With the Regular Season Winding Down, West Playoff Race Becomes Must-See TV

With the playoffs on the horizon and most of the competitive teams—minus the Warriors—in the Western Conference jockeying for position, each game between the teams hoping to improve their seeding before April has taken on new significance.
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The last month of the regular season is about to be wild.

For the second year in a row, seeds three through eight in the West will be separated by just a handful of games. And for the second year in a row, the playoff race will go down to the last game of the season.

And the Thunder’s 129-121 overtime win in Portland to complete a season sweep of the Trail Blazers was more proof of how exciting the final month of the season is going to be.

Oklahoma City and Portland entered the game tied for third with the Rockets. The Blazers were one of the league’s hottest teams after going 5-2 during their recent seven-game road trip. The Thunder were one of the league’s coldest teams, losing five of their last six, with the one win coming in the final seconds at home against the Grizzlies.

So naturally, these teams played one of the most exciting games of the season when they met for the fourth and final time Thursday.

The Trail Blazers had a chance to send a message with the postseason approaching. Beating the Thunder and avoiding the sweep would have calmed talk that Oklahoma City is a bad playoff matchup while also moving Portland into third place by itself.

After getting swept in the first round last season as the three-seed, Portland was not looked at as a legit contender coming into the season.

Do you remember how Kevin Durant told C.J. McCollum not to worry about “what’s going on at the top of things” during the offseason? With this recent surge and some key roster additions, the Trail Blazers have started to make some reconsider just how much noise they can make in April and May.

The visiting Thunder entered Portland in a completely different position. Losses to the Kings and second-place Nuggets started the recent skid in Oklahoma City. And after going without Paul George for three games, the MVP candidate returned to see his team lose their third game this season to the Timberwolves.

In need of a big win to stop the bleeding two games into a four-game road trip, Russell Westbrook stepped up to duel with Damian Lillard.

Lillard had 51 points and nine assists to lead the charge. Westbrook, the 2016-17 MVP, had 37 of his own.

With the two lead guards setting the tone for each squad, the game went down to the wire. It was a playoff atmosphere as two division rivals fought tooth and nail for a critical win late in the season. But with PG running beside Westbrook, the Thunder had too much for the Blazers.

Between a late-game scuffle with Jusuf Nurkic that led to the Bosnian Beast's ejection right before overtime to some clutch drives late in the fourth and in overtime that set up critical buckets, George proved to be the difference maker.

As the season concludes, Westbrook and George will have to feed off each other like this again and again to make sure they keep homecourt for a first-round series and avoid getting bounced in the first round like they did last year.

And if Westbrook keeps shooting as well as he has lately (14-for-28 on Thursday and 29-for-65 in the three games prior), the Thunder should be able to take the four seed, and possibly hold off the Rockets for third. The Thunder will now go face the Clippers on Friday and then the Jazz on Monday to close their road trip. They are 5-1 against those teams so far this season.

The Blazers will gear up for the Suns before a three-game road trip that features the Clippers, Pelicans and Spurs. You’ll want to watch all of these games—and the games the Jazz and Rockets have remaining as well.

It’s going to down to the wire again, and Thursday was proof you don’t want to miss the action.