SAN ANTONIO — Derek Fisher decided to view Monday’s defeat not so much as a setback but a reminder, a harsh one, no doubt, but one that he and his Thunder teammates can tuck in their back pockets and pull out whenever the moment calls for it on this continued journey.
But in the moments immediately following the Thunder’s 105-93 loss at San Antonio, the wound was still fresh, causing nearly every player to sit half dressed in their game attire long after the final buzzer. They lingered at their respective lockers. Some stared blankly into their cellphones, others into space. All made it known in their own subtle way that they preferred to be left alone, with thoughts that in all likelihood centered on what had just transpired.
“I don’t mind the mood, to be honest,” Fisher said, his voice one of only a few that interrupted the uneasy silence that had pervaded the visitor’s locker room inside AT&T Center. “I think it’s clear what our goal is as a team. Sometimes you need to continue to feel how difficult it is to be the best. Sometimes nights like this remind you of how hard it is to be No. 1, how hard it is to win a championship.”
Left unsaid but made abundantly clear on the court was the reminder of how troublesome these Spurs still are and will continue to be in the event the two teams do indeed meet in a playoff series for the second consecutive season.
San Antonio, even without injured point guard Tony Parker, thoroughly outplayed the Thunder for the final three quarters, making a mockery of Oklahoma City’s pursuit of the top spot in the conference while snapping its five-game winning streak.
It was the Thunder’s sixth straight regular season defeat down in San Antonio. Oklahoma City’s last — and only — regular season win here came back in November 2009.
This latest loss dropped the Thunder two games behind the Spurs with 18 left to play, including a fourth and final meeting with San Antonio in OKC on April 4. Should the San Antonio finish ahead of the Thunder, the Spurs will again earn home-court advantage through the conference finals, meaning the Thunder would have to win a potential Game 7 on San Antonio’s court.
The good news is there’s plenty of time to play catch up.
The bad news is the Spurs showed Monday that they now own a clear cut advantage for which no amount of time can cure for the Thunder. Of all that went wrong, the most disturbing might have been the dominance of San Antonio’s second unit.
Once a strength against the Spurs, the Thunder’s bench became its downfall. Kevin Martin scored nine points on eight shots and didn’t have an assist or a rebound in 20 minutes. Fisher, Nick Collison and Reggie Jackson, meanwhile, scored seven points on 3-for-11 shooting.
In the plus-minus category, Jackson was a minus-15, Fisher was a minus-21, Martin a minus-22 and Collison a game-worst minus-24. Spurs reserve guard Manu Ginobili, on the other hand, picked apart the Thunder, scoring 12 points with four assists. Boris Diaw added 11 points and Gary Neal chipped in seven points with a team-high six assists.
By the time it was over, the Spurs, already more disciplined than the Thunder, suddenly looked deeper.
“In order to win in this league, you need your bench to come through and they’ve come through many, many, many times,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “And they’re going to come through again. But we didn’t play well as a team. It wasn’t our second or first unit. It was our team.”
The starters helped the Thunder build a 10-point lead after the opening period. But that quickly dissipated and turned into a seven-point halftime deficit. Everything that the Thunder did right in the first quarter went wrong when the bench began the second.
“The guys that started the game really set a good tone and really were making it difficult for the Spurs to score,” Fisher said. “And as the game moved on, especially in that second quarter in particular, the game just became too easy for them. Their confidence got going. The crowd got into the game and it was tough to recover from there.”
San Antonio outscored the Thunder 35-18 in that second period, closing the quarter on a 26-8 run. Turnovers (19 on the night that led to 25 Spurs points), forced shots and slow defensive rotations doomed the Thunder. OKC missed 11 of its final 15 shots in the period.
The Thunder fought to get back into the game in the third quarter, closing within one with 2:55 left in the period. But the Spurs unleashed a 21-4 run over the next six minutes — the final three minutes coming against the Thunder’s reserves.
What’s been a sore spot all season showed itself against the best team in the conference, a Spurs team that figures to stand in the way of a return trip to the NBA Finals and one that might continue to run and hide with the home-court edge in its hands.
“We don’t have to try and become different people, or try and do what James (Harden) did for the team last season,” Fisher said of the second group. “We just have to be effective at who we are. And tonight we weren’t able to do that as well.”