Entering Thursday night’s showdown in Oklahoma City, there were three impressive streaks running. Two continued. One didn’t make it.
The Thunder snapped the Spurs incredible 19-game winning streak in statement-ish fashion, 106-94, using a hyper-defensive second half take the game over. Kevin Durant extended his ridiculous 25-point streak to 39 games, finishing with 28, seven rebounds and three assists.
The other streak? The Thunder have now won five straight against the mighty Spurs, going 4-0 this season and taking 10 of the last 12 dating back to the 2012 Western Conference finals.
“That’s a big thing,” said Russell Westbrook. “When you have team, a good basketball team, they’re the No. 1 team in the West, if you want to be the best team you have to beat the best.”
But the question is, how? How have the Thunder seemingly dominated the Spurs the last few years, holding down the unstoppable juggernaut?
“We just focus in more,” Westbrook said. “Obviously when you play San Antonio, you can’t be lackadaisical, as you see. We started the first half kind of going through the motions and they scored points real quick. I think we’ve done a great job the last few years just focusing in and real particular what we do on different players and doing a real good job of it.”
There’s also the fact the Thunder just present the Spurs with an awful matchup. It was evident in that explosive third quarter where the Thunder outscored the Spurs 32-20, holding them to just 7-23 shooting. The Thunder cranked their defensive intensity and physicality, putting their two biggest advantages on display: length and athleticism. The Spurs’ make their living off crisp, pin-point ball movement, running meticulous offense out of a tried-and-true system that seemingly always produces a good shot. The high screen-and-roll, the dribble hand-offs, the drive-and-kick to corner shooters — it’s exhausting both mentally and physically to defend.
But the Thunder combat it unlike any other team. OKC’s had its issues the last few weeks defending the perimeter, falling suspect to shooters and scorers. Tonight against the Spurs though, both the defensive pressure and intensity ratcheted up, but it was also just about the personnel the Thunder have. Particularly Serge Ibaka, who almost single-handily closed the open door in the paint, blocking shots without actually blocking shots, just by virtue of completely ruining every Spurs drive. Forcing travels, hesitation, awkward shots, kickouts, bad passes — Ibaka absolutely owned the defensive interior.
“He may have had two or three blocked shots but he probably altered like 25 shots,” Westbrook said of Ibaka. “He may not even jump, but if you come in to the lane and you see Serge, you’re going to think twice.”
The other big thing: The Thunder’s hellish, relentless attacking style finally imposed its will on the Spurs’ free-flowing gentleman’s game. The Spurs try and beat you with precision. The Thunder do it with unfiltered chaos. And it was Westbrook who keyed it, with his persistent assaults on the rim, Reggie Jackson who supplemented it, with his easy 14 on 6-8 shooting plus four assists, and Durant who capped it, scoring 16 of his 28 in the second half, including 13 in that electric third. For a number of reasons, it just seems as if the Thunder somehow have the Spurs’ number.
Gregg Popovich explained it in a much simpler, succinct, and probably more accurate way: “They’re a hell of a basketball team.”
There were three big turning points in the game: 1) Kawhi Leonard got in foul trouble, and Gregg Popovich made what now looks like a poor decision to sit him to start the third quarter; 2) Westbrook executed a quasi-perfect 2-for-1 to end the first half, drilling a 28-footer and then following it up with a layup at the buzzer to take a 51-43 Spurs lead to 51-48; and 3) Andre Roberson gave the Thunder their first lead at 57-56 with a corner 3, to which the Thunder never looked back.
There will likely be some justifying and qualifying following this one, along with “let’s see what happens in the playoffs,” but just know: The Spurs were invested in this game. They played their guys — sans Manu — and played hard. It was the second night of a back-to-back and it was their fifth game in seven nights. Popovich cashed in his chips in the fourth with the Thunder up double-digits and tried to let Patty Mills and Jeff Ayers bring the Spurs back. But don’t mistake this: It’s not an accident the Thunder are now 4-0 against the Spurs this season with an average winning margin of 9.2.
Here’s the weird thing, too: The Thunder have won all four games, and it hasn’t really felt like they’ve played to their full capacity in any of them. The first meeting, Westbrook had six on 2-16 shooting and Durant had 24 on 10-23, but OKC won by six. The second, Westbrook had 31 but Durant had just 17 on 6-14. The third, Westbrook didn’t play. And tonight, Durant struggled for a lot of the game shooting just 11-26. No question the Spurs have a whole lot to do with it because of their scheming, but it just seems like the Thunder are capable of playing even better against San Antonio than they have.
What does it all mean? Well, the Thunder are still two games back of the Spurs in the loss column with eight games to play, which may be too little, too late. The March swoon with losses to the against the Cavs, Lakers and Suns are probably going to be what bites them in the backside. But even if the No. 1 seed is out of reach, the Thunder have some kind of confidence regardless of it, should things fall in place for them to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. At this point, the bigger concern for the Thunder might not be beating the Spurs, but making sure they get the opportunity to play them.
- The Thunder have now snapped Spurs’ winning streaks of 20, 19 and 11. That seems like something notable.
- Durant started the game just 1-7, and missed as many shots in the first quarter as he did total in the last two games combined. What really spared OKC from a bigger first quarter deficit was Westbrook’s energy, and a strong finish from the second unit.
- Reggie Jackson, Spurs killer. In 30 minutes, he had 14 points on 6-8 shooting with four assists and four rebounds. In the four games against the Spurs, Jackson averaged 21.2 points on 67.9 percent shooting.
- Hard to really know, but it did seem like KD forced the issue just a bit trying to get that 25th point in the fourth quarter. Took a couple forced shots and isolated with the intent to attack only a few times. And with about five minutes left and the game mostly in hand, the Thunder started working for it a bit. Ran their bread and butter backcut lob play, and a few other pindowns/isolations. Durant finally drew free throws and the crowd, obviously knowing what was at stake, buzzed while he stepped to the line. Durant, knowing too, let a big smile creep across his face.
- KD on that moment: “That’s a cool feeling man. I don’t want to take those moments for granted. It’s not really what I’m playing the game for, but it’s still cool to see that support. They’re such great fans. No matter, I appreciate it. As a player and a person, for people to be behind you like that, it’s a surreal feeling to hear that amongst the crowd.”
- I asked KD if the fans clearly caring so much about the streak makes it hard for him not to care about the streak: “Yeah it does. But I really don’t. I’m just going out there playing and whatever happens, it happens. But to hear them chanting, I heard them when I missed a shot. They were a little upset. Like I said, to have that support here is unbelievable and after I hit that free throw it was a sigh of relief, I guess. But I just can’t explain what I feel about these fans and the love that they show.”
- First, I don’t think the Thunder completely chased it. It was still a 12-point game with four minutes to go against the Spurs. Second, with how many fourth quarters KD sat during this, I think he sort of earned the right to wink an eye and try and get it. And third, he’s one away from typing Michael Freaking Jordan. You’re telling me he doesn’t know? Or care? Why do people have to act like he’s supposed to ignore these things. He’s a 25-year-old guy and it would be pretty stinking fly to hit 40. Come on now.
- Westbrook on KD’s point streak: “That’s a lot of games to be scoring 25 points in a row.”
- Nick Collison got cut open wide by an errant elbow from Jeff Ayers that caught him on the top of the head. Collison left the game with blood rushing down his face and had to get four staples in his head. Little known fact: His blood type is O-plus/minus.
- Collison on it: “It was one of those ones that’s awesome because you get a ton of credibility, probably … blood coming down your face.”
- Westbrook decided it was time to have a little fun late in the fourth, breaking out a cradle-rocking reverse. On it, Westbrook said: “I haven’t dunked for the Thunder fans in a while, so I thought I would do a little something tonight.”
- My theory on Westbrook’s dunk: Last surgery was to get a PRP injection using Nick Collison’s blood.
- Westbrook turned the Spurs bench late in the first half and told them “I don’t stop.” On that, Westbrook said: “I’m not gonna stop regardless if I started 0-20, turn the ball over 10 times. I’m gonna keep comin’. That’s my motto and that’s what I’m going to stick by.”
- Caron Butler quietly had five steals. Just four points on 1-5 shooting, but some quality, active defense.
- Kendrick Perkins returned! He played 12 minutes, picking up a rebound, an assist and a block. But he did make his presence felt, blocking Tim Duncan on his first post-up and also getting into a double-tech scuffle with Duncan later.
- Perk is on a minute and back-to-back restriction as Brooks said he’d work back slowly. Not going to play any of the back-to-backs (only two left) and is only playing five minutes to start each half right now.
- Benefit to Perk being back: Didn’t Adams look a lot more energetic and active coming off the bench? Like he didn’t worry too much about the fouling and such, and just went out there and used his size, strength and athleticism to do things.
- Bummer: Perk shaved his beard. I asked him postgame and he said he can’t play with a beard. Wouldn’t have hurt to try though, right?
- Roberson hit a corner 3! I saw it! It happened! On the season, he’s now 2-6 from the corners, and 2-11 overall from 3. There’s hope!
- Because I think this way, I can’t help but wonder if all the confidence and momentum the Thunder have against the Spurs will end up backfiring as the Spurs snap out of it and flip the script on OKC when the games really counts. It just seems like that kind of crap happens all the time in hashtag, sports.
- Before he walks on to the floor each time, Boris Diaw lotions up his hands. I find this very strange.
- Pop pregame on the MVP race: “It looks like it’s down to two. Take your pick.”
- Might have to run this by Mrs. Daily Thunder, but I think I want to name our first born Joe Bonamassa. Because JOE… BONA-MASSAAAA.
Next up: At the Rockets on Friday