Here are five observations from the Thunder’s impressive 106-94 win over the Spurs on Thursday night:
1. Impressive win - Come later this month, when Round 1 of the playoffs tips off and the regular season becomes immediately irrelevant, this game won’t mean a thing. The Thunder could have won or lost by 20, their postseason mindset (and probably seeding) wouldn’t change. But it sure felt big on Thursday night. Crowd was amped up. Both teams played energized. Gregg Popovich decided to play everyone but Manu. It was as good as a potential Western Conference Finals preview as we’ve seen in the four games between these two this season. And man, did the Thunder play well. One of their most inspired efforts of the season and another example of why they’re such a matchup nightmare for San Antonio. The Spurs are 0-4 this season and 2-10 since late May 2012 against OKC. Against everyone else: 59-13 this season, 130-41 since late May 2012.
2. The defense - I thought the most telling play of the night came midway through the third quarter. Already in an offensive struggle, the Spurs seemed determined to get off a solid shot. So for an entire possession, they passed with their typically deadly precision, creating a variety of open looks. But each time, the Thunder would immediately shut it down. They closed out on shooters, detoured driving lanes and let Serge Ibaka’s looming presence negate any thoughts of a challenge at the rim. OKC did it extremely well for the final 27 minutes. But this possession in particular stood out because it led to a shot-clock violation. You RARELY see that happen to the Spurs. Big-time defensive effort.
3. Westbrook explodes – By his unbelievably lofty standards, Kevin Durant wasn’t good on Thursday night, needing an inefficient 26 shots for his 28 points. So to fill that typically reliable gap, Russell Westbrook came up big. There were spurts where he was a bit out of control (because there are always spurts where he’s a bit out of control). But for most of the night, he was a fastbreak dynamo, blowing by a Spurs team that doesn’t have anyone in his athletic stratosphere. He’s always been a nightmare matchup for Tony Parker, but particularly when he’s playing with the controlled ferocity he brought Thursday night. Westbrook’s final line: 27 points, 6 assists, 4 steals. Parker’s: 6 points, 3-of-10 shooting, 3 assists, 0 steals. And Westbrook capped the night with this sick reverse slam:
Photo via Bryan Terry:
4. Spurs killer - Minus his recent two-game absence because of a back sprain, Reggie Jackson has been great the past couple weeks. His turnaround — after a bad month and a half stretch — started in Toronto. Russell Westbrook left with that scary-looking injury and Jackson immediately stepped up. He had 25 points and 12 rebounds in that overtime win and then 27 points and 19 assists combined the next two games. Remember when Thunder fans were worried about his rapidly ascending price tag and pundits were labeling him as the Sixth Man favorite? Well, he looks like that guy again, continuing his strong play with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, plus four rebounds, four assists and only one turnover on Thursday night. He played a great, under-control floor game and looked comfortable and confident the whole night. It also helped he was playing San Antonio, a team he’s absolutely TORCHED this season. His four games vs SAS:
-Jackson on November 27th: 23 points, 10/14 shooting, 4 rebounds
-Jackson on December 21st: 21 points, 8/14 shooting, 4 assists
-Jackson on January 22nd: 27 points, 12/17 shooting, 8 assists
-Jackson on April 3rd: 14 points, 6/8 shooting, 4 rebounds, 4 assists
Gregg Popovich: “We’re happy we’re able to come in here and get him on track again. We’re nice guys. What the hell. But you’re right. He’s kicked our butt every time. He’s got a lot of confidence against us.”
5. Defensive force - There was a point in the first half where Serge Ibaka had a plus/minus of -15 in 11 minutes played. And it wasn’t misleading. Both he and the Thunder were pretty bad in the first quarter-and-a-half. But as Ibaka turned it around, so did the Thunder. On a night where he struggled offensively (only 11 points on 5/11 shooting), Ibaka was an absolute force on the defensive interior. He had three blocks, each coming the highlight variety, and deterred a ton more. Just watching from the sideline, it felt like Ibaka was everywhere, closing up lanes, forcing errant floaters and recovering with incredible quickness. Not sure I’ve ever seen a big man that’s able to jump land and jump as quick and high as Ibaka. He ended the game with a +4 plus/minus.
Russell Westbrook: “He probably altered 25 shots. He may not even jump. But if you come to the lane and you see Serge, you gonna think twice.”
Gregg Popovich: “Great shot-blocker, great defender. May be the best in the league at it, getting from one side to the other.”
Tiago Splitter will see these two plays in his nightmares:
-With two personal fouls and a technical for pushing Tim Duncan all in the same possession, Kendrick Perkins officially announced his return to the Thunder lineup.
-Patty Mills in 24 minutes: 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Tony Parker in 26 minutes: 6 points on 3-of-10 shooting.
-The Russell Westbrook 5-0 run during the final 30 seconds of the first half was monstrous. Turned an eight-point deficit into a much more manageable three-point game. He took the smart two-for-one, nailing a long three early in the shot clock, then closed the half with a fastbreak layup.Gregg Popovich: “We were up by about eight, then we went in up by three all of a sudden, in a blink. Russell pulled up from about 36 feet. (Parker) said,”Pop, what do…?” I said nothing. No, let him shoot that. We’d rather have him shoot that. And he drilled it. When he’s doing that kind of thing, he’s really tough to handle, because he’s such a great driver in the first place. When he‘s making those shots, you’re in trouble.”
-For the Thunder crowd, Andre Roberson 3s = Nick Collison reverse layups or Hasheem Thabeet / Kendrick Perkins mid-range jumpers. They go crazy for them.
-Love watching Kawhi Leonard play.
-Vine of the game: Below is an out-of-timeout play in the second quarter. It’s a two-man game between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant that leads to a defensive switch and easy Durant jumper over Tony Parker. Not sure why Brooks doesn’t use Durant and Westbrook up top (with KD as the screener) more often. Seems to always result in points.
-It’s always hilarious to me when Scott Brooks or the players downplay big games by saying “It’s just 1 of 82, you guys are the only ones who make it more than it is”. Nearly every team in every sport does it. And I understand to some degree. But then the game starts and the bench is standing up for full possessions, treating first quarter threes like fourth quarter daggers, yelling and yapping throughout.
-Weirdest photo of the night (via Bryan Terry): Russell Westbrook, ice packs and all, getting busy with the dance team:
-Two-seed starting to look more and more like a certainty for OKC. Standings updated through Friday’s games: