The Thunder blew a 15-point first-half lead and All-Star Kevin Durant shot 0 for 8 from the field in the second half.
Yet somehow in the process, OKC still managed to clinch its second straight playoff spot thanks to a 99-90 victory over Portland on Sunday night inside Oklahoma City Arena.
“That’s a sign we’re getting better,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “There was a time a few years back that if Kevin goes 0 for 8, there’s a good chance that we don’t win this game. Guys have to step up. There’s always going to be a different guy.”
Multiple players stepped up against the Trail Blazers, led by All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who in the fourth quarter scored 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting, which included going 3 for 3 from 3-point range.
“He is turning into a big-time player,” Portland coach Nate McMillan said of the 22-year-old Westbrook. “He is making big plays.”
There also was timely team defense, with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka getting back-to-back blocks in the same sequence that resulted in a Westbrook breakaway layup with 52.9 seconds left to give the Thunder a 94-88 lead.
“They do a good job protecting the basket,” Brooks said of Perkins and Ibaka. “They compliment each other very well. Russell stepped up tonight and James (Harden) has been stepping up for about a month now. It’s just part of being a team. Somebody will have to step up.”
When the Thunder clinched a playoff spot last season, roughly 100 fans greeted the team early Easter Sunday outside a private hanger at Will Rogers World Airport after its return trip from Dallas.
On Sunday, the 31st sellout crowd (18,203) of the season was there to roar its approval.
“It feels good,” Durant said. “A couple of years ago (23-59 overall with 3-29 start), we were the worst team ever.”
OKC (48-24) is now 3-0 against the Blazers (42-31) this season and 12-2 in March.
The Thunder withstood a 40-point eruption from recently acquired forward Gerald Wallace, who was still with Charlotte when OKC had its two-game sweep against Portland in early November.
“It wasn’t enough,” said Wallace, who shot 16 for 28 from the field. “I’d rather take the win than take the points.”
Westbrook, who averages slightly more than one 3-point attempt per game, finished 4 for 5 from beyond the arc. Each of his three 3s in the final quarter came at crucial moments.
Asked if it was one of those times a coach is thinking, “No, no, no,” while the shot is in the air, Brooks smiled and said, “There were a few ‘no’s in there, but ‘nice shot.’”
OKC led 55-40 with 8.8 seconds left before intermission, but the Blazers had tied the score at 69 less than 10 minutes later. Portland forced three more ties, but never managed to take the lead.
After surrendering 31 points to Portland in the third quarter, the Thunder held the visitors to just 18 in the final period.
“They were very physical tonight and we like that,” Brooks said. “We have to continue to work through all the physical play and I thought we were being physical, too. They were having trouble scoring just as well as we were.”
Westbrook finished with a team-high 28 points, seven assists and two steals. Durant had 21 points and tied a career high with five blocked shots. Ibaka added 18 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Perkins had 10 rebounds and two blocks.
OKC also won thanks to another sizzling night at the free-throw line, converting 26 of 29 (.897).