San Antonio Spurs 101, Oklahoma City Thunder 98 (Spurs lead series, 1-0)
These things just sort of write themselves, don't they?
Charged with playing their first NBA game in a week, the San Antonio Spurs came out with a nervous and ultimately sloppy first half filled with 14 turnovers. In the third quarter, they watched as an inspired Oklahoma City Thunder team defied script and got out on shooters with a precision that was unlike what we've seen from OKC this year. Then the fourth quarter hit, and the San Antonio Spurs got San Antonio Spurs all over the place.
Possibly moved by a timeout speech that saw coach Gregg Popovich implore his team to get "nasty," the Spurs opened the quarter by using OKC's pressure against itself, releasing Tiago Splitter to the rim with a series of misdirection plays. The defense tightened, on the other end, with Stephen Jackson moving over to guard Kevin Durant, and establishing a physical report both on and off the ball that the referees were apparently cool with. Yes, the Spurs seemed to get a lot of calls, but they put themselves in a position to get those calls, and those calls didn't decide the game — San Antonio's wearing insistence on playing perfect basketball did. Bottle up the lane on the defensive end, dive into the lane on the other end, and soon enough you're outscoring the Thunder with a 39-27 fourth quarter.
Stephen Jackson was nasty. He was an absolute pillar on defense in Charlotte and Milwaukee, but faced with peer and coach pressure the 2003 champion played fantastic defense on Durant in the deciding fourth quarter. The NBA's scoring champion hit six free throws in the quarter but failed to hit a field goal in the final 12 minutes, with Jackson playing the entire quarter. And it looked as bad as the stats would suggest.
Jackson didn't so much bully him off or with the ball (don't listen to them when they tell you that on the radio tomorrow) as he did play angles, grab a bit, and use his length. This wasn't Ron Artest muscling Durant, from a few years ago, because Metta World Peace attempted to muscle Durant earlier this month to limited success. No, this was just a quarter gone wrong; with the Thunder failing to adjust on the fly. And, as was the case in Oklahoma City's lone loss to the Lakers, Durant passed up on a couple of keepers that he should have finished, choosing to pass instead.
That's the offensive side, one that still ended with Durant tossing in 27 points on only 19 shots, with 10 rebounds. That's what will be talked about on the chat shows and column recaps. The Thunder need to do better (Russell Westbrook missed 14 of 21 shots and turned the ball over four times in Game 1, matching his total from the entire five-game second round against Los Angeles), but this wasn't why Oklahoma City lost the game. The team gave away Game 1 because San Antonio scored 39 fourth quarter points.
Sure, some late game free throws added to that total, but OKC's defense was miserable once the Spurs got to determined penetration and quick decision-making. After three quarters of thinking three times before every obvious pass, the dishes got a little tastier, and dimes resulted. San Antonio took chances, and though the Thunder was leading San Antonio through three quarters in assists, the Spurs took the final lead with a 22-18 mark. This is because they took chances.
And this is also because Oklahoma City's help defense absolutely fell apart, with the small lineup featuring Durant at big forward and Kendrick Perkins at center leading that charge. Or non-charge, so to speak.
Because San Antonio took chances, the Thunder didn't have the quickness to adapt; especially after not playing for five days themselves, and certainly after breezing through Los Angeles' too-obvious offense in the first round. This is why you saw so many didn't-mean-to fouls and quick hits at the rim. This is why Oklahoma City was taking the ball out of the net, and unable to cope in the half court on the other end. This is why San Antonio won — they are better at offense than you, when they want to be.
They had to want it, though. And even a week of practice led by Gregg Popovich and watched over by the steely gaze of Tim Duncan can't approximate the pressure and speed and function of a proper NBA game. That's a good thing. That's why this series is going to be so damn fun.
Now it's time for Scott Brooks, the sometimes embattled Oklahoma City coach, to earn his stripes. Sometimes, when up against Gregg Popovich, merely surviving is worthy of commendation. We don't envy Mr. Brooks, in this particular situation.
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