Though the Oklahoma City Thunder score more than any other team in the NBA, it might be an improving defense that proves to be the difference in their title chase.
Friday night will see that defense face a tough test when the Thunder visit the Denver Nuggets, whose high-octane attack has been bolstered by Ty Lawson's emergence as a dynamic scorer.
Oklahoma City (42-15) leads the league with 106.8 points per game, and Denver has moved up to third (105.5) while averaging 112.6 during its current 13-4 surge.
A season-worst three-game losing streak seems like a distant memory for the Thunder, who have since won three in row by an average of 30.3 points. As impressive as the offense has been during that span, averaging 116.0 points, the defense has been just as good in the last two games as opponents averaged 73.0 points on 31.9 percent shooting.
"We are doing great on defense," Russell Westbrook told the team's official website after a 119-74 home win over New Orleans on Wednesday.
Oklahoma City matched its largest margin of victory this season and held an opponent below 75 points for the third time in February.
"We are playing off our defense and getting stops and let the offense take care of itself," Westbrook added. "It all starts with defense regardless of what we are doing offensively."
Westbrook scored a game-high 29 while Kevin Durant posted his second triple-double since the All-Star break with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Durant tied a season low with eight field-goal attempts and had fewer than 20 points for the third time in four games, a stretch during which he's averaged 11.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists.
"I think Kevin continues to make a concerted effort to be a leader by example in terms of playing the game the right way and not being overly concerned with how many points he scores each night, but really just making the right plays," Derek Fisher said.
Fisher was scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting in his first game with the Thunder after signing with them for the stretch run for the second straight season. Ronnie Brewer had five points in 12 minutes in his debut after being acquired in a trade with New York.
The Thunder have dropped four of five on the road and now visit a Nuggets team which is one of the league's best at home, winning nine in a row and 14 of 15.
Denver (37-22) has surpassed 110 points in four straight overall as Lawson continues to fuel the scoring.
The point guard has at least 20 points in eight consecutive games, the longest such streak of his career. He is averaging 26.1 points on 52.8 percent shooting over that span but hasn't stopped making plays for teammates, with his 8.0 assists per game surpassing his season mark of 7.1.
Coach George Karl has started to lean more on Lawson for offense, and he came through with 30 points in a 111-109 win at Portland on Wednesday.
"I just said to him, 'We're not gonna run any more plays,'" Karl said of what he told Lawson late in the game. "'You've got one option, go into the paint and find it. Find the shot, not someone else.'"
The fourth-year pro's heightened scoring may be more crucial if top scorer Danilo Gallinari (bruised thigh) missed a third straight game.
This season series has seen each team win on its home floor, including a 121-118 Denver victory in overtime Jan. 20. Lawson totaled 13 points on 5-of-17 shooting in those two games.
Over the last five meetings, Durant is averaging 32.8 points and Westbrook is at 32.2.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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