Oklahoma City Thunder 100, San Antonio Spurs 88: Banged up Spurs can’t keep up
“Final exam week” ended last night for the Spurs, and just how well they came out depends on your definition of “pass” or “fail.”
San Antonio fell to Oklahoma City 100-88 on Thursday night, and in doing so saw their lead in the West drop to a half-game. More importantly, these two teams are now tied in the loss column and the Thunder own the tiebreaker for the top seed. But the status of Tony Parker is far and away the greatest concern in the Spurs’ locker room.
Parker left the game early in the fourth quarter after limping up the court, and he never returned. Pop said he’s “concerned” with the point guard’s condition and made mention of possible tendonitis in his shin, but more will be known in the coming days.
And as Tony struggled, it was Derek Fisher, straight out of the Twilight Zone, Grumpy Old Men movies or a Luby’s cafeteria, who gave Spurs fans a familiar onset nausea that stems only from watching this man step foot on a basketball court. The 39-year-old sank 3-pointer after 3-pointer during a first-half run in which he drained the first four shots he took from beyond the arc.
It is unclear what the Spurs have done to the basketball gods to deserve this sort of long-term torture from a man who basically predates the birth of the sport he plays. Yes, he’s that old. And once the Fisher bombs began to drop and the Thunder lead exploded to 20, it ultimately became too difficult to overcome.
The Spurs did come back, though. And all things considered, it was pretty impressive that they did. Huge efforts from Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal and Tim Duncan countered the stinkers from Parker, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, and San Antonio made a go of it, cutting the lead to as little as three with 4:41 remaining before running out of gas.
Kawhi Leonard had 24 points, 14 rebounds and six assists on 50 percent shooting, becoming only the third player in the NBA this season to at least match those numbers. The other two: Joakim Noah and Demarcus Cousins. Two big men.
Tim Duncan also had 24 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks, making it the sixth time he’s put up that stat line or better. But he took 19 shots and wasn’t as efficient as he’s been recently, especially from the mid-range where he was very hesitant to shoot last night. You’re doing OK when this is considered a down game, but as he failed to let it fly from the elbow it brought back Western Conference Finals memories from last year when Duncan looked flat-out scared to shoot the ball in Game 6. The Spurs need him to take that shot in those situations, otherwise the offense gets thrown out of balance more than it already is.
But it was Neal’s impact that made the largest difference in this game outside of the usual steady forces. With no Ginobili in the lineup it’s imperative for him to find his long-lost rhythm, and on Thursday night it looked like the Spurs’ spark plug had been recharged.
In his last three games, Neal is shooting nearly 44 percent from the floor — an effective field-goal percentage of 54.7 and a 57 true-shooting percentage — including 43.8 percent from 3. His ability to not only spread the floor as a shooter, but to find the creases and gaps in which to operate (when healthy) with a very underrated mid- to short-range game is a luxury the Spurs have missed. It’s a small sample size, but if San Antonio’s interim sixth man can continue to produce this way it’ll be a huge boost for a team that’s sagging a bit right now.
On this night, however, the waves of Spurs comeback attempts were beat back by the Oklahoma City levee. Every time San Antonio made a run, the Thunder countered. San Antonio finished the first half on a 23-11 surge; Oklahoma City opened the third with a 17-6 tear. The Spurs exploded with a 21-8 burst to end the quarter, but once again the Thunder weathered the storm and responded with counterpunches of their own in the fourth. Three points within five minutes of the final buzzer would be the closest the Spurs would get in an eventual 12-point loss.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to score 52 points on 41 shots in 80 minutes of court time, and Fisher’s five 3-pointers ended up as middle-aged daggers for shorthanded San Antonio.
If you viewed last night’s game with the expectations that the Spurs should win, you were wrong in doing so most likely, given the circumstances involved. But if you viewed it for what it was — the fourth game in five nights against a healthy Thunder team on four days rest — there’s reason to come out of this one with some optimism.
San Antonio had a myriad of errors on both sides of the ball, especially in the transition game offensively. Botched fast-breaks, poor possessions and turnovers led to far too many easy opportunities for the Thunder. This Oklahoma City team needs no help, so giving it extra chances and not capitalizing on typically high-percentage plays of your own will not help matters.
With a hobbled Parker and no Ginobili at all, in a game in where the Spurs didn’t play all that well, a relatively close loss still gives San Antonio a positive outlook on where its team stacks up against the West’s best. Especially when you consider that not once have the Spurs’ Big 3 been on the court together against the Thunder this season. Ginobili has missed three of them, Parker one. Even Leonard missed the last tilt in Oklahoma City.
And still, the problem is, the injuries are becoming a serious cause for concern.
Every prediction for the Spurs going forward must be prefaced with the phrase “if they are healthy,” and rightfully so. With only six games remaining and Ginobili already on the shelf until the playoffs, Parker’s exit from a game he went into rested is a problem. We’ll have to see what comes out of this, but don’t be surprised to read DNP’s next to the names of the Spurs’ most important pieces down the stretch. Pop has always made it clear health is more important than seeding as the season winds down, no more so than right now. Don’t expect that to change.
San Antonio is capable of beating Oklahoma City in a series, but they’d need all hands on deck to do so. “If the Spurs are healthy” there’s a chance, especially if Leonard continues his rapid improvement and Green and Splitter don’t relapse.
If not, you might as well just save last night’s game to you DVR, because you’ll be watching it on repeat in late May.