NEW ORLEANS — The Thunder still had something to play for.
But for whatever reason, Oklahoma City never played like it Monday night in New Orleans.
The end result was a shocking one, a 101-89 defeat to the depleted Pelicans inside Smoothie King Arena.
It’s a loss that prevented OKC from clinching the 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Unless the Los Angeles Clippers lose Tuesday at home against Denver, the Thunder will now walk into its season finale against Detroit needing to take the Pistons more serious than it did the Pelicans.
Despite missing their top four scorers, and six of their top seven, due to injuries, the Pelicans pieced together four quality quarters that allowed them to hang with the Thunder throughout. And when they sensed the Thunder couldn’t take control, the Pelicans pounced, outscoring OKC 56-43 in the second half to snap an eight-game losing streak and secure a much-needed, feel-good victory before season’s end.
Tyreke Evans stepped in as the latest perimeter player to feast on the Thunder’s wildly erratic defense. He scored 32 of his career-high 41 points in the second half, joining Lakers guard Jodie Meeks and Suns guard Gerald Green on the list of opponents who have posted 40 or more on the Thunder since the All-Star break.
“We don’t make no excuses,” said Kevin Durant. “They just beat us. They got whatever they wanted on the offensive end, and it felt like we were just out of it.”
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook did not play while resting his surgically repaired right knee on the second night of a back-to-back. Without him, the Thunder displayed little fire or emotion as fringe players, cast offs and D-League signees combined to take control of the game.
“We didn’t play well,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Give them credit. They have guys banged up. But the coaching staff’s done a good job. They’ve had injuries all year, but they still fight.”
Three nights earlier, the Thunder smoked these same Pelicans by 22 points. OKC led by as many as 34 in that game. Evans had to leave that contest with a bone bruise in his right knee and finished with 13 points and six assists in 20 minutes.
On Monday, he made the most of his 42 minutes, adding team highs of nine rebounds and eight assists against just one turnover. Evans carved up the Thunder’s defense with relentless drives to the basket. When he wasn’t converting acrobatic layups, he was drawing contact and getting to the free throw line, where he made 12 of 16 attempts.
Noticeably absent from the Thunder’s lineup as Evans was dropping 17 fourth-quarter points was defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha. He didn’t play a second of the fourth quarter. It’s unclear whether Sefolosha is on a minute restriction after returning from a 17-game absence due to a calf injury, but he hasn’t played more than 24 minutes in the five games he’s played since coming back. He played 24 minutes Monday.
“We tried many guys on him,” Brooks said. “He just got around us. He was getting around us, and he got some calls in that second half. But he’s an aggressive player. And he’s a very good player.”
Evans was the lone one remaining in a Pelicans uniform. New Orleans was without All-Star forward Anthony Davis, point guard Jrue Holiday, shooting guard Eric Gordon, sixth man Ryan Anderson and reserves Jason Smith and Brian Roberts.
“We’ve been short-handed all year,” Evans said. “I wasn’t supposed to play tonight. My knee was bothering me. But I knew we needed a win bad.”
Not as bad as the Thunder.
“We have to focus on our next game,” Durant said. “We have to win it.”