The Thunder are at Milwaukee this evening, a game they really shouldn’t win, not that they know that.
In the two teams’ lone meeting, played just five days ago, it was the Thunder beating the Bucks 114-109 in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City was without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for that one and was coming off back-to-back overtime losses against the Lakers and, on the way home from Los Angeles, a two-point setback at Denver.
Those three games were enough to make Thunder fans — those who would prefer they win rather than collect ping-pong balls for the next draft lottery — wonder when the schedule might lighten, for Oklahoma City appeared to have enough to put a terrific team on the ropes over and over again through three-plus quarters, yet not enough to finish such teams off.
The Thunder should also be at full strength — or full strength but for George Hill, who remains out following minor surgery on his right thumb, performed on Feb. 2 — for the first time in some time.
Monday, Gilgeous-Alexander returned from a knee ailment for the Thunder’s 122-113 loss to Memphis, a setback also notable for being yet another loss — OKC’s fifth straight — in which the Thunder led during the fourth quarter.
Also, tonight, Al Horford should return after missing the back end of a back-to-back in Memphis, a game played the day after OKC fell to Portland at home.
That’s particularly good news given the way Horford’s been playing.
In his previous four games, the 14-year veteran center has averaged 18.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6 assists, shooting 50 percent from the floor.
Still, the really good news for Thunder fans who would prefer their team win is the schedule is about to lighten.
Tonight, Oklahoma City (11-17) gets Milwaukee (16-12), before traveling to face Cleveland (10-19) on Sunday, before coming home to play Miami (11-17) on Monday, San Antonio (16-11) on Wednesday and Atlanta (12-16) on Friday.
If the Thunder can manage to top either one of the Bucks or Spurs and win the others, they’d suddenly find themselves 15-18 with Denver set to visit on Feb. 27.
According to powerrankingsguru.com, only Detroit, Sacramento and Dallas have played tougher schedules than Oklahoma City thus far this season. Also, wouldn’t you know it, the Clippers and Lakers, Nos. 3 and 2 in the Western Conference, have played the 28th and 30th toughest schedules.
Utah, toting the league’s best record (24-5), winner of 20 of 21 going back to Jan. 8, has somehow done it playing the league’s 10th toughest schedule.
According to tankathon.com, what remains of the Thunder slate is the 15th most difficult schedule in the league.
The attitude OKC displayed Wednesday in Memphis — if not the result — should bode well as the opponents become a little easier.
Following the game, reserve center Mike Muscala, who canned five 3-pointers on the way to 21 points, said it was the first road game of his eight-season NBA career he’d actually arrived in the host city the day of the game.
Indeed, the Thunder only walked into the arena about an hour before the tip, traveling on a make-it-up-as-they-went schedule thanks to horrendous weather conditions in both Oklahoma City and Memphis.
Gilgeous-Alexander had a message for his teammates before taking the floor.
“Shai told us before the game,” Muscala said, “‘There’s no excuses tonight, so we gotta go out and compete.’”
Coach Mark Daigneault wasn’t happy about the way his team defended the length of the game, but remains pleased his team is not the type of group to let itself off the hook.
“I give our guys a lot of credit, because it’s a time where you can make a lot of excuses,” he said. “[But] if you spoon feed these guys an excuse, they’re going to spit it back out.”
Oklahoma City was still trying to create a miracle at the end against the Grizzlies, chopping the deficit from 15 points — 118-103 — with 1:46 remaining to seven — 120-113 — with 25.3 seconds remaining, thanks to 3-pointers from Darius Bazley, Muscala and Theo Maledon, as well as single free throw from Muscala, awarded when Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins was hit with a technical foul.
There are some things about the loss the Thunder don’t want to repeat.
They turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. Their defense really fell apart in the fourth quarter, allowing 58.8 percent shooting and 4 of 6 3-point shooting, while sending the Grizzlies to the free-throw line 16 times after sending them there just 10 the first three quarters.
It would also help if Lu Dort could find his stroke again. Shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point land his first 17 games of the season, the figure has been 18.6 percent since.
Maybe facing a not-quite-as-tough slate over the next 10 days, he can get a few more to fall.