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Best in West: First-place Timberwolves, Thunder meet

Jan 28, 2024; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) dribbles defended by Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey (23) in the first half at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Monday’s Western Conference showdown between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the host Oklahoma City Thunder was going to be critical regardless.

The teams have battled near the top of the conference standings all season. Now that Monday’s showdown has arrived, it comes with the pair of upstarts tied for first place.

While both have been riding high for much of the season, they seemed to have been looking ahead after both absorbed stunning losses.

The Timberwolves fell to the Spurs, the last-place team in the West, 113-112 on Saturday at San Antonio.

The Thunder lost to the Pistons, in last place in the Eastern Conference, 120-104 on the road Sunday.

Adjustments will need to come on the defensive end.

After Saturday’s loss, Minnesota coach Chris Finch called his team’s defensive performance absolutely “disgusting” and said his team was “immature.”

“This is what happens when you have this type of approach,” Finch said.

Though the Timberwolves were in striking distance until the end of their loss to the Spurs, the Thunder fell behind the Pistons early, trailing 70-61 at halftime.

With the Thunder trailing by 14 points entering the fourth quarter, Oklahoma City star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t play the final 12 minutes of the game. Chet Holmgren came out of the game just 2:08 into the final quarter and didn’t return.

“You never feel good after a game like that,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “The best thing about the NBA schedule is it keeps turning and tomorrow’s a new opportunity. … We’ve got to learn what we can from it, but then move past it and get ready to play tomorrow.”

Monday’s game is the last of four between the teams this season.

The Thunder have won two of the three previous meetings, including a 102-97 win Jan. 20 in Minneapolis.

In that win, Gilgeous-Alexander had 33 points, going 12 of 13 at the free-throw line. Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards said slowing down the Thunder was difficult.

“It’s hard to, man, with the calls that Shai gets,” Edwards said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to shut ’em down. You can’t touch him at any time of the game so it’s super hard to beat. That team’s a team, especially when they get calls like that.”

Gilgeous-Alexander has scored 30 or more points in six consecutive games. He’s averaging 33 points against the Timberwolves this season, with more than eight free-throw attempts per game.

Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 9.1 free-throw attempts per game, which is fourth in the league behind only Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmp and Luka Doncic.

Monday’s game is the finale of a four-game road trip for the Timberwolves and the start of a four-game homestand for Oklahoma City.

The Thunder have won seven consecutive games at home, beginning with their 129-106 victory over Minnesota on Dec. 26.

The Timberwolves have been without veteran Mike Conley for three of the last four games.

Conley missed Saturday’s loss with hamstring soreness after missing back-to-back games with an illness.

–Field Level Media

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