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Kings-Thunder Preview

AP - Sports

Beating playoff-caliber teams has not been easy lately for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and their lead atop the Western Conference is dwindling.

The Thunder have had little trouble beating lesser opponents, though, and they still have three games to play against the already eliminated Sacramento Kings.

Oklahoma City hopes to bounce back from another tight loss and send the sputtering Kings to a season-worst seventh straight defeat Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

The Thunder (42-16) have dropped four of six and are struggling to hold off San Antonio for first place in the West. Oklahoma City, however, claims securing the top seed isn't its top priority.

"You're going to have to win games in the playoffs, no matter who you play," James Harden said after Wednesday's 100-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. "We're not worried about that. We just want to close these remaining games out and then go from there.''

Oklahoma City has struggled against some top teams lately with its last four defeats coming to Memphis, Miami, Indiana and the Clippers by an average of 4.5 points. The Thunder's last two wins have come over Toronto and Milwaukee - clubs outside the playoff picture.

The Kings (19-40) haven't been in the playoff conversation all season, and Oklahoma City will play three of its final eight games against them.

Although the Kings own the West's second-worst record, the Thunder lost 106-101 in Sacramento on Feb. 9, snapping a six-game winning streak in the series.

Russell Westbrook had 33 points and Kevin Durant scored 27 for Oklahoma City, which allowed the Kings to close the game on an 8-2 run.

Things could be different with a rematch in Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have won all five meetings by an average of 13.4 points since moving from Seattle. Oklahoma City is 24-6 at home, while the Kings are 5-25 on the road.

To avoid losing another game to Sacramento, however, Durant and Westbrook need to regain their shooting touch.

Durant, who missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds Wednesday, has averaged 21.3 points - 6.2 less than his season average - on 38.8 percent shooting in his last three games.

Westbrook, who averages 24.2 points, misfired on 11 of 14 shots against the Clippers and has shot less than 35.0 percent in each of the past four losses.

The Kings are also suddenly struggling offensively as they arrive in Oklahoma City. They've scored 96 points or fewer in four of their last five after reaching triple digits in 11 of their previous 12.

In Wednesday's 105-96 loss to conference-worst New Orleans, Sacramento was within four with 4:06 remaining before allowing the Hornets to score nine of the game's final 13 points.

"Since our team is so young, when things are going good, they are going great. When things aren't going well, we get exposed,'' forward Jason Thompson said. "We just have to get where we finish games strong.''

DeMarcus Cousins, second on the Kings in scoring at 17.7 points per game, was held to seven while missing nine of 12 shots. In his last five games, he has averaged 12.8 points - 13.6 fewer than he put up in his previous nine.

Cousins scored 19 against the Thunder two months ago, while Tyreke Evans had a team-best 22 points and made four free throws in the final 39 seconds.

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