SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jeff Hornacek admitted to something the Thunder seems to never confess.
“Everybody’s looking at where they are in the standings,” the Suns coach said Sunday.
At this point in the year, Hornacek said, every game feels like a must-win.
“It doesn’t really matter who you’re playing,” Hornacek added. “If you’re playing a lottery team, they want to beat a playoff team. And then if you’re playing another playoff team, they’re most of the time looking at position. So there are always tough games this time of year.”
Oklahoma City came up short in Sunday’s game, struggling again to showcase sharp defense before falling 122-115 to a Suns squad Thunder coach Scott Brooks labeled “desperate.”
“They’re fighting for their playoff lives,” Brooks said.
All of a sudden, the Thunder essentially must do the same.
Oklahoma City enters Tuesday game at Sacramento just a game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 3 seed. The Thunder still holds a two-game lead over L.A. in the loss column, but the Clippers already own a 2-1 series lead, which makes Wednesday’s meeting between the two teams inside Staples Center all the more pivotal.
If the Thunder surrenders second place, OKC would go from having homecourt advantage for the first two rounds to a likely second-round series against the Clippers with L.A. holding homecourt advantage. The Thunder also would fall out of a more favorable first-round matchup such as Dallas or Phoenix and into a more dangerous series against the likes of Golden State.
It’s become a reality that didn’t seem possible just weeks ago.
But the Thunder’s post-All-Star break slump has put it in this position where seeding suddenly matters. Not long ago, the Thunder was cruising along as the top seed in the West. A 12-9 record since the break, however, has allowed San Antonio to run away with the top seed and homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Clippers, meanwhile, have gone 18-5 since the break while demolishing teams by 9.1 points on average.
How the race shakes out could now be the difference between whether the Thunder makes the Finals or suffers a second-round exit.
Of course, the one-day-at-a-time-minded Thunder refuses to publicly concede the matter as a concern. The organizational-wide mentality is to make the most of each opportunity and live with the results.
“We focus every game,” Brooks said. “That’s one of the things that we talk about. Every game our job is to do our best and win the game. We’re not worried about other teams. We only control how we play...We have to play better in Sacramento.”
The Kings game, of course, is now a must-win. The Thunder has a 3-0 series lead over Sacramento, winning by two, 15 and 13 points. But Oklahoma City can’t afford to have a letdown.
Following Wednesday’s game against the Thunder, the Clippers have just three games remaining. All appear to be winnable. They host Sacramento on Saturday before closing out the regular season with a home-road back-to-back against Denver and Portland.
The Thunder will still have four games left after Wednesday’s game in L.A. Three of them — New Orleans twice and Detroit — appear to be trouble-free. But keep an eye on April 13. It’s a road game against Indiana that could be critical.