It was a game of runs, this Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, but in the end it probably isn’t best to attempt to run with the San Antonio Spurs.
Scarily enough, for Oklahoma City? You may not want to walk the ball up against this crew, either.
The Spurs looked the defending conference champion part on Monday night, downing the Thunder 122-105. San Antonio raced out to huge leads in both the second and fourth quarters as Oklahoma City’s defensive corps did little to stop San Antonio’s ball movement. If anything, the Spurs looked to be the only team that could stop itself as in-house mistakes allowed the Thunder to come back to take a one-point lead midway through the third quarter. But, in the end, the Spurs seemed to have every answer.
Which should probably leave Thunder fans asking questions.
With Serge Ibaka injured, Oklahoma City’s big lineup featuring Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison did not play well to start the game on either end, and they were quickly replaced by a smaller lineup that often pitched Kevin Durant at power forward that for the most part played even worse, especially defensively. By the second half, though, Collison and Perkins led a defensive charge that helped both close off formerly obvious passing angles (Collison) and body Tim Duncan into tougher shots (Perkins). This allowed transition and delayed-transition opportunities for the Thunder scorers, leading to Oklahoma City’s comeback.
When Duncan was pulled from the game, however, the Thunder once again went small by reinserting rookie center Steven Adams and guard Reggie Jackson into the lineup, and the Spurs almost immediately got back to moving the ball and eschewing the dribble as they found the open man. Tough San Antonio play on both ends from second-year big man Aron Baynes also helped, as the Spurs swung their way to an eventual blowout, putting together a sound lead before Duncan returned to the contest.
Meanwhile, Collison and Perkins continued to sit. And the lineup featuring Adams and Collison up front, one that did so well for Oklahoma City in the team’s Game 6 win over the Los Angeles Clippers, did not see a single second. For what feels like the umpteenth postseason in a row, Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ ability to adapt on his feet will be questioned. And rightfully so.
The Spurs didn’t need a whole lot of help in taking this game, it should be noted, racking up a fantastic 66 points in the paint in the win. Duncan managed 21 first-half points and finished with 27 points in only 29 minutes. Manu Ginobili overcame a poor second-round series and iffy start to Game 1 to finish with 18 points on 12 shots, while Tony Parker was the team’s first-half catalyst, contributing 12 points and 11 assists in the first two quarters.
Through it all, do-everything San Antonio swingman Kawhi Leonard seemed to be everywhere at once. Charged with guarding MVP Kevin Durant, he did see a few fadeaways scored in his face, but Leonard also owned delayed-transition play, he plucked three steals, watched as a few good, open 3-point looks went in and out, and scored 16 points in the win.
Leonard didn’t exactly shut down Durant, far from it. The Thunder forward led his team and the game in scoring with 28 points and also contributed nine rebounds and five assists. His turned head defensively, however, was the reason Oklahoma City’s small-ball lineup was so poor defensively with Collison on the bench. Durant turned it over six times, and also seemed gassed toward the end of the contest.
Worst, the Thunder once again fell victim to the two millstones of their most recent playoff runs.
First, the team doesn’t seem to have a set system that allows for easy extra passes or at the very least easy looks for Durant and Russell Westbrook (23 points, seven assists and several electrifying plays) offensively. The two OKC stars didn’t have to go to severe, isolation-heavy sets … but it wasn’t far off.
Secondly, the team’s three defensive-minded starters in Perkins, Collison and Thabo Sefolosha combined to shoot 2 of 10 from the floor in the loss. Even if Brooks finds a workable rotation in Game 2 with Perkins and Collison moving in and out of the lineup, this can’t continue.
The Spurs are the better team, but they also play better than the sum of their parts. The Thunder? They boast two brilliant parts, but Durant and Westbrook can’t do it alone. Not against an championship-caliber team, and certainly not without more creativity and awareness from their own sideline.
Oklahoma City is too talented to go away in a blaze of role-player incompetence, and if the Thunder find a five-man setup that works expertly on both ends, they could really ratchet up the minute totals in Wednesday’s Game 2 – what with three full days off between that contest and Game 3.
You don’t want to denigrate what San Antonio has put together, but when the Thunder play such up-and-down ball and still come out on the wrong end of a blowout loss, you can’t help but get the feeling the Thunder are once again getting in their own way.
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