The Oklahoma City Thunder might be contenders in the West, but they'll need to prove they can finish in big games first. The Thunder blew a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter in a 103-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, throwing some uncertainty into OKC's claim as the top challenger to Golden State and San Antonio in the conference.
The Thunder appeared to have the game in control through three quarters. A dominant effort defensively and on the boards powered the team to a 58-38 halftime lead. By the start of the final period, Oklahoma City was still leading, 85-68. At that point, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way, it was easy to figure the Thunder would go on to victory.
Instead, the next 12 minutes were a firm reminder of why the Thunder aren't considered a prime contender like the Warriors or Spurs this season. While OKC might have the talent to make a playoff run, too often the team fails to step up in pivotal moments. Over the weekend, the Thunder failed to close in an overtime loss to Golden State. This one, after building up a big lead on the road in L.A., was similarly painful.
The Clippers didn't even really start their run until midway through the fourth quarter. With six minutes left in regulation, L.A. was still trailing by 14. But from there, the Thunder would score just one more field goal and five more points as the Clippers locked down defensively. OKC, despite having otherworldly talents like Durant and Westbrook, failed to get good shots in the waning moments of the game.
Those struggles were concluded by Westbrook wasting the team's last chance by chucking up a wild three. After Jamal Crawford missed a shot with 12 seconds left, Westbrook grabbed the rebound, hurried down the court and fired up a three while sandwiched by defenders. There were still six seconds on the clock, but the chaotic play was reflective of OKC's lack of comfort finding good opportunities in this final minutes. It doesn't exactly bode well for the team's chances of winning several seven-game series this spring.
Rather than getting a big statement win from Oklahoma City solidifying the team as the greatest threat to the two superpowers in the West, we come away wondering whether L.A. might actually be the better team. Those final 12 minutes were an absolute beatdown, with Crawford and Chris Paul dictating play like the real stars on the court. A team with expectations like OKC's shouldn't lose games like this.
Wizards back to .500 with 4th straight win
The crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture has another possibility emerging in the Washington Wizards. A 104-98 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves was the Wizards' fourth in a row and seventh in their past nine games. Suddenly, a disappointing season in Washington at least stands the chance of ending with a postseason appearance.
Bradley Beal came off the bench to deliver a stellar performance Wednesday with 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting in 29 minutes. The sharpshooting guard showed he's overcoming the injuries and could be a difference-maker down the stretch this season. He wasn't the only big performer off the bench, either, as Alan Anderson came in to score 18 points in 21 minutes as a reserve.
John Wall was also strong for the Wizards with 14 points and 12 assists to lead the starting unit. Washington is now just a half-game behind the Pistons for the eighth seed in the East thanks to a favorable schedule of late. Three of the team's past four wins came against the lowly Timberwolves and 76ers, but there's also an impressive victory over the first-place Cavaliers in there.
The Wizards and Cavs meet again Friday in Cleveland, so we should have a better idea of whether Washington is actually turning the corner with that matchup.
James Harden may score Houston to playoffs
Houston's superstar shooting guard can score like few others and that may be enough to get the team into the postseason. Harden scored 39 points on 11-of-24 shooting in the Rockets' 100-95 win over the Pelicans on Wednesday, which keeps the team in position as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
Harden is currently second in the NBA in scoring behind Stephen Curry. The 26-year-old averaged 31.5 points per game in February, even though the Rockets went just 5-6, and just started March with another huge performance. Not only did he fall just one point short of 40 against New Orleans, but he also led the Rockets with 12 rebounds, seven assists and four steals in an impressive effort. The Rockets needed it considering they shot 3 of 34 from three during the game, which left Harden incredulous afterwards.
The Rockets also got favors elsewhere in the league. The three closest teams in the standings, Portland, Sacramento and Utah, all lost Wednesday. Houston is still 2.5 games behind the Trail Blazers for the seventh seed, but the team is also 1.5 games ahead of the Jazz for the final playoff spot. As long as Harden keeps scoring like this, that may be at least enough to get the chance to lose to Golden State in the first round.
Play of the night
Vince Carter is 39 years old. Few players in the NBA even stick around until that age because of the effects of father time. Apparently, these laws of nature impact Carter differently. Or maybe he was just so good at dunking in his prime that even on a normal aging curve, a 39-year-old Carter can still do stuff like this. Either way, Vinsanity is a special one.
4 fun things
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