A young Thunder squad found ways to lose a ton of close games last season. While it’s only 18 days into the season, you can see a new level of maturity this season, the primary reason Oklahoma City is 5-4.
A 101-98 win over the veteran San Antonio Spurs Saturday night was more than just your normal win. A young team is showing signs of making the type of late-game plays that so many times make the difference in the NBA.
Bottom line it was the Thunder, the second youngest team in the league, that came up big in crunch time more often than the veteran Spurs who have won three NBA titles this decade.
After dominating the third quarter to take the lead, pushing it to 83-74 early in fourth quarter, the Spurs twice got to within one point but could never regain the lead.
The final two minutes had a lengthy list of critical plays.
* Nenad Krstic’s block of George Hill’s point-blank shot with just over two minutes left was huge, protecting a 93-90 lead.
* When the Thunder led 94-91 with 1:18 left, Kevin Durant missed what would have been a huge basket. OKC, though, maintained the possession when Krstic came up with an offensive rebound that several players had a shot at grabbing.
With an extra shot on the possesion, Russell Westbrook hit the game’s biggest basket — a running, scoop shot in the lane, the highlight on a night the second-year point guard from UCLA was sensational (19 points, 11 assists, 0 turnovers).
Westbrook’s basket gave the Thunder a 96-91 lead. On the Spurs next possession Tony Parker stepped on the base line, an uncommon mistake for the veteran.
But the game was far from over as the Thunder was far from flawless closing out the win.
Thabo Sefolosha hit only one of two free throws with :31.9 seconds left.
OKC also had a major blunder after the Spurs closed to within 97-94 on a Hill 3-pointer. The Spurs stole the inbounds pass in a one-possession game but the Thunder quickly reseized the momentum when Sefolosha swatted the ball away from Richard Jefferson, leading to Sefolosha’s fourth steal that all but sealed the win.
Durant his two free throws with 13.8 left but hit only one of two at 9.6 seconds after Parker scored.
Now leading 100-96, the Thunder was in good shape, but a tip-in gave the Spurs hope.
Westbrook hit only one of two free throws with 2.7 seconds left when two would have iced it.
Out of the timeouts, the Spurs had a shot at a miracle to force overtime. But Tony Parker’s 35-footer desperation shot didn’t fall as the Thunder flew back to Oklahoma City with a huge win.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich summed it up best.
“Oklahoma City had more people play better,” Popovich said. “As individuals, and as a team, they executed better than we did for more minutes. Thus they got the victory. And they deserved it.”
Popovich is right. The Thunder got solid performances from everyone who played and made more big plays down the stretch.
What was interesting in the Thunder locker room after the game was players’ reactions. They admitted it was a good win, beating a top-notch team on the road. But each player also stressed they have three more games the next four days and it was time to focus on what’s ahead, not the quality win they had just posted.
They may be the second youngest team in the league but the Thunder is showing signs of growing up.