The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Sports

April 7, 2014

For the Thunder, there's no time like the present

ENID, Okla. — Men’s college basketball came to an end Monday evening, with Kentucky and Connecticut clashing for the national championship.

The final buzzer sounded, the confetti tumbled from above and the nets were cut down.

Tonight, the women conclude their tournament as Notre Dame faces UConn in an historic game, the first time in either the women’s or men’s tournament that two unbeaten teams have met in the final game.

College basketball is over, but pro basketball is just about to begin. The NBA’s 82-game regular season is just a months-long process of jockeying for position. The real season opens April 19 when the playoffs begin.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have already secured a playoff spot and have, in fact, locked up their fourth straight Northwest Division championship.

Oh, and along the way, Kevin Durant has scored 25 points or more in 41 straight games, surpassing Michael Jordan’s string of 40 25-points-plus contests.

All of which means absolutely nothing come playoff time.

The Thunder are currently in second place, clinging to a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers, in the NBA Western Division race. OKC has a crucial road matchup with the Clips Wednesday, seemingly a must-win if they don’t want to slip into third.

The top spot in the West already has eluded them, since they currently trail San Antonio by 4.5 games with just six games to play.

Now, the fact the Thunder are in second place at all, with 55 wins, is rather remarkable given the fact injuries have limited Russell Westbrook to 45 games this season, Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson have missed time and Thabo Sefolosha remains on the shelf.

The Thunder are starting to get everyone healthy as the playoffs approach, but have not fixed the flaws that have plagued them through many of their 21 losses — poor defense, particularly in the paint, spotty offensive flow and bad shot selection.

The Thunder’s 122-115 loss to Phoenix Sunday night captured those flaws in microcosm.

The Suns, who are clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, shot 58 percent from the field, scoring 40 points in the paint and getting 46 points from their bench. The Thunder, on the other hand, shot only 47 percent, in no small measure due to jacking up 32 three-pointers, of which they only made nine.

Fortunately for OKC, it faces only two playoff-bound teams in its final six games, the Clippers on Wednesday night and Indiana on Sunday. The Clippers are hot, winning 18 of their last 21 games. The Pacers are tumbling, having lost eight of their last 10.

The Thunder do not want to slip into the third spot in the Western Conference standings, where they would potentially face a matchup with the Golden State Warriors, who are led by Steph Curry, David Lee and Klay Thompson.

For all the concern about the Thunder’s spotty play of late, they still have the potential league MVP in Durant, the NBA’s most dynamic guard in Westbrook and an inside-outside force in Serge Ibaka, plus Perkins’ toughness and scowl on the inside, coupled with his veteran presence, along with that of Caron Butler and Derek Fisher.

It’s time for the Thunder to begin playing at the high level they demonstrated in sweeping the season series from the West-leading San Antonio Spurs and in beating the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.

After all, the real season is about to begin.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.

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