OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Thunder usually spend the first half of April fighting to improve their playoff seeding.
This year, they’re fighting just to get into the postseason.
Oklahoma City has lost three straight heading into Tuesday’s game against the San Antonio Spurs, and its playoff hopes are in jeopardy. The Thunder are just a half game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.
“Talking doesn’t do much,” point guard Russell Westbrook said after Sunday’s loss to Houston. “You’ve got to play. You’ve got to come out and play.”
The Thunder normally are a lock for the postseason, having reached the playoffs five straight years. They’ve played in the Western Conference Finals three of the past four years and the NBA Finals once, but injuries to reigning MVP Kevin Durant (right foot surgery), forwards Serge Ibaka (right knee surgery) and Nick Collison (left ankle sprain) and shooting guard Andre Roberson (left ankle sprain) have taken their toll.
Westbrook has carried much of the load with so many players out injured. Since Durant’s last game on Feb. 19, Westbrook is averaging 30.6 points, 10.6 assists and 9.1 rebounds per game with nine triple-doubles. Despite heavy minutes — 40 per game in the past five — coach Scott Brooks isn’t worried about Westbrook slowing down.
“He understands that the rest is important to come back with a full tank every night, and he has done that,” Brooks said. “He’s a special player, and he’s at a high level in that regard. He has the energy that can fill an entire arena, and he’s done a good job of recharging his batteries night in and night out.”
The Thunder are allowing 112 points per game and 52 percent shooting during their losing skid, losing games to Dallas, Memphis and Houston by a combined 15 points.
“I think our effort’s been there these last few games, but we just came up short in some departments down the stretch,” Thunder guard Anthony Morrow said. “We’ve just got to continue to work on those things.”
The injury news isn’t getting much better. Durant has been declared out for the season, and he was riding around Chesapeake Energy Arena in a motorized cart on Sunday. Roberson participated in some of Monday’s practice and is considered day-to-day. Collison and Ibaka did not participate in practice.
The injuries have affected depth, particularly inside. Houston went after Oklahoma City’s big men and got them in foul trouble, a key factor in the Rockets’ win.
Some good news has emerged for the Thunder in the second half of the season. Enes Kanter also has provided a spark, averaging 18.4 points and 11.6 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the field in 21 games since being acquired at the trade deadline.
Morrow has seen an increase in playing time and has taken advantage by making 18 of 31 3-pointers in his past five games. He is averaging 18 points and shooting 55 percent from the field during that stretch.
Still, the defense has been ragged, and Westbrook’s shooting percentage has dropped as he has logged more minutes. Morrow expects a difficult path to the playoffs ahead, starting with the defending NBA champion Spurs.
“It’s a challenge, and you have to accept the challenge,” he said. “We know what we are up against with the injuries and all that, we know how we are right now, but we just have to embrace it and just enjoy the joy of the challenge and embrace it every night.”
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP