The Oklahoma City Thunder’s rebuilding process is on the verge of getting a swift upward boost.
The Thunder are one victory away from receiving an invitation to the NBA playoffs when they battle the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night in Minneapolis.
Oklahoma City is in position to reach the playoffs after recording a 123-118 win over the host New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday. The Timberwolves are in the loser-goes-home contest after falling 108-102 in overtime to the host Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.
Minnesota has been caught up in a circus-type environment since Rudy Gobert punched teammate Kyle Anderson during a timeout in last Sunday’s regular-season finale against New Orleans.
Gobert was suspended for the loss to the Lakers but is now in jeopardy of missing Friday’s game due to back spasms. Timberwolves coach Chris Finch termed Gobert as “uncertain” when he met with reporters on Thursday.
Gobert said the back issues were so intense that he would have missed the game against the Lakers if he hadn’t been suspended.
He also said he had mended fences with Anderson, who had a stellar all-around game against Los Angeles with 12 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, four steals and four blocked shots.
“I still love Kyle. He’s still my brother,” Gobert said. “I tell people, sometimes you fight with your family. Sometimes you fight with people that you have a lot of love and respect for. It’s life.”
While it is no surprise that Minnesota is alive for a spot, the Thunder weren’t supposed to be playing any games after the conclusion of the regular season.
Oklahoma City was a combined 46-108 over the previous two seasons and was projected to be one of the worst teams in the league this season. That seemed even more like a formality when No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren sustained a season-ending foot injury prior to the season.
Instead, the club that owns 15 first-round picks over the next five seasons is well ahead of schedule. And the Thunder looked like a veteran club while outplaying the Pelicans down the stretch.
“We’ve been battle-tested,” Oklahoma City star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’ve played a lot of close games all year. For the past couple years, even when the seasons weren’t going our way, we played in a lot of close games. We have good habits and know what will get it done down the stretch.”
Gilgeous-Alexander scored 25 of his game-high 32 points in the second half. He tallied eight in the final 1:40, including the shot that put the Thunder ahead to stay with 28.3 seconds remaining.
Josh Giddey added 31 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds and Lu Dort scored 27 points for Oklahoma City, which is looking for a victory that would put them against the top-seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round.
“We know they are a talented team with a lot of guys who can make things happen,” Giddey said of Minnesota. “It’s going to be another test.”
The Timberwolves are trying to make the playoffs for the second straight season after missing in 16 of the previous 17 campaigns.
Karl-Anthony Towns recorded 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists against the Lakers, but was largely ineffective after picking up his fifth foul.
“He was in a heck of a rhythm until they whistled him to the bench,” Finch said. “That was tough.”
Mike Conley made six 3-pointers while scoring 23 points for the Timberwolves, but Anthony Edwards had just nine points on 3-of-17 shooting for Minnesota, which blew a 15-point third-quarter lead.
“We expected to win this game,” Conley said. “It’s disappointing to lose. We had a lead and let it slip. ... We’ve just got to be mentally and physically more engaged at the end.”
The Timberwolves went 3-1 against the Thunder this season; Oklahoma City’s win came on Dec. 3 in Minneapolis.
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