MINNEAPOLIS — If the Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t able to catch the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, Kevin Durant and Co. may look back to a late March night in Minnesota as the moment they let it slip away.
Barreling down on the Spurs with 11 victories in their previous 14 games, the rolling Thunder slammed into a 6-foot-11, Montenegrin road block and a feisty Timberwolves team they never saw coming.
Nikola Pekovic had 22 points and 15 rebounds and Ricky Rubio added 17 points and seven assists to help the Timberwolves stun the Thunder 101-93 on Friday night.
“We’ll be fine,” Durant said. “You know, just a little bump in the road.”
Chase Budinger scored 13 points and Andrei Kirilenko played superb defense on Durant in the second half to help the Wolves deal the Thunder an unexpected setback in their pursuit of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Durant had 36 points and seven rebounds, but was just 4 for 9 in the final 22 minutes. Russell Westbrook added 18 points and nine assists for the Thunder, who fell to 2 1/2 games behind the Spurs in the West after San Antonio beat the Clippers.
“I’m pretty sure he’s tired right now,” Kirilenko said of Durant.
The Thunder could regret this one, but they can also take solace that they won’t see the Timberwolves — one of only five teams to beat them twice this year — in the playoffs. The Wolves had just 25 wins on the season, tied for second fewest in the West, having suffered through a litany of injuries. They were playing without Olympian Kevin Love, who has missed most of the season with a broken right hand.
So they used Pekovic’s broad shoulders and Dante Cunningham’s grit to get a surprising victory, one that moved coach Rick Adelman three away from 1,000 for his career.
“They’re a great team,” Pekovic said of the Thunder. “I’m sure they’ll be one of the teams that is going to go for the title.”
With Minnesota leading 84-81 early in the fourth, Pekovic bulled to the basket for two layups, and Cunningham, who was playing with a bruised shooting hand, hit a jumper and converted a tough layup in traffic for a 92-81 lead.
The Thunder got as close as five points down the stretch, but Pekovic held them off with a putback that pushed the lead back to 96-87 with 1:34 to go. Westbrook was just 7 for 17 from the floor, Kevin Martin was 1 for 9 and Durant was relatively quiet after a 9-for-10 start.
“We keep it the same,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We’re a very even-keel team, we always focus on just playing good basketball whoever we play, and they play well against us. They’re a good team.”
Oklahoma City has nine games remaining to make up for it. Getting that No. 1 seed is very much a goal for these Thunder, who want to play as many games as possible in front of their raucous home fans in the playoffs. It was in Oklahoma City last year when the series against the Spurs turned so dramatically. Down 2-0 to San Antonio and in serious danger of being swept by the veteran Spurs, the Thunder exploded for a 20-point win in Game 3 at home. That gave them the confidence and momentum, and they reeled off three more in a row to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since moving from Seattle.