INDIANAPOLIS – Asked what he’s expecting from the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jimmy Butler went straight for the D word.
“Dogfight,” the 76ers swingman said of facing the Thunder at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center.
“I like them,” he added. "They got some really good players over there. They play hard. We are going come out, throw a couple of punches and see where we end up at the end of the afternoon.”
OKC (26-18) is indeed a gritty bunch.
Point guard Russell Westbrook, the 2017 league MVP, plays with an edge. The seven-time All-Star leads the league in assists at 10.7 per game and has 13 triple-doubles this season. Swingman Paul George is a five-time All-Star. Gritty center Steven Adams is known to frustrate opponents with his physical play.
If last season’s two meetings are any indication, this game could indeed turn into a dogfight. If not, it’s going to at least be must-see TV.
The teams’ last series meeting was a 122-112 victory by the Thunder on Jan. 28, 2018, at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Westbrook kept his eyes glued to Joel Embiid, who was on the bench, while he dribbled out the clock in the final seconds.
In the first quarter of that game, Embiid had a vicious dunk on Westbrook and stared him down while running back on defense. Unsuccessfully trying to draw a charge, Westbrook fell to the ground on the play.
He got his revenge on the Sixers in the second quarter with Embiid out of the game. He slashed through the lane and finished with his own vicious dunk. That didn’t stop him from glancing in Embiid’s direction on the bench while celebrating the moment near midcourt.
Those actions were triggered by the teams’ game on Dec. 15, 2017 in Philly.
On that night, Westbrook waved goodbye to Embiid after the Thunder’ triple-overtime win. His wave was a reaction to the Sixers standout waving goodbye to Adams after the Thunder center fouled out. After that game, Embiid pointed out that Westbrook had benefited from taking 33 shots to score 27 points.
A season later, Embiid’s focus is just on beating the Thunder. The 24-year-old acknowledges that he’s winless in three games against Oklahoma City.
“And I think Westbrook hasn’t lost a game to the Sixers since he’s got to the league or something like that,”said Embiid, who played with back tightness on Thursday. “So that’s an important game. Obviously, we are going to see how my back feels but in situations like that, I’m going to want to get that win.”
Westbrook actually lost once to the Sixers. That setback came on Nov. 15, 2008, in his first game against the Sixers during his rookie campaign. Since then, the Thunder have won 18 straight series meetings.
This would be a perfect time for the Sixers to snap the skid. Oklahoma City has lost two straight games and five of its last six.
The game marks the Sixers' second of 12 straight against teams with winning records. At 30-16, they are percentage points (.659 to .652) behind the Indiana Pacers (29-15) for third place in the Eastern Conference. So they need victories to keep pace with the Pacers and stay ahead of the fifth-place Boston Celtics.