Thunder beat Jazz 119-111 to heat up playoff race
By JEFF LATZKE
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) With starters Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko out with injuries, the Utah Jazz have lost back-to-back games for the first time in more than two months.
That small stumble provided a window just big enough for the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder to be nipping at their heels to take away home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Kevin Durant scored 35 points, Russell Westbrook added 30 points and 11 assists, and the Thunder closed within a half-game of the fourth-place Jazz in the Western Conference standings with a 119-111 victory Sunday night.
The Thunder shot a season-best 60 percent and never trailed on their way to a sixth straight home win and their 17th win in their last 20 games overall.
“The goal is for us to finish the season strong and to try to continue to compete, and go from there,” Westbrook said.
Oklahoma City, which finished 23-59 last season, ensured that it will finish no worse than .500 and pulled even with Utah in the loss column with 24 apiece. The Thunder have won all three meetings between the teams this season and would hold a tiebreaker if they end up with the same record at the end of the season.
“That’s very important, especially moving on with the season,” Westbrook said. “I think if we continue to keep playing and keep playing the way we are, we’re going to keep moving up.”
Wesley Matthews hit six 3-pointers and scored a career-high 29 points for the Jazz, who hadn’t lost consecutive games since a three-game skid that ended Jan. 4. Deron Williams had 27 points and 14 assists, and Carlos Boozer had 18 points and 11 rebounds for Utah.
Those were the only three players left from Utah’s starting five, as Okur sat out with a strained back after playing a season-high 41 minutes two nights earlier in a loss at Milwaukee. Kirilenko was unable to return from a calf strain suffered in that game, and the Jazz were also without reserve Ronnie Price (wrist).
“I thought we fought. We did a good job of trying to step up with the guys we’re missing, but we’re missing a lot,” Boozer said. “Not to make any excuses. They came out and kicked our butt and shot 60 percent, let us shoot a little less than that and that’s the game.”
Oklahoma City, which led by 10 at halftime, made its first 12 shots of the third quarter but wasn’t able to pull away much in the process. When Westbrook completed the perfect stretch by following Boozer’s flubbed dunk with a driving layup, it only put the Thunder up 86-73.
The Jazz rallied back to get within 94-88 on Williams’ three-point play with 8:22 remaining, but the Thunder answered with a 9-2 spurt to put the game out of reach. Boozer was called for a technical foul – his second straight game with one late in the fourth quarter – after missing a layup in the stretch.
Jeff Green followed with a right-handed jam that he turned into a three-point play, and Durant added a 3-pointer to make it 109-95 with 3:44 to play. The Thunder were 10 for 10 at the foul line after that to seal the game.
“We just couldn’t get stops,” Williams said. “We couldn’t stop them. … They just made all the plays down the stretch and we didn’t.”
Green finished with 14 points, while Nenad Krstic and Thabo Sefolosha scored 13 apiece for the Thunder. Oklahoma City is 16-0 when shooting at least 50 percent from the field and improved to 5-4 when an opponent makes at least half its shots.
“When guys make shots and we get stops, that gives us a lot of momentum and that gives us kind of like some more energy,” Durant said. “Guys were coming out there and when they got the opportunity to get the ball, they were making shots.
“We were putting each other in good positions to score, and when you do that, that’s what equals out to good shots.”
Matthews hit his first five 3-pointers before missing with 2:14 left and the Jazz down 109-100. He finished 6 for 7.
Paul Millsap, who started in place of Okur, scored 13 points. The Jazz had won 23 of 28 before the back-to-back losses when injuries became a factor.
“There’s nothing you can do about it, though,” Boozer said. “It happens at this point in the season. We’re all banged up a little bit, some guys a little banged up more than others.”
NOTES: Jazz coach Jerry Sloan was whistled for a technical foul with 1:41 left in the first half after Durant drew a foul for the second time in the game by whirling through the arms of a Utah defender and then flailing toward the basket without the ball. It’s a patented move for Durant, who leads the NBA with 572 free throws made this season. … Utah signed swingman Othyus Jeffers to a second 10-day contract. … The Thunder ended up making 14 of their 17 shots (82 percent) in the third quarter.
Updated March 14, 2010