With 10:22 left in the fourth quarter, the Spurs had trimmed a Thunder lead to three with six quick points to start the final frame. On the road against an elite team, it looked like the kind of moment where a visiting team would crumble.
But that’s when Scott Brooks did something interesting. He took Kevin Durant out of the game.
Nick Collison subbed in for Durant, who joined Russell Westbrook on the Thunder’s bench in critical fourth quarter moments. Brooks decided to trust his bench in a big moment of a big game. And they didn’t just hang on to the lead. They re-extended it. Reggie Jackson started it with a steal and a dunk, then Jeremy Lamb canned a corner 3. Collison finished around the rim, set up by Lamb, and then Jackson hit a runner, set up by Lamb. Timeout Spurs, 7:24 left, Thunder up 94-86, and back in control of the game.
I feel like I can’t stress that enough. Against the Spurs, a measuring bar game that the Thunder obviously really wanted to win, Brooks sat Durant down with the Spurs making a run, and relied on his bench to get things settled again. And they did it. That’s big time.
Typically, the fourth quarter substitution pattern for OKC is Durant checks in with around 10 minutes left, then Westbrook with six or seven minutes left. Westbrook checked back in with 6:09 left, but Durant didn’t re-enter until there was 5:15 left. But tonight, Brooks wanted to let his second unit carry the load for a lot of the fourth, and why not? When you’ve got a guy like Jackson out there that can handle every bit of it, you can not only steal some extra rest for your stars, but put Gregg Popovich on his heels.
In the 2012 Western Finals and regular season matchups before it, James Harden was often an X-factor because the Spurs had no way to counter him, and the punch he brought to the bench. Already having to deal with Durant and Westbrook, the Spurs couldn’t find any time to stay in games when they had to rest their starters. And if the Thunder have the good fortune to meet San Antonio in the postseason again, Jackson has that same kind of look. He’s the Thunder’s X-factor against the Spurs. He went for 21 on 8-14 shooting tonight, following up a career-high 23 on 10-14 in the first meeting between the two teams. Jackson’s asking questions that the Spurs don’t have answers for.
After Brooks subbed Durant back in, he promptly splashed a 3 off a Collison offensive rebound, putting OKC up 11 with five to go. An apparent dagger. You know the Spurs are always capable of instant offense runs, and they responded with four points to get it back to seven, but after missing one from the opposite corner, Serge Ibaka dropped a 3 with 3:35 left to put OKC back up 11. Westbrook then slammed the door shut completely with a couple midrange jumpers and there the Thunder were with their ninth straight win, this one being of the most impressive variety on the road in San Antonio.
There’s no doubt that the Thunder present the Spurs a number of different matchup problems and are probably the team they want to face the least in a postseason series. Consider: In the two Thunder wins this season, Westbrook scored only six points on 2-16 shooting in the first, and Durant had *only* 17 on 6-14 shooting. Both were fairly comfortable wins, and the Thunder didn’t put an entire game together. The explanation? Jackson, who made up for it all, and then some.
With the win, the Thunder improve to 22-4, one game better than their 21-5 start through 26 games last season. Which is fitting, because this team appears to be just a little bit better than last year’s. The depth is dynamic, Durant and Westbrook are somehow improved and there’s a flow and feel that’s just electric with this team.
Relevant note: 118 days until the playoffs start. Hurry up.
- The Thunder had lost six straight in San Antonio in the regular before tonight. The last time they won there was in Game 5 of the 2012 Western Finals.
- Kendrick Perkins picked up a fifth foul with 9:02 left in the third quarter, so Brooks played Steven Adams for most of the period. And he was very sound, playing with high energy and effort, making plays inside and adding that trademark physicality.
- One play that blew my mind from Adams: Danny Green beat his man on a pump fake, so Adams stepped over in the lane to cut off his drive. Adams jumped, anticipating a shot, and Green dished to Tiago Splitter. Adams landed, spun and jumped again, swatting Splitter’s shot. Unbelievably impressive play.
- The Thunder dropped 40 on the Spurs in the second quarter. Remember: This was the league’s second best defense coming in.
- Westbrook had just a monster game: 31 points on 13-22 shooting, four rebounds and eight assists.
- Serge Ibaka, also a big game: Another double-double, this one featuring 14 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. And two 3-pointers.
- Jackson, Ibaka and Westbrook were excellent, but Nick Collison may have been the most impactful player on the court tonight. He was a +20 in 20 minutes, with eight points and four rebounds. But his job defending the pick-and-roll, helping and recovering was just sensational. Multiple times he blew up sure-thing San Antonio scores because he was busting it to get back into position.
- OKC’s bench: +20, +19, +9, +9, +1.
- Jackson missed only his third free throw of the season. He’s now 44-47 from the stripe.
- Shots he doesn’t miss, though? The stupidest ones. He took an underhanded scoop shot from the block tonight and naturally swished it. Guy has a crazy knack for finishing those type of attempts.
- Remember when Thabo used to play a huge role in matchups with the Spurs? He got only 20 minute tonight and while he was fairly effective, he wasn’t nearly as influential, or needed.
- Splitter appeared to attempt to hit Adams with a low blow in the third quarter.
- Anyone ever noticed how when Perk is contesting a shot, he jumps like half a second after it’s released? Is that because he can’t react and elevate very quickly, or is it like a strategy thing? I’m thinking it’s not the latter.
- In the first half, Westbrook lost the ball on the way up for jumper then collected it, which is traveling. He started to argue about it, then realized he was wrong and looked at the ref and said, “I’m trippin’.”
Next up: Sunday at home against the Raptors