Thunder-76ers Preview

The Oklahoma City Thunder have emerged as a bona fide NBA title

contender, and their play just before the All-Star break only

seemed to reaffirm that status.

The Thunder will try to maintain their Western Conference lead

during a potentially difficult three-game road trip that begins

Wednesday night against the Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia

76ers.

Oklahoma City (27-7) entered the break on a five-game win streak

and claimed its final two victories by 15 points apiece against

perennial powers Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Led by All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder

are averaging 102.7 points and among the league leaders in shooting

(47.5 percent) and opponents’ shooting percentage (42.3).

“We’ve just started to jell – young guys that love playing

basketball, that’s all that we do. It makes it easier to come to

work every day,” Durant, who was named the All-Star Game’s MVP

following a 36-point effort. “I’m just blessed I’m a part of this

organization. Everybody is just Grade A, and I’m glad we’re getting

better as a group.”

The Thunder, however, still see room to improve, especially in

taking care of the ball. Oklahoma City has one of the league’s

highest turnover rates at 16.9 per game.

“I’m greedy,” Durant said. “There’s some games we lost that we

should have won. But, all in all, it was decent. … We’ve got to

keep working, keep improving. We can’t be happy with just being

27-7. There’s a lot of things we have to work on.”

The Thunder will begin that work during a Eastern road trip that

will also take them to Orlando and Atlanta.

The journey starts against Philadelphia (21-14), which snapped a

season-high five-game skid in its return from the break by routing

Detroit 97-68 on the road Tuesday.

After averaging 83.2 points during its losing streak,

Philadelphia had six players score in double figures Tuesday, led

by Thaddeus Young’s 20. The 76ers also shot 50.0 percent in the

win, 10.5 better than in their previous five games.

They also allowed their second-fewest points this season and

lowest shooting percentage (31.6).

“The guys gave me a great gift with the way they played,” said

coach Doug Collins, who left the bench between the third and fourth

quarters after feeling lightheaded.

Philadelphia has had a more difficult time stopping the Thunder

in recent matchups, allowing at least 109 points in each of the

past four and an average of 111.8. That’s helped Oklahoma City

produce a five-game win streak in the series, including

back-to-back victories at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Thunder, though, won last season’s two meetings by a

combined 11 points and needed overtime to prevail 110-105 in

Philadelphia on March 9. Durant had 34 points in that win,

including the final five in regulation, and has averaged 31.0 over

his past four games against the 76ers.

Westbrook averaged 29.0 points in last season’s two matchups for

his second-best mark against any opponent in 2010-11.

Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday averaged a team-best 19.5 points in

last season’s series, and his career mark of 16.3 against the

Thunder is the third-year guard’s best versus any opponent.