The Western Conference semifinals series between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder started with a blowout of epic proportions. The Spurs dominated the Thunder in every facet, winning by 32 in a fashion that seemed to serve as a statement on not just one particular game but the matchup as a whole. It was a brutal result that acted as a sign of clear superiority.
The series ended so differently that it should serve as a reminder that we never know as much as we think we do. Although Game 6's final result — a 113-99 Thunder win — was not as extreme as that Game 1 blowout, Oklahoma City took resounding control of the contest early, led by 24 at the half, and made San Antonio look entirely overmatched before a fourth-quarter comeback helped the West's No. 2 seed save face. The Thunder were better than the 67-win Spurs and head into the start of a Western Conference finals with the Golden State Warriors on Monday looking as strong as they have all season.
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The first three quarters saw the Thunder demolish the Spurs in a fashion few could have expected following four straight close games. It started at the defensive end, where the Spurs couldn't create decent offense on more than a handful of possessions. San Antonio's reliance on isolation plays from Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge had been a major storyline, but it reached its nadir as the OKC defense raised its intensity to new heights. The results were historic — the Spurs' 31 first-half points were a season low, their fewest since November 2014 and fewest in the playoffs since 2009. San Antonio also shot 0-of-8 on three-pointers, the second time they failed to make a triple in the first half this series after doing so just once previously this season. A team known for turning five-man ball movement into a league-wide trend looked slow, old and unable to make adjustments.
The Thunder offense thrived not so much with its typical star-focused dominance as it did by not making mistakes. Though usually prone to turnovers, the Thunder committed just three in the first half. They did not give the Spurs any chances to get easy baskets, and this half-ending shot from Durant looked like a dagger despite there being 24 minutes left to play:
With the defense serving as a base, the Thunder got out in transition when possible to overwhelm the less athletic Spurs and relied on solid contributions from role players to supplement the play of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Those secondary performances from the likes of Steve Adams (15 points on 6-of-7 FGs and 11 rebounds despite suffering from a migraine earlier in the day) and Andre Roberson (14 points on 3-of-5 triples) were arguably the biggest difference in building up that sizable lead.
Then again, it sure helps to have Westbrook and Durant on hand for superstar performances. Westbrook played in a (relatively) toned-down fashion similar to his stellar Game 5, logging 28 points (10-of-21) and 11 assists in 38 minutes. Durant took on the bigger role in this game, scoring 37 points (12-of-24 and 12-of-12 FTs) with an attack mindset.
OKC's excellence was so apparent that the game looked over before the end of the third quarter. It's to San Antonio's credit that it did not fold, although the circumstances of its comeback suggest it had more to do with the Thunder letting up than the Spurs solving the matchup. After suffering from a quickness deficiency all series, the offense found new success with 40-year-old Andre Miller taking the place of Tony Parker at point guard. San Antonio went on a 23-8 run to start the fourth quarter and looked to have captured the momentum when Danny Green cut the lead to 99-88 on a free throw after a Westbrook flagrant foul with 3:45 remaining.
That's as close as the Spurs got. A Durant turnover on OKC's next possession gave San Antonio a second chance to cut the lead below double digits, but Serge Ibaka turned back a Tim Duncan layup attempt that quickly became a KD dunk at the other end:
It was a symbolic play whether or not Duncan decides to retire in upcoming weeks. The Spurs had few options in this series once the Thunder defense became engaged, and Durant and Westbrook created enough high-impact offense at the other end to make them pay. This was not a fluke, no matter their regular-season records. OKC outplayed San Antonio in this series to become a deserving conference finalist.
It was a surprising result not only because the Spurs dominated Game 1, but because they had so clearly established themselves as the NBA's second-best team all season. What this series suggested (and what regular-season games against the Warriors and others probably should have tipped off sooner) is that the Spurs had relatively few ways to play in comparison to other title contenders. As OKC's defense became more suffocating, San Antonio appeared to have relatively few options in reserve. A relatively thin backcourt relied too heavily on the aging Parker. Kawhi Leonard was usually their best halfcourt option, but he remains a player who continues to add solo superstar skills rather than one who can depend on those talents as a matter of course. With Steven Adams playing the best ball of his career and Enes Kanter adding surprisingly good defense off the bench, Aldridge and Duncan were similarly unable to control their matchups. Once at the forefront of maximizing the value of the three-point shot, the Spurs had few perimeter options in this series. By the end of Game 6, it's hard to say that they were in control of any matchup or aspect of the game. They were thoroughly out-played.
Still, the Spurs will be back. This team has weathered many disappointments before, including a first-round elimination from a No. 8 seed in 2011, a worse turnaround up 2-0 against the Thunder in 2012, and a late NBA Finals collapse in 2013. For that matter, the Spurs lost a first-round series last spring and returned this season to construct what looked like the best team in franchise history. They will surely look to get younger and faster this offseason and should be in the mix for several top free agents.
Whether San Antonio's 2016-17 roster includes Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili is an open question. Both players can exercise options to return, but each looks well past his prime. For now, though, at least Duncan remains undecided:
Tim Duncan on his future: "I'll get to that when I get out of here and figure life out."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 13, 2016
Indeed, such matters cannot be decided in the hours after a painful playoff elimination. For now, it’s best to reflect on what occurred here in this series. While the result raises a host of questions about the future of the Spurs, the more pressing issues impact the Thunder. A team most thought to be too inconsistent and undisciplined to beat a top contender just defied that impression over a highly impressive series. The Warriors will surely be favored to represent the West in the NBA Finals, but the Thunder look primed to give their sternest test of the season.
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