The smart analysis said that the Western Conference Semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder would be the most competitive series of the postseason so far, a matchup between two title-caliber squads with a long history and contrasting styles. Naturally, Game 1 ended up as the most overwhelming blowout of the playoffs so far. The Spurs' 124-92 victory was more brutal than the final score appears and gives the Thunder a great deal to prove in Game 2 and beyond.
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The rout started very early. Kawhi Leonard finished an emphatic dunk 19 seconds into the game to begin an incredible Spurs quarter that ranks among the most complete performances in playoff history. San Antonio scored 43 points (a franchise playoff record) on 18-of-22 shooting from the field to open up a 23-point lead after one and set the tone for the continued devastation to come. The scoring included 12 fast-break points, 15 assists (and one turnover), and open shot after open shot.
A team does not go 18-of-22 from the field without a bit of luck, and it's fair to say that the Spurs may not be able shoot that well on the same shots if they tried 100 times. On the other hand, their level of precision was anything but an accident. San Antonio got players into ideal spaces with plenty of room to maneuver, with Leonard (12 points on 6-of-6 FG) and LaMarcus Aldridge (15 points on 7-of-9 FG) doing particularly strong work against a porous OKC defense.
It didn't get much better in the second quarter. The Spurs cooled off to shoot a mere 11-of-20 in the period and committed four turnovers, but they still out-scored the Thunder 30-20 and looked like the superior team by some distance. Meanwhile, OKC encountered continued scoring difficulty with Kevin Durant (11 points on 5-of-14 FG) and Russell Westbrook (eight points on 3-of-13 FG) failing to play at their normal levels. The Thunder role players didn't do much, either, and they shot just 1-of-11 from beyond the arc as a team to stumble to a 73-40 halftime deficit. That's the sixth-largest halftime margin in NBA playoff history.
The Thunder will probably consider their offensive struggles of relatively minor concern, because Durant and Westbrook are capable of putting up big numbers against perfect defense. But OKC's defensive struggles were downright alarming, enough so that their future adjustments should come to define their ability to compete from here on out. The pick-and-roll coverage looked consistently confused, with San Antonio getting easy buckets and wide-open jumpers nearly every time they tried that action. The close-outs on shooters were just as bad — the Spurs only attempted eight three-pointers in the first half by the box score but went to the line for three free throws on four occasions. The Thunder appeared uncertain how or when to challenge a jump shooter in a way that just isn't seen at this point in the postseason. Frankly, they should be embarrassed.
San Antonio's tremendous first half rendered the second half perfunctory, although the Spurs continued playing well enough to lead by as many as 43 early in the fourth quarter. No San Antonio starters played in the final 13:30 — Aldridge led the team in minutes with 30 — and only Westbrook (30) and Durant (33) topped the 30-minute mark for OKC. The third quarter offered little that hadn't already been seen over and over again in the first half, and the fourth quarter was mostly a time for everyone to reflect on whatever had occurred over the previous 36 minutes.
The Thunder certainly had plenty of mistakes to reconsider, and their biggest challenge may now be to take away the right lessons and re-focus for Monday's Game 2. These are primarily pyschological adjustments, and it'd be fair to assume that the Thunder won't look as flat as they did on Saturday again. They were steamrolled by a Spurs team that looked more prepared and more comfortable in every facet.
That's not to say that OKC just needs to come out in Game 2 with more energy and everything will be fine. Game 1 offered noticeable tactical advantages for San Antonio. They're not certain to stay in their favor throughout the series, but it's up to OKC to make changes.
The first is the matchup between LaMarcus Aldridge and Serge Ibaka. The latter has been a Spurs killer throughout his career, particularly as a disruptor at the defensive end. But Aldridge dominated him in Game 1 for a game-high 38 points on 18-of-23 shooting.
Ibaka has typically stymied the Spurs as an athletic rover capable of meeting scorers at the rim. Aldridge's scoring prowess forces him to stick to one player — Ibaka must follow LMA to the mid-range for jumpers and into the post for interior opportunities. He had trouble covering both on Saturday and might not be able to apply the same impact in this series as he has in the past.
The other big matchup was somewhat unexpected — Kawhi Leonard often moved off Durant and onto Westbrook, holding the uber-athletic guard to 1-of-7 shooting in their possessions against each other. It perhaps shouldn't come as a huge shock that the two-time Defensive Player of the Year guarded one of the most explosive players in the league, but the fact that Leonard could be equally excellent on both changed the game and could cause more problems moving forward. At the same time, the best thing about Leonard's defense may have been that he didn't sacrifice anything at the other end. He finished with 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting in just 22 minutes, an astonishingly efficient game.
Leonard has had great postseasons before, but this is the first one in which he looks capable of playing at an elite level at both ends in every single game with no let-up. If he maintains that level, the Thunder might be in big trouble no matter their energy level.
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