At some point, Oklahoma City needed to stop getting confidence and moral victories and pick up actual wins if it wants to make the playoffs this year.
Sunday night, the depleted Thunder put together a complete performance and took down the surging Sacramento Kings, 101-93.
The Thunder led by as many as 17 in the third quarter, but with just nine healthy players again on Sunday, the win didn't come that easily. The Kings cut the lead to two points at the end of the third quarter and again with 2:31 to play, but both times the Thunder put together clutch rallies to fend off the Kings and come out with the victory.
Without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook—and a litany of others—the Thunder has had to play more team basketball than it perhaps ever has before. Sunday was a great example of that, as five players scored in double figures, led by Reggie Jackson's 22 points. The Thunder bench of Nick Collison (10), Kendrick Perkins (9), Ish Smith (7) and Sebastian Telfair (14) combined to score 40 points on 15-of-24 shooting. Perkins and Collison were particularly effective, with Collison hitting two big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to extend the OKC lead to nine points with 7:30 to play.
The Thunder led 52-39 at halftime and quickly extended the lead to 17 points on a Serge Ibaka dunk a minute into the period. But Sacramento battled back, forcing poor shots and eight OKC turnovers to trim the lead to 67-65 at the end of the third. The Thunder shot just 35 percent in the period.
Ish Smith, who signed with the Thunder last week, came off the bench to start the fourth quarter and immediately made his presence known with a three-point play, an assist to Collison for a dunk, followed by two more free throws to push the Thunder lead to nine just 1:18 into the fourth quarter. The quick burst of energy gave OKC the cushion it needed to play a little freer in the final period.
Players who have been NBA journeymen have been able to showcase their skills during this rough stretch for the Thunder, but OKC wouldn't have a chance to win without their efforts. Lance Thomas is one of those and he made another huge play late for OKC, tipping in a Jackson miss with 1:39 left to push the OKC lead to six points at 92-86.
Two nights after the Thunder shot 3-of-11 from the free throw line in a two-point loss to Memphis, OKC shot 23-of-27 at the charity stripe including 13-of-14 in the fourth quarter. A win wouldn't have been possible without the bounce-back performance.
The Thunder has a chance this week to pick up several wins and keep themselves in contention for a playoff berth when Durant and Westbrook return. OKC has a two-game road swing at Milwaukee and Boston and then a home game against Detroit on Friday. It's not unrealistic to think the Thunder could go 4-0 this week and improbably bring its record back to .500. Also, it's possible the Thunder could get back one or several of the group of Anthony Morrow, Andre Roberson and Perry Jones.
OKC took advantage of a golden opportunity Sunday night and kept themselves in position for success when the full team returns. Moral victories won't get the Thunder to the playoffs. Just real wins.