OKLAHOMA CITY – Once 3-12 while its two superstars sat out injured, the Oklahoma City Thunder has righted itself, moving from nine games below .500 to seven above it and getting itself smack into contention for the Western Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
With guard Russell Westbrook rewriting the record books nightly and Kevin Durant expected back from a foot injury within two weeks, the Thunder clearly is the favorite to claim that final spot from New Orleans and perhaps create the most awaited first-round matchup between seeds Nos. 1 and 8 ever.
Imagine a Golden State-Oklahoma City matchup, if everyone's healthy: Would it be fair?
"Not at all," said Wolves veteran guard Kevin Martin, who played with both Westbrook and Durant in Oklahoma City for a season two years ago. "They'd be the best No. 8 seed in history."
Wolves coach Flip Saunders agrees and suggests Durant doesn't have to return to his old self. In fact, maybe it'd better for the Thunder's rhythm if he didn't return to full health immediately.
"Even if Durant doesn't come back fully healthy, just with him on the floor they might be better because of the way Westbrook is playing and Durant won't have to do so much," Saunders said. "As a team, they might be even more effective than they were when both those guys were playing injury-free."
Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio seemed to sound a word of caution when asked if it'd be fair for Golden State to meet a team like the Thunder in the first round.
"We'll see," Rubio said. "That's two candidates of MVP on the same team. It's hard to have the ball in different hands at the same time. They will have to share it, but they've been playing together a long time. They know each other, and they're good at that."
No Pek, no KG
The Wolves played without starting center Nikola Pekovic and power forward Kevin Garnett on Friday after both were scratched from the lineup not long before the opening tip. Adreian Payne and Gorgui Dieng started instead.
Pekovic called his painful ankle "bad" again after he played just eight minutes in Wednesday's loss at Phoenix. Saunders said Friday morning that Garnett would play, but instead he missed his third consecutive game, with what the team reported is a sore knee.
"He's planning on playing," Saunders said 90 minutes before game time. "But when you've been in the league 20 years and your bones are kind of rickety and you sleep for three hours in the afternoon after a shootaround, sometimes you get up and there's just not enough oil left in him to be as productive as you might want him to be."
Walk softly and …
Saunders removed Payne after just 20 seconds in Wednesday's third quarter at Phoenix after he shouted instructions and Payne rolled his eyes.
Asked Friday if he had talked to Payne about the seven-minute benching, Saunders said, "No need to talk. Actions speak louder than words. That's what my dad told me."
Was he right?
"He was always right," Saunders said.
Making Ricky's list
All those triple-doubles have made Westbrook a late comer to the league MVP discussion dominated until now by Stephen Curry, James Harden and of course Le-Bron James.
Westbrook is on Rubio's list. "He puts this team on his back, without KD [Kevin Durant] on team," Rubio said. "Not just one step, but three, four steps to take this team to playoff. I think he's showing everybody he's MVP candidate."
•The Thunder played without starting power forward Serge Ibaka (sore knee) and inserted Mitch McGary in his spot and started Dion Waiters at small forward for Kyle Singler as well. "I don't know if you guys follow my Twitter page, but Serge is out tonight," Thunder coach Scott Brooks deadpanned to reporters before the game. "I posted that earlier today."
•Garnett was in uniform and sat on the bench. He did not do so Wednesday in Phoenix because he was ill, Saunders said.