Oklahoma City Thunder 106, San Antonio Spurs 94: Thunder provide the playoff refresher course

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The general feeling, at least among those who cover the team on a semi-daily basis, was that there was no way in hell Gregg Popovich was going to play his players on the second night of a back-to-back in Oklahoma City. San Antonio didn’t appear to gain enough from a late season game against Oklahoma City for Pop to risk his guys.

That wasn’t the case, as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard all started for the Spurs in a 106-94 loss to the Thunder. Manu Ginobili was the only one of Pop’s core guys to sit for rest purposes.

On the surface this is a disappointment for the Spurs. They lose a game to Oklahoma City in the standings and get swept in the season series. Clearly the length and athleticism of the Thunder is a problem for the Spurs, especially defensively.

San Antonio started out well, jumping out to a 22-12 lead as Oklahoma City shot 3-for-10 from the field. Kawhi Leonard did his part to harass Kevin Durant into 4-of-13 shooting in the first half, but Durant drew three fouls on Leonard. That came back to bite the Spurs in the ass later.

“[Kawhi] is just growing by leaps and bounds so I wanted him to be out there every minute with Kevin tonight just so he can learn what it’s like to guard a great player and that is what he is going to be doing his whole career in this league,” Popovich said later.

In the second quarter, the Thunder chipped away at San Antonio’s lead, with the silver and black holding a 51-48 lead at halftime. Coming out of the break, Coach Pop left Leonard and his three fouls on the bench to start the period, opting for Marco Belinelli instead. Durant scored eight points in the third before Leonard got up off the bench and the Thunder had taken a five-point lead. One they would not relinquish.

“I thought we started that 3rd quarter really making it tough on them and we were getting clean looks which is one of the hardest things to do against the Spurs,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.

There are a couple of ways to look at the loss. The knee-jerk reaction is a very Chicken Little one: the Spurs can’t beat the Thunder. Oklahoma City is too long, too athletic and too talented for the Spurs. Not only that, but Gregg Popovich wasted 28 minutes of what’s left of Tim Duncan’s career to tell us something that we already knew.

I’ve maintained all along that Oklahoma City is a huge threat to the Spurs, and I look forward to that potential Western Conference Finals series, assuming both teams hold up their ends of the bargain.

We knew the streak was going to end at some point and I think most of us assumed it would be Thursday night anyway, although under different circumstances (Pop only sending out the Cube Steaks). So why the pessimism now? Because the Spurs gave it a whack and came up empty?

As I mentioned in my Daily Dime story yesterday, Pop is the type of guy who’s looking for teachable moments for his team. It’s hard to get things across to your team when everything seems to be coming up roses, and that’s the way it’s been for San Antonio of late.

They needed a game like this—before the real games start—to remind them of what a playoff atmosphere is like and give them a little kick in the butt to underscore that they’re not unbeatable. The Pacers have the top defensive efficiency in the league this season, but they weren’t blitzing the Spurs offense on Monday night the way that Oklahoma City did on Thursday. There are takeaways aplenty for San Antonio.

“Our mindset at the moment is taking all these games that we get and treat them like a playoff game, and tonight was a great opportunity to get that,” Patty Mills said after the loss to OKC. “Being down later in third nine or 10 or whatever it was, we thought, ‘Ok, we haven’t been in this position before, but this is great practice for us so let’s make the most out of it.”

The Spurs will have trouble with the Thunder in the playoffs, regardless of how these four regular season games turned out. San Antonio could’ve swept the season series and I would still believe that. They’ve got length, athleticism, talent and guys who can knock down the mid-range jumper. But that doesn’t mean the Spurs can’t win. The Western Conference Finals don’t begin until May 18 at the absolute earliest, over six weeks away. A lot can happen in that time.

There are two rounds of playoff action to go before then, Thursday night was a nice reminder of what we have to look forward to and how far the Spurs have to go.

  • interxavier

    The Thunder may get eliminated in the 1st or 2nd round of the playoffs if the current seeds stay the same for the duration of the regular season. The Mavs and LAC are capable of beating the Thunder convincingly, the same way the Grizzlies surprised them last year. It’s happened before and there’s no reason it can’t happen again. It seems that the Mavs and LAC match up better with Durant and co. compared to the Spurs.

    No matter what, I believe nobody in the western conference has it easy this post-season because of the narrow gap between the teams. It might be a blessing in disguise for the Heat/Pacers, assuming they dominate the East and reach the finals.

  • Joseph Dooley

    The Thunder had their way at the rim, scoring 16 times out of 26 attempts when there was a defender in the area.

    The Spurs were 8 of 24 in the same category. The Thunder played great interior lefense, led by Ibaka, who allowed only 4/12 shooting at the rim. Those bunnies Tim missed… yeah, that was mostly Ibaka’s doing.

    Two things to look for should we face the Thunder in the playoffs:

    1. Defend Westbrook better. He was 10/20 from the floor and had only 2 turnovers to 6 assists.

    2. Neutralize Ibaka when he’s on defense. That might be to play Diaw or Daye more to force Ibaka out to guard him.

  • td4life

    The Thunder will beat the Mavs, the Clippers, whoever, and get to the WCF. Book it. Early round upsets don’t happen when the best team is that good. It doesn’t happen and it won’t happen. This Thunder team is their best ever, due to the growth of Durant and Ibaka. If healthy, they aren’t going down to the Grizz, they are too good and too mentally tough. I don’t like them, but I’m not delusional. The Spurs’ path will be harder, because Houston is a tough matchup. Against OKC we will need to play a slightly different game than we have all year long and need our guys to shoot balls out.

  • td4life

    Yeah, Daye isn’t getting minutes in that series.
    You gotta try screening Ibaka more, and going for strong two-handed dunks as much as possible. Tony is a below the rim players, so I hope his outside shot will be sharp in that series.

  • DorieStreet

    The Thunder lost their second-best player to injury during the first round series versus the Rockets. I doubt they would have been “surprised” if Westbrook was still on the court.
    I recall those same Grizzlies as an 8th seed “surprised” a certain No. 1 seed team 3 years ago—but wait–didn’t that team lose its 2nd/3rd best player to injury that 1st game- at home-
    and that same player was subpar the rest of the series?

  • Reggie’s Arm Shield
  • oicurak9

    Yeah–and you can do our back porch next…..

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