SAN ANTONIO — If we’ve learned one thing from the Thunder’s postseason run so far, it’s that you should definitely draw broad, sweeping conclusions from Game 1 against the Spurs.
We should all know better. Starting with the 0-2 hole the Thunder were in to these Spurs in 2012, to the 3-2 mess they were in against the Grizzlies, to the Game 1 blowout loss at home against the Clippers, we’ve seen the Thunder climb into a dark corner and then wiggle their way out.
But there’s no question the Spurs’ 122-105 Game 1 win has a different feel to it than those other setbacks. Because there’s a big missing variable here.
“We’re a no-excuse team. Serge is out. He’s not coming back,” Scott Brooks said. “Contrary to what San Antonio was thinking, he’s not coming back. He’s not coming through those doors.”
The Thunder felt Ibaka’s absence right from tipoff when there was a brief moment of confusion as to who was going to jump the opening tap. Kendrick Perkins did — and won it! — but from that point on, the void left by Ibaka only grew. The Spurs scored 14 of their first 18 points in the paint, assaulting the Thunder for 66 total. They shot 31-of-43 in the restricted area and posted an offensive rating of 126.5. It was an all out race to the rim, and the Thunder had nothing standing in the way but air.
“Missing Serge is pretty tough,” Reggie Jackson said. “Getting a little lazy having somebody that is an eraser back there like that, altering so many shots … Your body tells you a few things, just them Serge’s way. We have to get out of that mindset. I don’t know what happened tonight, but they just got into the paint a little too easy.”
That’s always been a bit of the Thunder’s intentional defensive philosophy. Having a sweeper on the backline to hide blemishes naturally allows you to play more aggressively with your pick-and-roll coverages and in attacking perimeter closeouts. If you get beat off the dribble, there’s a good chance the shadow of Ibaka will impede an easy basket.
That didn’t happen tonight. And the Spurs knew all about it, experiencing a kind of freedom in the paint they’ve really never known against the Thunder. In the previous 12 meetings — which resulted in 10 Thunder wins — the Spurs averaged 41.3 points in the paint. They had 40 tonight in the first half alone. So it’s pretty obvious: The Thunder aren’t going to be filling the hole left by Ibaka any time soon.
But that doesn’t mean they’re screwed. Yes, it’s an alarming 17-point loss, but there were some positives to take. The Thunder took a third quarter lead, 78-77, as Russell Westbrook attacked relentlessly downhill, scoring nine straight on his own at one point. It was becoming increasingly obvious the Thunder weren’t winning this one with stops, so they were trying to transition into Outscore You Mode. It worked a little bit. Sustainable over a 48-minute game though? Ehhhh.
“We don’t believe in moral victories,” Durant said. “Third quarter was obviously our best quarter but we didn’t close it out well. It’s Game 1, we’ve got to make adjustments and be better for the next game. We’re not taking no moral victories out of it.”
As they tend to do, though, the Spurs responded by finished the third on a 12-4 run, and carried it over by scoring the first six of the fourth to open up a 13-point margin. The Thunder made a few more pushes, and had some chances to make it moderately interesting — Westbrook’s charge while kicking to an open Derek Fisher down 10 with 8:41, and Fisher’s bad touch pass trying to find an open Durant down 10 with 5:28 left stick out in my mind — but the Spurs were always in control by virtue of the effortless paint points they were scoring.
The talking points after this one focus mostly on Ibaka’s absence, but also in the choices Scott Brooks made in trying to replace him. Starting Nick Collison was a practical choice, albeit in hindsight maybe not the best one. Brooks went small just seven minutes in, and then doubled down by going super small with Durant playing center alongside four guards at various points. After the third quarter comeback, Brooks downsized, and probably played into the hands of the Spurs, allowing them to isolate Boris Diaw on smaller defenders.
“We’re going to mix up lineups, but we’ve done it all year,” Brooks said. “We’ve played small, we’ve played our normal traditional lineup all year. It’s nothing new to us. We haven’t played a lot of lineups with Kevin at the 5, but we’ve done it in the past three or four years.”
It was a weird feeling going into this one, though. Basically all expectation and pressure were removed by the combination of playing on the road as well as Ibaka’s injury. The Thunder are severe underdogs now, and the point was driven home tonight, one paint attack at a time. The Thunder have something to take from this, though, and have reaffirmed that one game in a series is far from telling the whole story.
- Two Thunder starters put up zero spots on the scoreboard, Thabo and Nick Collison. It makes you think a starting change is necessary for Game 2, because the opening six minutes are going to be entirely about Durant and Westbrook carrying the offensive load on their own.
- Everyone had a lineup suggestion, but just spitting them out doesn’t mean they’re going to work. Five can play at a time, and Brooks is tasked with being the one to make that choice. He searched all over for the right combination tonight, playing 11 different lineups. It’s not like he didn’t try things.
- That said, where was the Adams-Collison tandem lineup that sealed Game 6 against the Clippers?
- Durant’s only rest came during a longer-than-usual stretch in the second quarter. Brooks kept him out for about six minutes, then subbed in back in with the intention to play him the rest of the way. He would’ve had the Thunder not been out of it with three minutes left.
- At a few different times, I wondered if the Thunder would’ve been better off IN THIS SERIES ALONE being without Westbrook rather than Ibaka. The numbers are glaring, and with how San Antonio plays, not having that safety net in the back is a big problem.
- Durant: “Well, we play team defense, we don’t just rely on Serge. He does a great job of blocking shots, but it’s all because of our team defense. He’s a big part of what we do, you know. He’s a starter, had his best season this year, so of course we’re going to miss his presence, but we have guys that are going to step up and do it collectively. Look, Serge is not going to be here. He’s injured for the rest of the postseason, so we’ve got to move past that and just keep playing as a team.”
- This is a stupid thought, but I’m saying it out loud anyway: Could Hasheem Thabeet help in this series? He’s 7-3 and the only discernible skill he has outside of being happy against all odds is being really tall. He can block shots, but also is a presence.
- Let’s forget I ever suggested that.
- Next time somebody tries to devalue a block, cue up this tape. It’s not just that the Thunder weren’t blocking the Spurs’ attempts, it’s that the Spurs weren’t scared. They had absolutely zero fear driving at the rim. I remember the last game OKC and San Antonio played in April, Tony Parker was driving into the paint, seeing Ibaka waiting and turning around with “NOPE” written all over his face. The Spurs wanted nothing to do with him. The intimidation just wasn’t there tonight.
- Jeremy Lamb played in the second quarter, his first minutes outside of garbage time this postseason.
- Nick Collison had an eventful night. He airballed his first shot by like 10 feet and then had two bleeding episodes, one from his mouth/nose and one from his knee.
- Caron Butler just doesn’t add much of anything. Other than doing the same pump-fake-and-drive move Thabo does, but making a few.
- Derek Fisher remains tuned up to play the Spurs. He had 16 tonight, hitting 4-6 from 3.
- One of my favorite things about making picks on a series is how everyone LOVES to throw it in your face that you didn’t get it right as fast as they can. But not many people often say, “Hey, you got that right. Good job.” In conclusion, making picks is stupid.
- Aron Baynes looks like a giant baby.
- Popovich on if the Spurs focused on exploiting the absence of Ibaka: “No, sometimes it’s hard to focus on something like that and decide you’re going to do that or you’re going to shoot threes tonight or you’re going to go in the paint tonight or you are going to do this. You take what’s given, play the game, just respect the game and whatever’s there, try to take advantage of that. It just worked out that way.”
- Boris Diaw: “That’s what we were really focusing on, knowing that Serge Ibaka was not in there. A team that is not in the paint is a lot different than a team that focus on securing the paint.”
- The Spurs only turned the ball over 10 times. OKC’s got to create more problems for them than that.
- I don’t get why Steven Adams played only 17 minutes. Yes, he got burned in the pick-and-roll a few times, but he’s one of only a few that can actively discourage the Spurs from assaulting inside.
- Starting lineup suggestion for Game 2: Westbrool, Durant, Perkins, Adams and Thabeet. Just go all in with size. See if you can freak the Spurs out.
- (I’m not serious with that.)
- Fans are hilarious. Brooks was trying all sorts of lineups in the first half and people were complaining about him being “desperate.” But when he sticks with a set rotation, he’s being “stubborn” and won’t adjust. The lesson is: Always find a way to blame Brooks.
- Tony Parker falls down like a drunk three-year-old.
Next up: Game 2 on Wednesday