Observations from the Thunder’s 115-110 victory over Minnesota at the Target Center on Saturday night:
- Good news for the Thunder: Minnesota has been mathematically eliminated from the Western Conference playoffs and can’t possibly be a No. 8 seed. In other words, OKC is done playing the Timberwolves this season. “That’s not good news, that’s great news,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after Saturday night’s 115-110 victory at the Target Center. “That is good news,” OKC forward Kevin Durant echoed.
- Russell Westbrook had 16 points of his 35 points in the third quarter and Durant had 20 points of his 43 in the fourth quarter. Westbrook picked up the slack when Durant was on the bench with four fouls in the third period. When Durant re-entered at the start of the fourth quarter, Westbrook selflessly deferred to the two-time scoring champ. Further evidence these two stars work extremely well together. On rare occasions, they fail to click – like last Wednesday’s loss at home against the Clippers – but that was because their shots weren’t falling (a combined 10 for 35), not because they were selfish.
- Minnesota’s current list of shortcomings is astounding, particularly for a team that’s more good than bad. The Wolves have now lost nine straight and 10 of their last 11 games; they’ve lost 12 straight against the Thunder, when they could have easily won at least one-third of those game; they’ve also lost 25 straight games in April. Only two of Minnesota’s last dozen losses to OKC have been by double-digits, five have been by five points or less and two have come in overtime. The Wolves also have now lost 163 games due to injuries this season.
- To those still wondering why the Thunder is so high on center Kendrick Perkins: After the game, Perkins spent 10 minutes speaking one-on-one with forward Serge Ibaka. The exact conversation was unknown, other than Perkins repeatedly asked Ibaka if he understood where he was coming from, to which Ibaka repeatedly nodded. Perk appeared to be explaining to the 22-year-old Ibaka why things happened the way they happened in Saturday’s game. Perhaps Ibaka was troubled by how he was used in the rotation. He played 21½ minutes and finished with eight points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. At times, the Wolves were killing the Thunder with the pick-and-roll, which they probably ran 70-plus times. In the end, Perk again made sure Ibaka was OK and also asked Thabo Sefolosha to double-check on Ibaka. This is an example of what makes Perk valuable. Perk seems to care as much about his teammates –perhaps more — than he cares about himself.
- It’s amazing how effective Minnesota point guard J.J. Barea is at the pick-and-roll. Why Dallas let him go without a competitive contract offer still astounds me. He simply toys with OKC. Players on the Timberwolves’ bench were shaking their heads and smiling at how easily Barea scored 17 first-half points. Barea does what the great point guards do – he’s in a rush, but not in a hurry; and he constantly keeps his dribble alive – just like Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, et al. Barea is fantastic.
- Durant on Barea: “Barea is an unbelievable guy at pick-and-rolls and that’s what they did. It’s tough to stop, but I think Russell did a great job in the second half. Him a Fish (Derek Fisher) did a great job. Pick-and-roll is such a big part of his game and that’s all they ran. I think we responded well in the second half. Wish we could have played a little better, but we got the win.”
- Tough night for sixth man James Harden, who missed Friday night’s game with a sore right knee. Harden was a last-minute activation for the game. He shot 1 for 11 from the field, including 0 for 8 from 3-point range. Asked if he might have rushed Harden back too soon, Brooks said, “No, I don’t think so. A lot of those shots tonight were good looks, open looks I thought might fall.” Harden did not appear to limp in his 30½ minutes of playing time.
- It’s hard to find a nicer man than University of Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, who was on hand to watch Nazr Mohammed, who played for him at Kentucky. Smith, who previously coached at Tulsa, still speaks fondly of the experience and said he believes Danny Manning will do very well at the job.
- Brooks shakes his head at Minnesota’s 25-36 record. It’s upside-down because of a slew of injuries. “They’ve had some tough luck,” Brooks said. “They were right there in the mix (for the playoffs). They’re a good team. They’ve done a good job of laying a foundation.”
- Rumor is Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is resting his sore shin because he had a comfortable lead to win this year’s scoring title. I don’t believe that. Doesn’t sound like Bryant, an egomaniac who prefers to settle things on the court. Durant erupted for 43 points Saturday. If Bryant (28.1 ppg) sits the remainder of the regular season, Durant (27.8) would have to average 30.7 points in the final six games to win his third straight scoring title. That’s certainly doable.
- Target Field, the new home of the Minnesota Twins, is located next to the Target Center, the longtime home of the Timberwolves. The Twins lost 6-2 at home to the Texas Rangers on Saturday afternoon and fans stayed in the neighborhood for some post-game beverages prior to a sellout crowd of almost 20,000 arriving for the Wolves. After the Thunder-Minnesota game, the area was packed with a younger crowd going to numerous night clubs. A very cool setting. Major-league facilities located side-by-side have always fascinated me.
- Next up for the Thunder: A day off Sunday, followed by a 9:30 p.m. game at the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center.