The NBA playoffs are drawing near and they’re headed at the Thunder from two directions — the schedule and the calendar.
OKC continues to excel during a treacherous stretch in the schedule that coincides with the late regular-season push for playoff positioning.
The Thunder posted a 91-79 victory over the Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon for its fifth straight victory and its eighth in the last nine starts.
Ten of OKC’s last 12 games have been against teams currently in line to make the playoffs and a first-place showdown awaits the Thunder (47-16) at San Antonio (48-15) on Monday at 7:30 p.m.
If OKC beats the Spurs, the teams will be tied for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with OKC owning a 2-1 advantage head-to-head.
The later the season gets, the more physical play becomes. For the Thunder, the last two Sundays against the Los Angeles Clippers and Celtics have arguably been the most combative games all season.
“They’re intense games against teams that are good defensively and play physical,” reserve forward Nick Collison said of the Thunder’s schedule since mid-February. “I think it’s good for us to play these teams.”
Has the physicality picked up lately because of the strength of schedule, or because the regular season is about to start its final month?
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Collison said. “I think teams are better this time of year, they’re picking things up. Yeah, it’s a combination of both.”
A sellout crowd of 18,203 at Chesapeake Energy Arena watched OKC overcome some early adversity to survive against the no nonsense Celtics, who have long been known for exposing an opponent’s weakness.
Power forward Serge Ibaka was saddled with three early fouls and the Thunder shot 40.0 percent in the first half, yet still led 50-45 at intermission thanks to outscoring Boston 19-4 at the free-throw line.
“There’s definitely going to be nights where your offense is not clicking,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “Tonight was definitely that night.”
In the second half, the Thunder applied the clamps defensively as the Celtics shot just 25.0 percent (10 for 40) from the floor and were outscored 41-34 after intermission to finish at 37.7 percent (29 for 77) on field goals. In the fourth quarter, Boston shot just 18.2 percent (4 for 22) and was outscored 23-14.
“We knew it was going to be a physical game, the way Boston plays. They play a hard, tough, physical, defensive-minded basketball,” Brooks said. “We did a good job of matching that toughness. I thought our fourth quarter defense was as good as it can be.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said: “We were bad all game offensively. Sometimes you want to win too bad and that was us today.”
OKC shot 48.5 percent after halftime to finish at 44.1 percent for the game. Only three players found double-digits in scoring, led by Kevin Durant with 23 points (6 for 16 from the field) and 11 rebounds, Russell Westbrook (5 for 11) with 15 points and Kevin Martin (4 for 12) with 12.
“The best news for us is that we have a great offensive team with 91 points scored tonight,” Rivers said of the Thunder, the NBA’s highest scoring team at 107.0 per game. “In the second half, we stopped making the mistakes we had been making, but offense never changed. We just couldn’t get it going and we missed open shots.”
The OKC bench outscored the Boston bench 32-23 and got a significant boost from Collison (eight points, five rebounds), guard Reggie Jackson (six points, four rebounds) and veteran guard Derek Fisher (six points, two rebounds).
Though they lost NBA assist leader Rajon Rondo for the remainder of the season with a knee injury, the Celtics entered Sunday’s game 14-4 since Rondo went down.
Sunday was not a routine victory over a storied franchise. It was a challenge against a team that knows what it takes to survive the postseason.
“Boston is one of those teams that really test your defensive principles because they execute so well,” Collison said. “They screen every time, they cut hard every time, they make the right pass, so they’re going to expose breakdowns.”