NBA regular season

Thunder aim for West No. 1 after inexplicable Nuggets loss


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Thunder aim for West No. 1 after inexplicable Nuggets loss

RISING. Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (right) and guard Cason Wallace dap up during a game.

Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Just when it seemed like Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets all but sealed the No. 1 spot in the West, the reigning champions absorb a surprise upset, paving the way for the Thunder to potentially snatch the top seed

The Oklahoma City Thunder were expected to make a leap this season.

With an up-and-coming core headlined by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams, plus the addition of Chet Holmgren, growth was expected from a team that made it to the NBA play-in tournament last year.

But heading into the regular-season finale against the Dallas Mavericks in Oklahoma City on Sunday, April 14 (Monday, April 15, Manila time), the Thunder have a chance to finish atop the Western Conference.

Oklahoma City comes into the game in a three-way tie for the top spot – the first time in league history three teams have entered the final game of the regular season tied atop a conference.

The Thunder (56-25) need a win and either a Denver win over Memphis or a Minnesota loss to Phoenix – or a loss and losses by both Denver and Minnesota – to secure the top spot.

Oklahoma City owns the tiebreaker with the Nuggets and the three-way tiebreaker among the teams, but the Timberwolves would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Thunder.

The Thunder haven’t finished atop the conference since the 2012-2013 season.

The Nuggets were supposed to spend Sunday afternoon putting the finishing touches on another top finish in the Western Conference.

Instead, they’re lamenting an inexplicable loss that sent them to third place and possibly cost them the No. 1 seed.

Denver (56-25) blew a 23-point lead at San Antonio on Friday night, April 12, and lost 121-120, dropping it into a tie with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder atop the Western Conference.

Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets controlled their fate until the collapse against the Spurs, so now Sunday’s game at the Memphis Grizzlies could mean several things for the reigning champions.

They hold no tiebreakers over their Northwest Division rivals so they need help. A win over Memphis (27-54) and a loss by the Timberwolves and Thunder earn Denver the top seed again but that would mean Minnesota and Oklahoma City would need to lose their respective home games.

“We controlled our own destiny and what we accomplished on Wednesday night, we just gave it right back,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, referring to the home win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. “So, it’s easy to get up for Minnesota. I mean, our guys were locked in, they were focused, they were serious.

“And I don’t think we had the same approach for [Friday’s Spurs] game, but you had a chance to get to the one seed and now, obviously, we’ll likely be the three seed at the end of the day.”

Malone has to decide whether he should play his starters or rest them Sunday afternoon. With at least six days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the first round, fatigue won’t be a factor.

While Oklahoma City has plenty to play for on the season’s last day, the Mavericks (50-31) are locked into their spot.

Dallas will be the No. 5 seed and will open the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers.

With the Mavericks locked into their spot, the bench will get its chance to ready for the playoffs.

“Four of the five starters won’t play in Oklahoma City,” Dallas head coach Jason Kidd said. “Timmy (Hardaway Jr.) is the only one who will play.”

So the Mavericks will be without both NBA leading scorer Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving for the second consecutive game.

Both sat in Friday’s 107-89 home loss to Detroit, Doncic with left ankle soreness and Irving with left hamstring soreness.

Irving had played in 31 consecutive games.

The loss snapped Dallas’ five-game winning streak, though the Mavericks have still won 12 of their past 14.

“No one got hurt. We played everybody (who was available),” Kidd said. “There was a lot of good things.”

Since a season-long three-game losing streak, all without Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams, Oklahoma City has won four consecutive games to move to the brink of finishing atop the West.

“We’ve got guys that are incredibly committed,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “They have teamwork. They want to be a part of the team naturally, like you’re not selling them on being a part of the team and they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

In the three games since his return, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 29.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.

The Thunder were without guard Josh Giddey for the first time this season in Friday’s win over Milwaukee. Giddey is dealing with a right hip contusion.

Daigneault said Giddey went through Saturday’s practice in full but that the practice was a light one and Giddey’s status would be decided Sunday.

The Thunder have won two of three against the Mavericks this season, including a 126-119 win March 14 in Oklahoma City. –

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