With Thunder officially in NBA playoffs, do regular-season sweeps matter going forward?
Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone all but dismissed the question even before Denver beat OKC for the fourth time this season.
What would sweeping the regular-season series mean for a potential playoff matchup?
“It means we beat them four times,” Malone said in his pregame news conference Friday, before beating the Thunder 115-105 at Chesapeake Energy Arena. “But all of these games that we play against them seem like they’re just battles. They go down to the wire.”
Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook summed it up in fewer words after the game.
How much do those regular-season games matter when the playoffs start?
“They don’t,” he said.
Then Westbrook took a sip of water and walked out of the media scrum.
The Thunder clinched a playoff berth Saturday, thanks to the Rockets' 119-108 win over the Kings. Sacramento (37-39) was mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. That finalized the eight Western Conference playoff teams: Warriors, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs and Thunder.
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OKC has played similar regular-season series with three of the top five teams in the Western Conference. OKC lost all four games to Denver but swept No. 3 Portland and No. 5 Utah in close contests. Depending on how the remaining week and a half of the regular season goes, the Thunder could be left wishing those games did matter.
But even as the Thunder secured sweeps of the Trail Blazers and Jazz earlier in the season, players maintained that those wins were mostly important for seeding purposes.
“We ain’t looking for no extra confidence,” Thunder forward Paul George said after beating Utah 98-89 on March 11. “This is a confident locker room. It is what it is. We did our job in the regular season. That don’t mean nothing when it comes down to playoff time.”
Entering play Saturday, the Thunder had slid back to No. 8 in the Western Conference.
Bumps and bruises
As George warmed up for Friday’s game, his availability still yet to be determined, he and the Thunder’s athletic training staff and coached were weighing two things: Did he have swelling in his left shoulder? Soreness?
If not, he was good to go. George started against the Nuggets.
“I felt fine,” said George, who scored 25 points on 22 shots Friday. “I’m good throughout the game. All it takes is one hit and it bruises and gets sore, but if I don’t get hit in that spot then I’m good.”
That, according to Thunder coach Billy Donovan, is what made George’s status questionable heading into Friday’s game. He took a hit while fighting past a screen in the Thunder’s 107-99 win over Indiana on Wednesday.
George has yet to sit out with left shoulder soreness, and he was not listed on the Thunder’s injury report Saturday evening. He did, however, miss three games a month ago for right shoulder soreness, which Donovan said was not related.