Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have been blowing the doors off the rest of the Western Conference in these first two months, playing with the swagger born of their run to the NBA Finals last season.
J.J. Barea and the Minnesota Timberwolves tried to send a message on Thursday night that a second straight trip isn't going to come easy.
Playing with the tenacity that made him so important to the Mavericks' run to the title two years ago, Barea scored 14 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to help the Timberwolves snap Oklahoma City's 12-game winning streak with a 99-93 victory over the Thunder.
Kevin Love had 28 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists and Nikola Pekovic had 24 points and 10 rebounds for Minnesota. But it was Barea who was the key, scoring 12 straight at one point for the Wolves to hold off the team with the best record in the league.
"It's important," coach Rick Adelman said of beating the best in the West. "But I would like to see us get to a point where this is not a big deal. It's a big game against the best team, but this is something we can do."
Kevin Durant had 33 points, seven rebounds and six assists and Russell Westbrook had 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for the Thunder, who had not lost a game since Nov. 23 at Boston.
"It's not the end of the world. A lot of people said the world is going to end today, tomorrow, but it's not the end of the world," Durant quipped. "We lost to a good team (Thursday). They came out and played extremely hard and they beat us. We're 21-5 and we've just got to go back and work."
That it was Barea, and not the Olympian Love or the sensation Ricky Rubio who was chiefly responsible was the biggest surprise of all.
Barea didn't join the Timberwolves until training camp had already started last season, then languished through the first injury plagued year of his career. Finally healthy, he's getting back to the super pest that helped the Dallas Mavericks to the title two years ago.
With the Thunder charging early in the fourth quarter, the smallest guy on the court played the biggest.
After Durant's two free throws cut Minnesota's lead to 80-77, Barea hit two 3s and scored on a putback under the rim amid the tall trees, an 8-0 run by himself that gave the Wolves a little breathing room. His long 3 with 5:26 to play made it 92-81, and the Wolves held on.
"I love it," Barea said. "We just needed a little bit more tonight, a little energy and I'm glad I was able to provide that for us tonight."
Barea was also a nuisance on defense, drawing an offensive foul on Durant with 2:24 to play. The normally super-cool Durant uncharacteristically lost his composure, picking up a technical foul for arguing the call as well.
"Seems like him and Kevin Love don't miss against us," Durant said of Barea, who tormented them in the Western Conference finals in 2011 and had a triple-double in a double-overtime loss to the Thunder last season. "Seems like every team has that guy and I think those are the guys against us. Next time we've just got to do a better job."
Serge Ibaka had 14 points and nine rebounds, but Westbrook missed 19 shots and turned the ball over eight times in an off night.
Alexey Shved had 12 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds for the Wolves, who are trying to claw their way back to respectability after years at the bottom of the Western Conference.
With a nucleus of Love, Rubio and Pekovic, there is optimism here for the first time in a long time.
The Thunder stormed into Target Center riding the longest winning streak since the team moved to Oklahoma City, bullying opponents by an average of 14.2 points per game as they warm up for a run at a second straight finals appearance.
Rubio was playing his third game since being activated from a torn ACL in his left knee that had kept him out since March 9. He had a scintillating debut last Saturday, throwing no-look passes between his legs and looking as if he'd never left. But it's been slower going in the ensuing two games. He was a non-factor in a loss in Orlando on Monday and had trouble getting going again against the Thunder.
His handle wasn't nearly as sticky as usual and he was thwarted every time he tried to penetrate, then could be seen wincing in pain after an awkward landing on a shot in the second quarter. Adelman immediately pulled him, but Rubio was able to return in the second half.
"We battled, we fought. I'm proud of our guys," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "We had a great streak, a great month going. But we lost to a very good team. We knew sooner or later they were going to get hot. They got hot tonight."
NOTES: Kevin Martin did not play for the Thunder because of a right thigh contusion. ... The Timberwolves waived G/F Josh Howard on Thursday after an MRI revealed a torn ACL in his right knee. ... The Thunder lost for the first time in six tries on the second night of a back to back.