OKC Thunder Quietly Distancing Themselves from Western Conference Powers

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OKC Thunder Quietly Distancing Themselves from Western Conference Powers
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Holding the fort without Russell Westbrook would've been victory enough for these Oklahoma City Thunder.

They could've trod water in the Western Conference, with Kevin Durant leading the way, and come out of the NBA's annual All-Star break with their playoff hopes intact and their roster due for a much-needed infusion of powerful playmaking and furious determination.

But these Thunder haven't been, and aren't, content to simply keep Westbrook's spot in the starting lineup warm until he gets back. They've got their eyes on the ultimate prize, regardless of who's healthy enough to help them grab it—and with the way they've been playing, they might run away from the rest of the West before too long.

That much was clear on Tuesday night, when OKC escaped from the Moda Center with a gritty 98-95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers were hardly at their best, even in front of yet another raucous home crowd.

LaMarcus Aldridge did his best to battle through a sore groin but was clearly bothered by it. He scored just 12 points on an abysmal 5-of-22 from the field, with nary a single point coming after halftime.

Aldridge wasn't the only Rip City resident to struggle, though. Damian Lillard, his All-Star companion, and Wesley Matthews, one of the league's premier marksmen, combined to shoot 7-of-25 from the field, including an unsightly 1-of-11 from three.

Of course, the Thunder played a part in Portland's overall putridity. OKC's active, aggressive and athletic defense forced 17 Rip City turnovers and pestered the home team into shooting a subpar 37.6 percent from the floor.

That defensive effort kept the Thunder afloat through some tough times on the offensive end against what proved to be a surprisingly stingy Portland defense.

Kevin Durant accounted for 18 of the 20 points scored by OKC's starters in the first half and was the only one of the five to convert a field goal before the break; the other four combined to shoot 0-of-12.

Luckily for the Thunder, their deep bench came up big to ensure their 10-point halftime hole wasn't any steeper. Nick Collison scored all nine of his points (on 4-of-4 shooting) in the first two frames, while Jeremy Lamb chipped in 13 of his 19 in the second quarter.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Then, everyone else came to play.

Durant scored 18 more, Reggie Jackson tallied all 17 of his after the break and the Thunder combined to hold the Blazers to 26.7 percent shooting over the final 24 minutes.

That last bit continued OKC's overarching trend of shuttering the opposition down the stretch. According to NBA.com, the Thunder rank fifth in second-half defensive efficiency and fourth in second-half field-goal percentage allowed.

Then again, they've been stingy on defense under nearly any and every possible microscope thus far. They're fourth in defensive efficiency overall, having allowed just 99.3 points per 100 possessions. They're also the top rebounding team in the league and have surrendered the seventh-fewest points in the paint per game.

Not to take anything away from Durant's offensive explosion since Westbrook went down, but it's OKC's defense that's allowed the team to distance itself from a crowded Western Conference.

The win in Portland not only evened the Thunder's season series with the Blazers at 2-2, but it also extended their record to 21-8 without Westbrook, including a 19-7 showing since Russ last played on Christmas Day.

Glance at the standings and you'll see OKC at 42-12, sitting on a somewhat comfortable cushion in first place out West, with the San Antonio Spurs four games back and the Blazers lagging by five.

The Thunder should have little trouble extending that advantage before All-Star weekend, assuming the Los Angeles Lakers lay down to the extent they did against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and have against the rest of the NBA all season.

Things figure to get serious for the Thunder immediately after the break. Durant and company will return from the festivities to a six-game homestand, beginning with visits from the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

With any luck, OKC will have Westbrook handy for those two must-see matchups.

According to Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman, Westbrook has yet to participate in practice since undergoing what was his third knee procedure in eight months, though he has ramped up his on-court activity of late.

As well as the Thunder have played without Westbrook, they'll need his creativity and sheer force of will to keep their roll going through the stretch run of the 2013-14 season. Their offense still stagnates at times, as it did in Portland, when Durant's left to do it all by himself.

Having his superstar sidekick back in the mix should allow KD to save some of his energy for what's shaping up to be a long playoff push, while allowing the rest of OKC's role players to settle back into their lanes with renewed confidence.

In the meantime, the Thunder can take heart in their ability to beat the NBA's elite—with or without their dynamic duo in action together.

A seven-game series with the Blazers would be something to behold, given how closely these two powerhouses have played one another this season. As Durant told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman after the game:

Perhaps that distaste will be motivation enough for the Thunder to further distance themselves from Portland, San Antonio and the like.

More likely, it'll make things that much more interesting when OKC is inevitably forced to step down from its perch atop the Western Conference to confront those foes who'd dare to challenge its supremacy in the postseason.

Either way, wins like OKC's latest go to show that this team isn't just holding the fort without Westbrook; it's fortifying the foundation in anticipation of an all-out battle to get back to the NBA Finals this spring.

 

Thunder on the court, lightning on Twitter!

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