Surging Thunder try to take down NBA-best Bucks

Field Level Media

February 28, 2020 at 7:56 am.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to be entering a rebuilding phase after dealing stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the offseason.

Don’t look now, but the Thunder are a season-best 15 games over .500 as they try to upset the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.

Oklahoma City (37-22) has won five straight games and 14 of 17 entering the contest in Milwaukee. The hot stretch has seen the Thunder pass the Utah Jazz and move into fifth place in the Western Conference.

Though Oklahoma City does have an All-Star in point guard Chris Paul, the squad is made up mostly of young players and castoffs who are fitting together well in coach Billy Donovan’s schemes and methodology.

“Our intensity and character are two things that are getting better and better,” veteran forward Danilo Gallinari said after Thursday’s 112-108 comeback victory over the visiting Sacramento Kings. “That’s what you want, especially in the second part of the season.”

Gallinari scored 24 points for the second straight game, as Oklahoma City rallied from a 19-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat the Kings. The Thunder are his fourth team, and he was nearly traded to the Miami Heat at the trading deadline earlier this month before talks broke down.

Gallinari and Paul give Oklahoma City a solid veteran presence, while young gun Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rates as the future go-to force.

Gilgeous-Alexander scored 20 points against the Kings, and Paul added 17 points and seven assists in a contest that seemed destined to be a Sacramento victory through the first 2 1/2 quarters.

“For the first 30 minutes of the game, we were back on our heels,” Donovan said afterward. “They were the aggressor. We were not doing the things that were necessary.”

There will be little margin for mistakes against the well-rested Bucks.

Milwaukee (50-8) last played on Tuesday, when it delivered a sharp 108-97 road win against the Toronto Raptors. The victory was the club’s fourth in a row and ninth in the past 10 games.

The Bucks are on pace to become just the third 70-win team in NBA history. Only the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9) and 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) have reached 70.

Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded 19 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists against the Raptors in his latest strong effort, and he said the team prospers from a simple approach.

“We just come out and try to do our job,” Antetokounmpo told reporters. “We have a winning culture. So it doesn’t matter if you are hurt, it doesn’t matter if you are tired — the next guy up is ready to go. Everybody wants to play, everybody wants to win, and that’s why we win games.”

Veteran forward Marvin Williams is a newcomer who is still surveying the scene.

The victory over Toronto was his fifth with the Bucks, and Williams said he has been impressed that the atmosphere isn’t the least bit tense.

“Guys here are very relaxed,” Williams told reporters. “Honestly, much more relaxed than I thought they would be before I got here. It’s their comfort zone, so it’s kind of fun to watch. Their preparation — they are very relaxed and focused about how they go about doing things.”

Williams knocked down three 3-pointers while recording nine points and five rebounds in 16 minutes against the Raptors.

All-Star small forward Khris Middleton scored 22 points against Toronto and has topped 20 in four straight games. Middleton is averaging 28.8 points during the stretch, including a 40-point effort in Monday’s 137-134 overtime win over the Washington Wizards.

Milwaukee notched a 121-119 road victory over the Thunder on Nov. 10. Antetokounmpo led the way with 35 points and 16 rebounds. Reserve guard Dennis Schroder scored 25 points to pace Oklahoma City.