Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 4/25/12
OKLAHOMA CITY Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks hasn't just avoided talking about playoff seeding all season. He's run from it. He's denied it's been a focus. He distanced himself from making it an issue. He's done everything but suggest it doesn't matter in the least bit. Instead, Brooks likes to talk about the importance of chemistry. Of playing hard. Of all the things coaches love to say, but only because someone told them they have to. When it comes to go-to lines, Brooks never fails to mention how he'd rather have his team playing well heading into the playoffs than his team playing for the top seed. "We're focusing on playing well and that's what we've done for 66 games," Brooks predictably said. Well, the Thunder aren't the top seed San Antonio locked that down. All that's left is to see if Oklahoma City is playing well. And with the regular season ending Wednesday night with a 106-101 loss to Denver inside Chesapeake Energy Arena, we don't really know. Are the Thunder the same team that arguably played the best basketball in the NBA for the first half of the season and into March when they put together wins over the Clippers, Heat, Bulls and Lakers in a 10-day span? Or are they the same team that has gone 7-7 since April 2, losing all seven games they played against playoff-bound teams? "We'd like to have won some more games," Brooks said. "We've lost some tough games against good opponents. We've had some good stretches and some that were not so good." Now seems to be one of those stretches that's not so good. Yet here they are as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, but no, they aren't playing like it as guard Russell Westbrook is slumping and the team is hopeful super-reserve James Harden back at full strength after suffering a concussion Sunday. The playoffs will start either Saturday or Sunday in Oklahoma City and while the Thunder's opponent is still not official, the team's postseason success will likely tip on what the Thunder not their opponent does. After all, this Thunder team which ended up 47-19 this season the third-best record in the league averaged 103.1 points per game, which is third-highest in the NBA. This Thunder team also is last in the league in turnovers averaging 16.3 per game. Durant will likely win the scoring title after finishing with 32 against Denver, averaging 28 points per game this season, but Westbrook is less than a week removed from a 3-of-22 shooting effort against the Lakers. Heading into Wednesday's game against Denver, Westbrook was 15-of-50 in the past three games. Mix in a 3-of-14 vs. the Clippers, a 7-of-23 vs. Indianapolis and a 9-of-26 vs. Miami in the past 12 games and you have a good case to call it a slump. "What I've seen is he has missed some layups," Brooks said of Westbrook. "He hasn't made the layups like he did in March. When you don't, you put more pressure on yourself. Every player will go through a tough stretch. When you miss your layups, you get frustrated." Westbrook did go 10-for-20 Wednesday, score 30 points, have nine assists and two turnovers, breaking out a bit. He's still one of the best in the league, and with the return of Harden, who was cleared to play Wednesday, but did not, should ease the burden of the extra minutes Westbrook certainly would have absorbed. Harden is expected to practice Thursday and Friday and should be in uniform for game one of the playoffs. Harden has been sensational, averaging 16.8 points per game this season, best among NBA reserves. "You don't win without having your best players," Brooks said. "You need them. James has had a terrific year and he's been consistent and gives us a spark." Meanwhile, regardless of whether they are playing good or not, the Thunder can take comfort in that they are a young team and without injury. "We could be better," said forward Kevin Durant. "That's the best part of going to the playoffs, knowing we could be better. We can step it up a notch. As a matter of fact, I know we will, and get better. We're looking forward to it." After the loss to Denver, Dallas looks to be the likely opponent. It would take a Denver loss to Minnesota Thursday and a Mavs win over Atlanta to send Denver back to Oklahoma City for a rematch of last season's first round. A season ago, the Thunder approached the playoffs with gusto, going 18-5 down the stretch and running with that momentum all the way to the Western Conference finals. A year later, wiser, more mature and certainly playoff experienced, the Thunder seem to be scrambling come playoff time. "I think we're playing good basketball," Brooks said. "Are we playing the best in the NBA? I think the Spurs are. Can we play better? Absolutely? You win the first game, you focus on the next. That's how you have success in the playoffs." But with a difficult finish, how easy will that success be to find? "It's about playing the whole season," Brooks said. "We've done a pretty good job with our win total. You're not going to win every night. It's impossible. It's time to move on and focus on our next opponent."
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