With the Oklahoma City Thunder closing in on the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2005, the emerging Western Conference contender may have to readjust its goals down the stretch.
Simply qualifying for the postseason would be good enough for the Charlotte Bobcats.
Charlotte, however, will have a difficult task as it tries to bounce back from its first loss in two weeks Wednesday night against the visiting Thunder, who’ve won five in a row and 17 of 20 and can secure a winning season with another victory.
After going 43-121 over their previous two seasons, the Thunder (41-24) have solidified their status as the NBA’s most improved club during their recent run, which continued with Sunday’s 119-111 victory over Utah.
The Jazz remain in fourth place in the conference, but Oklahoma City pulled even with Utah in the loss column and could realistically earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which would be a major surprise in the deep, competitive West.
While Westbrook has three 30-point performances in his last 13 games, averaging 19.8 points and 9.8 assists in that stretch, Kevin Durant(notes) continues to be the driving force behind Oklahoma City’s renaissance.
Durant had 35 points Sunday, shooting 10 of 17 from the field to spark one of the Thunder’s most efficient offensive efforts. Oklahoma City shot 60.3 percent, topping 60.0 for the first time since Jan. 21, 2002, when the franchise was in Seattle and the SuperSonics beat Philadelphia 109-98.
“When guys make shots and we get stops, that gives us a lot of momentum and that gives us kind of like some more energy,” Durant said. “Guys were coming out there and when they got the opportunity to get the ball, they were making shots.
“We were putting each other in good positions to score, and when you do that, that’s what equals out to good shots.”
Durant, whose 29.8 points per game trail only Cleveland’s LeBron James(notes), scored 30 in a 98-91 home win over Charlotte on Dec. 26, but the Bobcats have been much better at home. They’ve won four straight at Time Warner Cable Arena to improve to 24-8 there.
Charlotte (34-32) had a chance to set a franchise record with a seventh straight win overall on Tuesday night, but it lost 99-94 at Indiana as top rebounder and second-leading scorer Gerald Wallace(notes) missed his second consecutive game with an ankle injury.
The Bobcats won 96-89 at reigning East champion Orlando without Wallace on Sunday, but slipped up against the Pacers, who had lost 13 of their previous 16.
The team remains in sixth place in the East, percentage points ahead of Miami and three games ahead of ninth-place Chicago, which has lost eight straight.
Although Charlotte will be playing its sixth game in nine days on Wednesday, Jackson refused to blame fatigue for the Bobcats’ latest result.
With Wallace out, Charlotte has had one pair of fresh legs with little-used Stephen Graham(notes) in the starting lineup the last two games. Graham had a career-high 19 points and matched a career best with eight rebounds against Indiana, shooting 8 of 10 from the field.