The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t coast to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook teamed up for 50 points and needed to return in the fourth quarter to hold off a Sacramento charge, and the Thunder clinched the top seed in the West by beating the Sacramento Kings 104-95 on Monday night.
It was the 60th win for the franchise, which last accomplished the feat 15 years ago in Seattle. The team hasn’t been the top seed in the West since 1996, when the SuperSonics went to the NBA Finals before losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls.
“We’ve never done it here before, so it’s new to us,” said Durant, who scored 29. “But it feels good. It shows our progression as a franchise each and every year.”
Tyreke Evans, the Kings’ second-leading scorer, did not return after grabbing at his troublesome left knee following a drive to the basket late in the first quarter. Without him, Sacramento fell woefully behind before mounting a flurry with the Thunder’s stars on the bench.
Durant hit a 3-pointer and Westbrook set up Serge Ibaka for a two-handed slam during a string of 11 straight Thunder points midway through the third quarter that stretched the lead to 75-51.
Sacramento was able to cut the deficit to 11 early in the fourth quarter and force coach Scott Brooks to put Durant and Westbrook back in and close out the game.
“To get 60 wins is quite an accomplishment,” Brooks said. “We’ve come a long ways through the hard work our entire organization has put in.”
Westbrook didn’t make it until the very end, drawing his second technical foul of the game with 2:28 left after spiking the basketball following Travis Outlaw’s dunk that brought Sacramento within 100-88. The two technical fouls brought Westbrook’s total to 15 for the season, one short of the number that would draw him an automatic one-game suspension.
Westbrook, who had 21 points, left the arena without speaking to reporters.
It appeared as though he — along with Durant and Ibaka — wouldn’t return after Westbrook was called for a technical foul with 3:04 left in the third quarter for complaining to referee David Guthrie that he had been hit in the face with no foul called.
Westbrook continued complaining until Guthrie instructed reserve Daniel Orton to lead Westbrook to the bench with Oklahoma City leading 76-55.
But the Kings soon pieced together a 12-2 comeback late in the third quarter, and Brooks called timeout after Sacramento scored six straight points to cut the lead to 84-73 with 9½ minutes left. Durant and Westbrook returned, and Sacramento couldn’t get within double digits until Jimmer Fredette’s four-point play with 7.8 seconds to go.
“With the second-best team in the NBA, you can’t get down early,” said Isaiah Thomas, who led Sacramento with 16 points. “You can’t get down 18 to 20 points. It’s going to be a hell of a job to make a comeback. We fought, though, in that third and fourth quarter.”
Outlaw scored 15 and Cole Aldrich had a double-double for the second straight game by tying his career best with 12 points and setting a career high with 13 rebounds.
Leading scorer DeMarcus Cousins, who was allowed to play after the NBA rescinded his 16th technical foul of the season, had just seven points and six rebounds and didn’t play in the fourth quarter.
Evans, who missed 16 games from late November through early January because of left knee injuries, clutched at the front of that knee as he lay under the basket following an awkward landing. His right foot appeared to slip on the court as his left leg folded up underneath him.
Outlaw and a trainer helped him off the court and down a tunnel to the locker room with 2 minutes left in the first quarter. A team spokesman described the injury as a left quadriceps strain.
“I definitely thought it was his knee, and he thought it was his knee as well,” Smart said. “We thought maybe when he fell and he hit the floor that maybe when they fell on it that maybe his knee had thrust into the floor.
“But then once he got in the back and realized that it wasn’t the knee. It was more the quad. I think it scared him more than anything else, thinking right away it was the knee. Just happy that it was just a quad and a couple weeks of rest and he’ll be back to normal.”
Smart said he won’t let Evans, who is a restricted free agent at the end of the season, play in the team’s final game Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“No need for him to go out there and limp around or try to do anything else to that,” he said. “So it’ll be a fight between Tyreke and I. We’ll do it behind closed doors, but it doesn’t warrant for him to get out there and try to do something.”
The Thunder scored the first eight points of the game and didn’t relinquish the lead, despite losing Thabo Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet to two fouls apiece within the first 7 minutes. The Kings got as close as one and were down 20-16 after Evans’ layup.
“It shows that we’re improving every year, and it’s a big number,” Sefolosha said. “There’s not a lot of teams that can do it. To be a part of that group and just to get to that number, it’s big.”
While Durant is trailing New York’s Carmelo Anthony in his bid to win a fourth straight NBA scoring title, Brooks thinks another feat would be equally impressive. Durant is trying to become the sixth player in league history to shoot at least 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent on free throws for a season. The others are Reggie Miller, Mark Price, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird. “To be able to score as many points as he has scored and shoot that well is pretty impressive. It doesn’t happen that often,” Brooks said. Brooks actually came close in Houston’s 1993-94 championship season, making 48 percent on field goals, 38 percent on 3s and 87 percent at the foul line. … It was the second straight April that Cousins was able to play at Oklahoma City only after a technical foul was rescinded. “You want to get it to where those things are all behind us,” Smart said, “where we don’t worry about any of those things anymore, to where we can focus on just the game and focus on the opponent.”