It was a night of firsts.
First, the Thunder dismantled the Sacramento Kings, coasting to a wire-to-wire 104-95 victory on Monday night inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, and then Oklahoma City, for the first time this season, could relax.
The Thunder wrapped up first place in the conference, assuring for the first time that Oklahoma City will have home-court advantage through the Western Conference Finals should it advance that far.
The victory also was the Thunder's 60th of the season, marking the first time the team has reached the 60-win plateau in the franchise's Oklahoma City era.
“It's a great accomplishment,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “It's not something that we want to walk around and tell the world how good we are. That's not how we operate.”
But given the circumstances, nobody could blame the Thunder for beating its chest.
Oklahoma City now sits one game away from completing an impressive, if not improbable, regular season run that began five days after the blockbuster trade that sent James Harden to Houston and rocked the Thunder's championship-caliber core.
It was a deal that prompted many to count out the Thunder and, in very public ways, dismiss OKC as a championship contender. Those same critics said the West would go through the new look Los Angeles Lakers.
How'd that turn out?
“I'm excited about what we've done,” Brooks said. “We've had a really good regular season. We want to play well in the playoffs. We want to continue to build our team and build our habits and compete for a championship for many years.
“Sam (Presti) has built a team a great team of young players that are committed and always willing to do whatever it takes to push this team forward. When we made the trade early in the season, we didn't lack confidence. We knew we had enough in our locker room to push each other in practice and … move the team forward.”
The season finale is Wednesday against Milwaukee, and the Thunder opens postseason play Saturday or Sunday. Oklahoma City's opponent has yet to be determined.
Thanks to Monday's effort, however, the Thunder can sit back and prepare mentally and physically for whichever team these final days bring. Brooks said following Monday's game that his key players “are going to play very limited minutes” in the finale.
“We want to get our guys that are banged up healthy,” Brooks said. “That is the priority for every team in this league going into postseason.”
Despite missing starting center Kendrick Perkins (hamstring) and sixth man Kevin Martin (back) for the second consecutive game, as well as Derek Fisher (foot), the Thunder had little trouble with a Kings team has never had a winning record this season and never won in Oklahoma City.
Kevin Durant scored a game-high 29 points with seven rebounds and eight assists to lead the Thunder. Russell Westbrook compiled 21 points, five rebounds and eight assists before being ejected with 2:24 left to play following his second technical foul. Serge Ibaka added 14 points, and Daniel Orton and Reggie Jackson chipped in 10 points apiece off the bench.
“I thought it was a good team win,” Brooks said.
The Thunder bumped its record to 28-3 when five players score in double figures.
For the third straight game, Oklahoma City owned the third quarter. The Thunder extended an 11-point halftime lead to as many as 24 before taking an 83-67 lead into the fourth quarter. OKC used a balanced attack to pull away, getting seven points in the third period from Durant, five points apiece from Westbrook and Orton, four points each from Ibaka and Jackson and two points apiece from Thabo Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet.
The Thunder had seven assists on 12 made field goals in the quarter and has now outscored its last three opponents 91-54 in the third quarter.
“We were locked in,” Durant said. “We were trying to get great shots every time down and trying to play good defense and keep them out the paint. Coming into halftime, we talked about it and looked at some film. Transition defense wasn't as good as we needed it to be so we just tried to make it an emphasis to get back and move the ball.”
And so here we are, with 81 games in the books and the dawn of a new season on the horizon. Regardless of what happened throughout this regular season, be it back in late October or on this notable April night, this weekend will be the start of a new journey — a journey that since June has been about one thing and one thing only.
“We're still going to be judged by how we do in the playoffs,” said Nick Collison. “We realize that, and that's what's important to us also.”
Of all the firsts that will define what's been a special, special season, for the Thunder there's still only one that truly matters.
Now it's time to make it happen.