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Thunder play like there's plenty on the line in beating Jazz
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

They say they don't care about the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They say it's all about playing well when the playoffs arrive.

They say.

But the Oklahoma City Thunder surely didn't act like an apathetic team on Tuesday night.

In what amounted to an easy 90-80 win over the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena — a 48-minute, methodical win in which they were never seriously threatened — the Thunder played with a certain desperation that didn't come from the home team until the very final minutes.

Russell Westbrook spent an entire game in attack mode. Kevin Durant showed off an all-around skill set that rivaled that of his individual rival, LeBron James. Serge Ibaka shut down the lane and rendered Utah's vaunted inside game rather useless. The OKC defense proved unyielding in holding the Jazz to one of their worst offensive performances in recent memory.

"The important thing is to be playing the right way when it counts," Westbrook said. "As long as we continue to play the right way, in a hostile environment, then we're going to be fine. But the number one seed isn't all that important."

It's rightful for the Thunder to feel that way. After all, this is the same team that lost the first two games of the Western Conference Finals to San Antonio last year on the road, only to sweep Tim Duncan and company four straight to win the series.

Obviously, this is a team that feels it can do the same thing this time around. But can they? James Harden, on paper, is a major difference between this season and last. Nobody in the league had such a weapon, a guy that can come off the bench, carry a second unit and create the way he did.

In trading Harden to Houston this year, the Thunder may have traded away a huge weapon that gave them a step up on everyone in the West. Durant and Westbrook are givens. But Kevin Martin has to come up big and be a third scorer for this team to truly thrive.

Maybe that's why the top seed isn't important for this team. Gelling is more vital, and playing great defense is even more vital.

"We had great intensity tonight and that's what we need for the rest of the season," OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "We came out tonight with the mindset of getting stops every time down the floor, and we did that. We did a great job and talked about defense at shootaround. I just like the fact that we played well enough defensively to get a big road win."

They may yet get that top seed. The Thunder are a mere half game behind the Spurs. More importantly, they have won four of their last five games and are trending upward at the right time.

tjones@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tjonessltrib

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