Oklahoma City Thunder 100, San Antonio Spurs 88: Banged up Spurs can’t keep up

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“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.

  • junierizzle

    All things considered you can put me on the optimist band wagon. Spurs played terrible and if they just stayed with Derek “.4″ Fisher maybe they could have stolen one. OKC clearly isn’t the same without Harden. Martin just isn’t going to show up in the playoffs. It’s basically Durant and Westbrook Vs. TP, TD, Manu, Leonard and Neal and Green. We can’t double, period. Honestly, I kind of hope the Spurs drop to the second seed and avoid the Lakers. Every time the Spurs get eliminated something weird happens. Dragic scoring 24 points in one quarter, ZBO going Supernova, Ibaka going 11-11. Lakers (even though they stunk this year) playing the Spurs who they match up against pretty good sounds weird to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandon.burkhart Brandon Burkhart

    Eh, ending the season on a winning streak and with homecourt advantage didn’t help us last year. Let OKC have the top seed and a rough series with the Lakers (who are dying to get revenge against the Thunder). Spurs will stumble into the playoffs as an underdog. And then they can fight their way back to the top.

  • DorieStreet

    Why does this team continually allow Derek Fisher to abuse them- game, after game, season after season–no matter what opponent he plays for?

  • MrNiko

    Shut down Parker until the end of the regular season, let him get healthy. Limping in as the two seed could work to our advantage at this point with Denver reeling but still good enough to make it out of the first round.

  • Spurs all the way

    Spurs 5 games in 7 nights vs OKC 0 games in 5 nights.
    Spurs 5 games in 7 nights vs Miami 0 games in what was it, a week off?
    You just have to love the way the NBA sets up the Spurs to fail. F*@#&! David Stern!

  • Graham

    I’ll take it. Twice the game threatened to get blown out, but twice we crawled back in it. Green was definitely Icyhot on both ends, but Neal and De Colo stepped up in BIG ways. Kawhi has removed any shred of a doubt he is ready to be a key force on this team, and Tim is still solid.

    Convert a few more botched half breaks and avoid those bad turnovers and we are right in this thing, despite the Malevolent Ghost of Derek Fisher’s latest assault on our sanity.

  • GoSpursGo

    Fisher has be rejuvenated by being able to be closer to his family in OKC, rather than being so far away from them in Dallas.

  • Andrew G

    Dragic was drafted by us! I still can’t over that, he’s been on a tear the past few years and is really coming into his prime. I think we were willing to live with the Ibaka taking those shots in that game, most of them were mid range jumpers. Then there’s Randolph… we seem to have an answer for him this year is all I can say about that.

    Based on the way no one was even trying to close out on Derek last night, I’m assuming we were willing to put up with him taking shots. He’s been channeling his inner Westbrook lately and throwing up bricks, so of course he goes on a scoring rampage the second we come into town.

    Something about playing the Spurs seems to bring out the best (or maybe just freak occurrences) in a lot of players.

  • senorglory

    “when Duncan looked flat-out scared to shoot the ball in Game 6.”
    Never happened.

  • Red beard

    Please don’t jinx Martin into being a Spur killer… I could easily see him get hot in a series

  • Red Beard

    Why are Danny Green and Nando so deficient in the fast break? It’s like they never practice these plays in practice…

    Also, Tiago’s value sure drops when Manu and/or Tony are not playing. He’s not a threat AT ALL in isolation in the low post.

    Apologies for my venting… I’m still very scared of OKC

  • junierizzle

    Yes, players love to abuse us. It is frustrating when you see the same players play other teams and stink up the joint.

  • assistman

    Pass/Fail? Not counting the gimme from ORL, and playing mostly at home, SA played .500 ball over the last 9 games and the Clippers and Nuggets game could just as easily been losses. That gets you a C- from a kindly professor. But when you add in the 3 injuries to 3 key players, it’s hard not to say this has been a very disappointing stretch. Very disappointing.

    I wasn’t able to catch the game last night, was Fisher lined up against Neal? Is it too much to ask to guard shooters at the arc? (That goes for everybody!) It’s hard to feel great about some of these guys going into the playoffs… from a talent standpoint, Green should be the 8th man at best on a playoff team, really 9th or 10th, unless he can at least be consistent on D.

    My biggest disappointments are Jackson, Diaw, and the fact that Manu is Mr. Glass and has dropped off this year. Even if we are healthy we need much more out of those 3.

  • assistman

    I should have said any 2 out of those 3, preferably from Manu and Jackson. But especially with the injuries, it’d be great if Diaw would step up. Outside of TD, Leonard, and Splitter, who IS stepping up on this team?

  • Graham

    Flip it on it’s head and the team’s played well consistenly enough to never get blown out, and surviving with an ever shifting lineup of avaliable players. Saw enough from the young guys to feel confident they’ll be ready for the Playoffs. Priority 1 is health though. The Grade’s more of an Incomplete, but hard not to call it a Pass considering.

    Here’s hoping everyone is ready to go come Playoffs. We’re stuck with the ‘if healthy’ disclaimer for good now, but damn is our level high when it is.

  • Graham

    The team sure didn’t. Fell down by 20 TWICE and didn’t blink, and clawed back both times before OKC finally put em down at the end of the 4th. I at least like where the team is at Mentally.

  • Colin

    Heat/Memphis could have been wins as both of those went to final possession as well……….

  • Colin

    To answer your question its Athleticism, or lack thereof, and its glaringly obvious. Neither of those guys (de colo, neal, Green) possess the speed or bounce to feel confident in attacking in the open court when the thoroughbreds of Ibaka, Durante or Westbrook are chasing/waiting (even if they have #’s).

  • Sir Timothy

    I am so glad that we lost this game!!! It takes away the temptation for Pop to play for seeding. We are firmly in at #2 and should not even worry about losing 4 of the next 6. It will not happen, but if it did we would still be the #2 seed.

    Spurs need to treat the next few as training camp. Rest the guys who need it — PARKER. Target the following games to win: Home today versus Atlanta. Get a rebound win after the tough stretch we have had. Then take it easy in Denver. If we win we win, but don’t have everyone running like crazy in the mile high. Go ahead and Beat Sacramento in San Antone, Don’t send anyone to L.A. at all. Bonner gets the start!! Possibly play hard @ Golden State depending on the standings, and then NO ONE plays against Minnesota – Baynes gets the start!!

    You see – I love the idea of either Golden State (most likely falling to 7) or Houston in the first round. And then one of those two or Denver in the 2nd round. Denver is a tough squad, but not more so that Memphis or the Clips. If that is our path Spurs make it it WCF.

    Please listen up Pop. Take it easy on the guys for a couple of weeks!

  • Andrew G

    I really wanted us to be the #1 seed going into the playoffs because I was scared about facing that Denver squad. Galo has since torn his ACL though, and even though it looked awful, I can’t be the only one who suddenly wants us to face a Denver squad without their second leading scorer. Not to mention Ty Lawson (their leading scorer) has a torn up leg that he may or may not play through. A lot changed this week, and that #2 seed leading to a second round matchup against Denver looks a heck of a lot sweeter than facing the Clippers or Memphis in the second round.

  • Graham

    That Two seed looks mighty appealing right now. Certainly better than Lakers then Memphis/Clippers. Houston then Golden State/Hobbled Denver is downright peachy by comparison.

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