ANALYSIS:

The NBA All-Star break did Steven Adams and the Oklahoma City Thunder no favours.

While the Thunder hold a winning record in their seven games following the break, their claim to a top-four seed has been replaced by a fight to simply make the playoffs.

The Oklahoma City side fell to their second loss in a row on Wednesday (NZ time), losing to the Houston Rockets, the league's leader in wins, 122-112.

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While the result saw Houston become the first team in the league to hit the 50 wins for the season mark, it told a more pressing story for the Thunder.

Since the All Star break, the Thunder have failed to beat a top-eight team. After beating the Golden State Warriors by 20 earlier in the year, they were dispatched by 32 when the sides met last week, and were also dealt with by the Portland Trailblazers, who currently hold the third-seed in the Western Conference.

What's more, they struggled to dispatch league strugglers Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix and Sacramento.

After sitting in the top five for much of the season, the Thunder slipped to seventh in the West and were part of what was shaping up to be an all-out battle for a spot in the playoffs.

Houston and Golden State are unlikely to be dethroned as the top two seeds in the West, but as for the rest of the top-eight, nine teams remain in the hunt for six playoff spots.

And for the Thunder, they'll face a much bigger test than others in their remaining 16 games.

The Oklahoma City side will match up against teams currently in the top-eight of the Western Conference seven times, top-eight East teams four times, with just five matches against bottom-eight teams in either conference, though one of those is against the LA Clippers who are also fighting for a playoff spot.

It's been a battle all year for the Thunder against top-seeded teams in the West. They're just 9-14 against top-eight teams in their own conference so far this season.

So despite the side going 8-4 against top-eight Eastern Conference teams and 18-12 against teams in bottom-16 teams combined, they face a sink or swim scenario between now and April 12. On the plus side, they play nine of their remaining games on home court, where they were 21-11 on the season to date.

The key battles for the Thunder look to be against New Orleans and Portland. Oklahoma City were yet to register a win against either team this season in two and three matches respectively.

Picking up a win in these meeting will not only help in their playoff bid, but should also boost their confidence for the sprint to the finish, as there's a likely chance that if the Thunder maintain their spot in the playoffs they will meet either of those sides in the first round.

An important factor in winning these two matches will be getting production out of Steven Adams at both ends.

New Orleans may be without All-Star centre DeMarcus Cousins due to injury, but fellow All Star big man Anthony Davis is spent a lot of time at the five and Adams will more than likely find himself assigned to the star.

Davis has the ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting, but is capable of putting it on the ball on the floor if he needs to and can work either inside or outside of the paint. He's also one of the league's top-10 rebounders and will likely make Adams battle for everything on the glass.

Steven Adams' match-up against Portland's Jusuf Nurkic is a favourable one. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Adams' match-up against Portland's Jusuf Nurkic is a favourable one. Photo / Getty Images

It's a different story against the Trail Blazers, where Adams' pick and roll game with point guard Russell Westbrook should be a key feature of the team's offence.

Unlike New Orleans, Portland's first-choice centre, Jusuf Nurkic, is limited at both ends of the floor. Though he is capable of putting up big numbers, he's prone to foul trouble, averaging more than three per game this season, and does the vast majority of his scoring in the paint.

While they will face other important fixtures in the run home, getting the win in these two could prove to be difference-makers.

With their playoff hopes legitimately at risk, look for the big Kiwi to step up alongside Westbrook to carry them into another post-season berth.

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