Nuggets-Thunder Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated February 18, 2012
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The young Oklahoma City Thunder took a big step forward with a first-round playoff win over the Denver Nuggets in April. One of the players who keyed that triumph might not be available for the teams' first meeting since that series. Russell Westbrook's status is uncertain as the Thunder take on the visiting Nuggets on Sunday night. Oklahoma City (23-7) has the best record in the Western Conference and its emergence as a power team in the West isn't too surprising. The Thunder reached the conference finals last season, losing in five games to Dallas. The franchise picked up its first playoff series victory since 2005 by moving past Denver in five games in the first round. While Oklahoma City closed out the series relatively quickly, it wasn't easy, with four games decided by fewer than five points. Durant averaged 32.4 points in the series, with two 41-point games, including in the deciding contest. Westbrook also had an impressive series, averaging 23.8 points, 6.2 assists and 6.0 rebounds. Westbrook could be a game-time decision Sunday after leaving with a sprained right ankle in the third quarter of Oklahoma City's 110-87 win over Golden State on Friday. The point guard, averaging a career-best 22.6 points but among the NBA's worst with 4.3 turnovers per game, has never missed a game in his four-year career. He's not the Thunder's only injury concern. It's unclear if Kendrick Perkins will return after sitting out Friday with a right knee contusion. Fellow starter Thabo Sefolosha will miss a 12th straight game due to a foot problem. "It's part of the game. Our organization, we don't make excuses," coach Scott Brooks said. "You play through it. You can't do anything about it. We have a team full of guys who are capable of playing good minutes." That proved to be true Friday as Oklahoma City's bench came up big. James Harden scored a season-high 25 points while seldom-used Royal Ivey played 21 minutes and scored nine points on three 3-pointers, hitting two in the fourth quarter. Reggie Jackson scored seven of his nine points in the final period. "If guys go down, then guys have to step up," Ivey said. "We've been playing well this year and you don't want to let your teammates down. You want to add to their success." The Nuggets' depth also is being challenged by injuries. Leading scorer Danilo Gallinari is out for a month with an ankle injury and Nene has missed the last three games with an injured calf, including a 103-102 loss at Memphis on Friday. Denver (17-14) came back from a 23-point deficit but lost on a tip-in with less than a second left. "We never quit. We're not a team of quitters," rookie Kenneth Faried said. "Everybody stayed focused, and everybody stayed hungry." Balanced scoring keyed the Nuggets' strong start to the season, but they've been hurt recently by poor defense. They've lost seven of nine while giving up an average of 103.2 points. It's uncertain if Nene will return Sunday, but his absence has left Denver weak inside. Starting center Timofey Mozgov missed seven straight games with a sprained ankle before returning Friday to play 16 minutes off the bench, but the NBA's official website reported that he aggravated the injury. Mozgov did not play in the fourth quarter. Al Harrington made his first start of the season but finished with four points while going 0 for 3 from the field. Faried, though, had a career-high 18 points and 10 rebounds for his third straight game scoring in double figures and first double-double.
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