The Oklahoma City Thunder strode into Milwaukee on Monday night facing these obstacles:
- They were about 18 hours removed from a home victory over Toronto
- Their opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, desperately needed the game to stay alive for the last Eastern Conference playoff berth
- The surging San Antonio Spurs had taken a one-game lead in the loss column, and with it the top seed in the West with less than three weeks remaining in the season
That last point is the critical one, as tonight’s result illustrated the Thunder’s best hope for holding off the Spurs. While Gregg Popovich sat his All-Star trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili in an eventual loss to Utah, Scott Brooks took a different approach: he sent his stars out to jump on the overmatched Bucks, in hopes that a big lead would allow them to rest most of the way.
The Thunder came away with an easy 109-89 victory, cruising after a 35-18 first quarter and reclaiming first place in the West. Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka got to rest most of the night, playing only 26 and 27 minutes, respectively. Kevin Durant logged 37 minutes on an off shooting night, but he’d played only 31 the day before and may have needed time to iron out his stroke.
Oklahoma City’s youthful lineup poses an interesting question: how many minutes are too many? Or too few? Here are the critical cases:
Durant – 40.1 minutes in the past 10 games, 38.6 on the season. He has yet to miss a game and has shown almost no signs of fatigue despite the bull’s-eye he wears on his back every night. His youth and efficiency may keep him immune from wearing down, but if the Thunder manage to wrap up a top seed he might benefit from a game or two off.
Westbrook – Quietly riding one of the most amazing streaks in basketball history: he has never missed a game due to injury, dating back to high school. Brooks has managed his minutes (35.7 per game) spectacularly well, especially considering the season-ending injury to putative backup point guard Eric Maynor early in the season. Westbrook’s ability to play with energy and abandon when others faded was indispensable in last postseason’s war with Memphis. With the West playoffs looming every bit as daunting this season, his extra gear will again play a part.
Ibaka – His minutes are a bit down in April, but they’ve hovered right around his career mark of 27 per game all season, and he’s shown the ability to put in extra time when needed. His growing offensive game has given the Thunder frontcourt a dimension it lacked, and allowed Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins to focus only on what they do well.
James Harden – The super-sub finishes most games and plays about 32 minutes on a normal night. His smooth game keeps him away from risky collisions, and if Derek Fisher falters Harden will have to pick up some backcourt slack. He should be rested enough for the playoffs to render it a non-issue.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.