutive opponents under 100 points in regulation during their recent winning streak before struggling in a 128-119 overtime loss at Dallas on Tuesday.
”Lately, we’ve been much better defensively and offensively,” Durant said. ”So, (it) was a good game. We put both sides of the floor together pretty well.”
With 10 games remaining, the Thunder own a seven-game advantage over Portland in the Northwest Division. They also lead the third-place Los Angeles Clippers by a couple games in the conference standings, and have an outside shot at catching San Antonio for the West’s top seed.
Oklahoma City will try to put together another solid defensive effort against the Jazz, who have averaged 89.5 points on 43.1 percent shooting over their last six games. The Jazz, however, shot a season-high 58.8 percent in their January victory.
Utah posted its highest field-goal percentage (48.5) in nine games Friday, but dropped its third in a row and 14th in 16 games in a 102-95 loss at New Orleans. The Jazz, 8-29 on the road, reached 50 losses for the first time since going 26-56 in 2004-05.
”We aren’t going to get discouraged,” guard Trey Burke said. ”We’re all good players and we know we are capable. No matter what, we’re sticking together.”
Gordon Hayward finished with 21 points, while Derrick Favors scored 18 with 11 rebounds. Hayward, who has averaged 23.7 points in his last three games, had 37 points and 11 boards in last meeting with the Thunder.
The Thunder have won the last five home meetings by an average of 19.0 points.