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