After three consecutive losses threatened to send OKC towards the bottom of the Western Conference playoff positions, they returned to the winners’ list with an important 109-104 result against the Pelicans on Sunday.
The win left their record at 45-33 and in fifth place in the West. Their chances of remaining there are slim though, considering how close the standings are. The Spurs are just 0.5 games ahead in fourth place, while the eighth placed Pelicans are just 1.5 games behind the Thunder. Missing the playoffs is still not completely out of the realms of possibility, with Denver 2.5 games behind in ninth.
They will need to keep winning to remain in the top six and avoid the Warriors or the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, and they will host the former of these two teams at home on Tuesday.
Three of the Warriors' big four have returned to the lineup after injury layoffs, and as a result they have won their past two games. Wins for them are relatively unimportant at this stage of the season though, with six games separating them and Houston in first place in the west, and eight games separating them from third place.
Three keys to the game
George’s shooting - Paul George’s efficiency has been well below what it usually is in recent games, though he showed signs of recapturing his best form in the first half of his last outing. He is shooting just 38% from the field in his past ten games, and 34.3% from beyond the arc. These numbers are significantly below his season averages of 43.1% shooting from the field and 39.8% shooting from long range, and the Thunder will need him to return to his best in the lead up to the playoffs.
The Warriors’ motivation - Aside from returning to their best form, Golden State have little to achieve in the remaining five games of the season. They won’t move from second place in the Western Conference standings, and though they have all of their stars aside from Curry back in the lineup, they will likely be treating the next few games as a warm up for the playoffs.
OKC’s home form - The Thunder have been very tough to beat at home this season. Their record at Chesapeake Arena is 26-13, which over the course of a season would have them on track for over 55 wins. They have, however, dropped their past two games at home, first to the Blazers and then to the Nuggets.
Matchup to watch
Paul George vs Kevin Durant - There are many in the NBA world who feel that the Warriors would like to avoid facing the Thunder in the playoffs for as long as possible, and one of the reasons for this is that OKC have one of the only players in the league capable of guarding Durant. No one can truly affect the shot of the Warriors star, but George can at least make him think, and work a little harder to get the looks he wants.
At the other end of the floor, of course, George is also a superstar, even if his current form isn’t up to his usual standards. George averages 21.6 points and 3.4 assists this season, and though he went 9-for-24 from the field in his last outing, his first half suggested he was close to recapturing his groove.
Oklahoma City Thunder predicted starting lineup
PG - Russell Westbrook | SG - Corey Brewer | SF - Paul George | PF - Carmelo Anthony | C - Steven Adams
Golden State Warriors predicted starting lineup
PG - Quinn Cook | SG - Klay Thompson | SF - Kevin Durant | PF - Draymond Green | C - Kevon Looney
George has had contrasting fortunes against the Warriors this season. In the second game of the season series between the two sides he was at his best, going 6-for-11 on 3-point attempts for 38 points, grabbing five rebounds, three assists, and a huge six steals. The next time they met though, he had one of the worst shooting games of his career. In the Thunder’s 32 point loss he connected on just one of his 14 field goal attempts, and finished with just five points.
The Thunder are expected to win this game, and considering the motivation they have compared to the Warriors, they should do this. The line is set at 4.5 points, and expect OKC to cover this. They match up well against Golden State, play well at home, and really need to win.
This will be a great game, and may well be a preview of a playoff series which many people would like to see. None of Thompson, Durant and Green appear to have missed a beat, and Durant in particular will be keen to put in a good performance against one of the best defenders in the game.
George won’t be able to stop him, but he will restrict him to 25 points, an admirable enough performance in itself. With Westbrook playing at typically breakneck speed, and George shooting above 50% from the floor for the first time since mid-February, the Thunder will be too strong at home. They’ll get over the line with an important 111-105 win.
The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN. Tip-off is at 8pm ET.