The return of Kendrick Perkins and Reggie Jackson helped to halt the Spurs winning streak at 19 games, but Russell Westbrook dominated the conversation after the game. Westbrook, who started the game slow, was praised for his resilience and defensive effort in the game chipping in 27 points to go with four steals. The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the shorthanded Spurs, who was without Manu Ginobili, handedly 106-94 Thursday night and swept the “coveted” four-game season series, but how that translates into their readiness to take the Spurs on in a Conference Finals remains to be seen. Conversely speaking, the Spurs and Coach Gregg Popovich took these lumps in stride with exactly that in mind, to be ready to achieve the greater goal of winning the Conference Finals.
Sweeping the four-game series on the year is “coveted” for several reasons. In the history of the NBA, there are only three other times where a team has swept a season series (min. of four games) against an opponent and met that same opponent in the Conference Finals. In those three occurrences, all three winners of the season sweep went on to beat that very same team in the Conference Finals: the New York Knicks (who beat the Pacers in 1993-94), the Detroit Pistons (who defeated the Bulls in 1988-89) and the Boston Celtics (who beat the Bucks in 1985-86). To go along with that, if the Spurs were to meet OKC in the Conference Finals, the Thunder will have a major chip on their shoulder moving into a series with the Spurs. It is already tough to imagine beating the Spurs four times in a playoff series let alone four times in a row, but Oklahoma City has done just that to go along with winning 10 of the last 12 against them. The Thunder have a combination of length, size and speed that has proven to be a tough task for the Spurs to figure out. Also, with a healthy Russell Westbrook moving into the playoffs, the Thunder could keep that streak continuing in the playoffs against San Antonio… but Westbrook could also be the downfall of the Thunder in a playoff series against the Spurs.
The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook scored five straight points by hitting a game-shifting three-pointer with 29 seconds left and then a layup to end the first half. Westbrook rode that high for a dominant second half performance that stopped the streaking San Antonio Spurs at 19 wins in a row. Westbrook, who came off to a rough start shooting four-for-10 from the field, ended the game with 27 points, six assists and four steals, but the Jekyll and Hyde versions of Russell Westbrook were also in full swing during Thursday night’s game. Fans saw a combination of selfish and self-less plays from Westbrook who described his rough start in a light that could be construed as good or bad. Westbrook was quoted as saying that he does not care if he “start(s) 0 for 20” and has “ten (turnovers)” to start a game and that he will just “keep coming.” This sentiment could be taken two ways: a) that is a good sign to see a star player show that kind of resiliency and short-term memory in a big game, or b) the selfishness of chucking up 20 misses in a row without thinking maybe it should be more of a team effort could possibly hurt the team. Westbrook is in fact a huge game-changer for OKC… as in he can change the game for the Thunder in a good way or a bad way. To go along with an arbitrary technical received with 1:07 left in the game- where after chucking up an air-ball, proceeded to jaw at the refs- Westbrook still had a stellar second half where he shot 6 for 10 from the field and committed to playing a suffocating team defense that led to 18 transition points for him. The Thunder saw this as a statement win against a team they have to potentially beat in the Conference Finals… the Spurs, however, saw this game in a different light.
This game and having a season sweep under their belt clearly meant more to the Oklahoma City Thunder and their “readiness” to face San Antonio in a Conference Finals. The Spurs, however, did not need a “statement” to prove their “readiness” as Gregg Popovich rested Manu Ginobili and limited the two remaining big three to roughly 25 minutes and benched for all of the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City’s KD and Westbrook, however, played the entire game and averaged roughly 34 minutes each. This game was less of a “statement” game and more of a learning experience for the Spurs. Popovich was seen telling his bench with roughly five minutes left to play that he “(didn’t) care about the streak” and that he needed his team to start “playing smarter basketball” and to start executing the simple plays better. His bench got valuable minutes in a “big” game in Oklahoma City and they ended up faltering and turned the ball over too much, but Popovich knows his team will learn from this. The Spurs also understand what the potential matchup between Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant looks like a little better moving forward. Leonard in the first half held KD to shooting 4 for 13 from the field and to 28 points total- it’s a daunting task to keep the scoring machine that is KD to under 30 points in a game- and is definitely something to hang his hat on. Also, it is important to mention that the 28 points total given up is still a somewhat unfair assessment of Leonard’s defense on Durant looks like considering Durant scored 12 of his 28 points in the third quarter with Leonard on the bench for most of it.
The Spurs have made a living this season off the other team’s misery. The Spurs win by limiting their own turnovers while limiting their opponent’s possessions. The Thunder’s size and ability can most definitely be attributed to their success against the Spurs this season, however, the Spurs, especially in game four of this season series, did something they rarely do and will most definitely not consistently do in a seven game series… they beat themselves. On the year, San Antonio has tried to limit their opponents to fewer than 110 points per 100 possessions per game and is 56-5 when doing so. On Thursday, however, the Spurs had allowed 112.3 points per 100 possessions and are 3-12 on the season when allowing that to happen. During their 19-game win streak, the Spurs would also win the turnover battle every game and were a plus-three in transition points. Against OKC on Thursday night, the Spurs had 19 turnovers on the game that led to 30 points for the Thunder. Transitionally speaking, the Spurs were outscored by Russell Westbrook alone in the transition game 18-17 and were a minus-18 on the game.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have stifled the San Antonio Spurs every game this year and would appear to be ready for a Conference Finals rematch. Although, not having James Harden going into a Conference Finals against the Spurs could be a big difference maker this season, but if the Thunder can use their size and smothering team defense that frazzled Tim Duncan into shooting five for 15 and subdued Tony Parker into shooting three for 10, there is no reason to believe that the Oklahoma City Thunder cannot win a seven game series against the Spurs. Whatever light a fan chooses to see this potential series in, the chess game between “Pop’s” strategy versus the talent of the Oklahoma City Thunder will continue to roll on, but it sets up for quite a finish to a regular season that has seen a ton of ups and downs in a dominating Western Conference this year.
Commentary by Ryne Vyles