A panicked Danny Green was trapped under a sea of Thunder limbs.
Stuck in the deep corner, with the shot clock skipping down, Green was forced to fling a desperation cross-court pass toward Marco Belinelli.
And for a second, it looked like it would reach its destination.
But then, at the last moment, the long arm of Reggie Jackson swooped in and poked it away, before corralling the ball and dunking it on the other end.
One of the Thunder’s 14 steals. Two of its 30 fastbreak points. And just the latest example of the repetitive issues OKC’s rare length and athleticism – when cranked up to warp speed – causes San Antonio’s typically deadly offense.
Thunder 106, Spurs 94 on Thursday night at The Peake, another streak-breaking win that was due in large part to an impressive defensive effort for the final 27 minutes.
“Our defense was outstanding,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
Early on, the Spurs looked as unbeatable as they’ve proven to be over the previous 19 games. They jumped out to an early double-digit lead and befuddled the Thunder with ball fakes, slick passes and open jumpers.
But late in the first half, the Thunder turned up the activity. And the Spurs’ offense started to unravel.
Over the next 15 minutes – from late in the second quarter to the end of the third – San Antonio made only nine of its 33 shots.
In the game-deciding third quarter, which OKC won 32-20, the Spurs went 7-of-23, while the Thunder went 13-of-19. And a variety of those buckets came off live-ball Spurs turnovers leading to easy transition points on the other end.
“If we play slowly or play in mud, they’re too long and too athletic, too talented,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “…For us, we didn’t react well to the physicality. I thought they did a great job getting physical in the second half. That created a gazillion turnovers. That was the game. Thirty points off turnovers, you’re going to lose.”
The hyperactive Thunder guards and forwards caused a ton of those turnovers. Russell Westbrook and Caron Butler combined for nine steals. Seven Thunder players had at least one.
But the disruptive perimeter defense was made a whole lot easier by the pogo stick that was erasing mistakes behind them.
Serge Ibaka finished the game with three blocks, all of which were spectacular. But even that belies the true impact of his interior defense on Thursday night. Ibaka’s looming presence and unique ability to fly out of nowhere for highlight spikes deterred the Spurs from a ton of paint opportunities.
“He probably altered 25 shots,” Westbrook said of Ibaka. “He may not even jump. But if you come to the lane and you see Serge, you gonna think twice.”
“Great shot-blocker, great defender,” Popovich said of Ibaka. “May be the best in the league at it, getting from one side to the other.”
It was the type of performance from the Thunder’s defense that had been missing at times since the All-Star break.
But it’s a 48-minute showcase they’ve proven to have in their repertoire.
And it’s certainly been there against the Spurs. The Thunder is now 4-0 this season and 10-2 in the past 12 games against the defending Western Conference champs.
Four more performances like this come late May and that title could flip back to OKC.