SAN ANTONIO — “I have another level I have to go to in order for us to get this thing done.”
Kevin Durant said that Tuesday after the Thunder’s two-hour practice session, and in context, it was an answer to a question about what he can do more defensively.
But in broader strokes, it’s applicable to everything about this Thunder-Spurs series. Responsibility is falling to Durant and Russell Westbrook to just figure it out. Play better defense, execute better offense, make more plays, make more shots — do it all. With the starting five the Thunder rolled out in Game 1, it’s pretty clear that for extended stretches to begin the first and third quarters, it’s on those two.
The beginning of the game was bad as the Spurs diced OKC up as the Thunder missed some decent looks. The third quarter though was much better, as the Thunder overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to take a lead at two different points.
“Well, that was our best stretch right there. We only played eight minutes of good basketball last night,” Durant said. “Just knowing that we scrambled on the defensive end, we moved the basketball on the offensive end, and we attacked them. We’ve got to be physical, we’ve got to close up the paint. They’re such a great team at the three point line, but we can’t be overly cautious to that because the main thing is the paint. They scored almost 70 points there, so we have to be better in that area, and knowing that we have to make second and third efforts to get out to the three point shooters. We have to do it. We’ve got athletic guys here, and we have to do it. In order for us to get where we want to get to, we’ve got to do smart things like that.”
The Thunder desperately want to put Serge Ibaka’s injury and absence, making efforts following Game 1 to note there aren’t excuses and avoiding bringing him up at all costs, even diverting questions asked about their rim protector in other directions.
But the void left by Ibaka is massive, and hard as they may try, the Thunder can’t completely get it out of their minds. Not after the way the Spurs roamed freely to the rim time after time.
Durant was asked on Tuesday about the Thunder’s early offense and how they got some decent looks.
“Nick got some great looks, Serge got… sorry,” Durant said, stopping himself with a grin and a laugh. “Thabo got some great looks,” he continued on.
It was just a trained, robotic answer from Durant that he classically does, listing teammates when talking about the game. Force of habit to mention Ibaka, who has missed only three games total in his career. But there was a moment of awkwardness felt by the glaring slip of tongue that Durant tried to snuff out.
“I miss my buddy Serge,” Durant said with a chuckle, moving on to carry on about Caron Butler and Derek Fisher.
The Thunder’s inability to slow down the Spurs in the paint was an obvious indictment of their post-Ibaka defense, but the vibe from OKC’s availability didn’t include any pessimism. The Thunder cited their rollercoaster postseason run to date, and the ups and downs they’ve already been through.
There will be Game 2 adjustments, one possibly being less smallball, which appeared to backfire a bit as the Spurs embraced it and then beat the Thunder down at their own game. It seems unlikely a starting five change is coming, especially with the positive stretch in the third quarter, but Scott Brooks is certainly trying to figure out better combinations.
“That starting lineup did a good job in that third quarter,” Brooks said. “We were up one with four minutes to go. By playing with a lot of toughness on the defensive end and using our athleticism and our speed on the offensive end. That’s always a good recipe for our success, playing defensively with good hands, good toughness, the physicality that it takes to stop a very good offensive team like San Antonio.”
Said Nick Collison: “Well, if we don’t play well and if we play like we did early, it doesn’t matter what we put out there. We didn’t play at a high enough level. We didn’t defend. We weren’t even close on how we needed to defend against this team. The lineups, there’s no magic. I don’t think there’s any magic lineups if we’re not going to have the effort and the concentration. That’s our job as players, and then coach will figure out what works for us. But for us we’ve got to be really engaged and ready to go when the game starts. ”
Where the solutions come from — Durant going to a higher place, Westbrook joining him, someone else stepping up, or something else — are unknown. But the Thunder can’t walk on to the floor and just expect better energy and effort to fix their problems. They couldn’t stop the ball and they couldn’t limit easy chances. The Spurs had their way rather effortlessly, and that’s the primary concern.
But the Thunder seemed somewhat resolute in their confidence today. Probably because Kevin Durant is still on the team.