The Oklahoma City Thunder knew their defensive intensity had to improve following their worst stretch of the season.
Has it ever.
The Thunder and Knicks each go for a sixth victory in seven games on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, where New York could again be without Carmelo Anthony in this matchup of division leaders.
Coach Scott Brooks knew his team had to "regroup and figure out it out defensively" after giving up 113.7 points per game during an three-game skid from Feb. 12-20, and the Northwest-leading Thunder (44-16) have not disappointed. They've held their last six opponents to an average of 95.2 points on 40.8 percent shooting.
"I think the defense was the key," said Brooks, whose team limited the Los Angeles Lakers to 16 fourth-quarter points and 40.3 shooting overall in Tuesday's 122-105 victory. "We do that, we're going to get opportunities on the break, which we've been pretty efficient scoring and converting our opportunities."
The Thunder, second in the Western Conference, rank among the NBA leaders with 17.1 fast-break points per game, which comes as no surprise considering Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are finishing many of those.
Westbrook and Durant, though, are also committing more turnovers per game (6.7) than any NBA duo. Taking care of the ball hasn't been the Thunder's forte - they're committing 15.5 turnovers per game - but they equaled a league mark for fewest (two) giveaways in a game on Tuesday.
"I think we've done a great job of just learning and trying to get better at it each and every game," said Westbrook, who's scoring a team-best 32.2 points per game with 5.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds during this 5-1 stretch. "Not really focusing on it but just making the right decisions."
The Knicks (37-21) have done a great job taking care of the ball - averaging a league-low 12.1 turnovers - but that wasn't the case in Wednesday's 87-77 victory at Detroit when they committed 11 of their season-high 21 in the opening 12 minutes.
"Sometimes you can try to over-attack,'' said Raymond Felton, who finished with 26 points and a season high-tying seven turnovers. "Sometimes you've got to take what the defense gives you no matter who's playing.''
New York, now second in the East after pulling a half-game ahead of Indiana on Wednesday, improved to 4-4 this season without Anthony, who left Monday's 102-97 win at Cleveland with a right knee injury.
"That is the sign of a true team, a team that is willing to step up and make plays and win regardless of who is in uniform," coach Mike Woodson said.
It's uncertain if Anthony, the league's second-leading scorer with 28.2 points per game - Durant is averaging 28.6 - will miss a second straight game on Thursday.
Even if he does, Thunder big men Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins could have their hands full with Amare Stoudemire, who has matched a season-high point total (22) in each of the last two games.
Stoudemire is shooting 72.9 percent (43 for 59) from the field and averaging 17.3 points over the last six.
The Knicks, 9-3 at home against the West, have lost eight of 10 in this series, but they won 112-98 in the Thunder's last trip to MSG on Dec. 22, 2010.
Oklahoma City has won just four of its last 11 as the visitor, yet two of those wins have been against the Pacific-leading Los Angeles Clippers - including a 108-104 victory on Sunday.
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