Trail Blazers-Thunder Preview
Currently on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, the Oklahoma City Thunder need a strong two-game finish to have a chance at the final spot in the Western Conference.
They have the luxury of having Russell Westbrook available for Monday night’s critical contest with the Portland Trail Blazers.
It appeared Westbrook would be unavailable after he earned a questionable technical foul in Sunday’s 116-104 loss to Indiana, his 16th of the season. By rule, he would have to serve an automatic one-game suspension for reaching the league limit of technical fouls, but the NBA has rescinded the technical.
Westbrook posted yet another outstanding performance Sunday, scoring a career-high 54 points on 43 field goal attempts – the most in a non-overtime game since Kobe Bryant took 44 shots en route to 81 points on Jan. 22, 2006 – but it came in a Thunder (43-37) loss, leaving their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy.
"His competitive spirit kept us in this game," coach Scott Brooks told the Thunder’s official website. "Even with all of those things happening to use – the free throws and the easy opportunities in transition – those are the things that Russell does. He plays with a lot of heart, desire and determination and he puts us in a position to win the game."
Oklahoma City is currently tied with New Orleans for the No. 8 spot with the Pelicans owning the tiebreaker. New Orleans visits Minnesota on Monday and hosts San Antonio on Wednesday, while the Thunder close that same night at Minnesota.
The Trail Blazers (51-29) will enter the postseason in the No. 4 spot after winning the Northwest Division for the first time since 2008-09, when they shared the divisional crown with Denver. Still, they’ll open the playoffs on the road after clinching the sixth-best record in the West.
Portland hopes to build some sort of momentum to close the season after dropping two straight. The Trail Blazers lost at Golden State on Thursday before falling 111-105 at home to Utah on Saturday as LaMarcus Aldridge sat out with a left foot sprain.
The Jazz shot 42 free throws with Aldridge out – the most Portland has allowed this season. Aldridge is questionable to face the Thunder.
”There’s really not an excuse for playing the way we did,” coach Terry Stotts said. ”It’s very disappointing, very frustrating and hopefully it was very sobering for everybody. … Offense comes and goes, but we didn’t bring a defensive mentality, regardless of who plays. We though it was going to be easier than it was."
Portland can secure its first season sweep of the Thunder since the 2002-03 season, when the franchise resided in Seattle. Westbrook tallied 40 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists on Feb. 27, but Aldridge and Damian Lillard scored 29 apiece to secure a 115-112 victory.
Westbrook scored 40 and 38 points in Oklahoma City’s other two defeats to the Trail Blazers this season.
Arron Afflalo, who has averaged 10.6 points since joining Portland on Feb. 19, remains out with a sore shoulder.