SAN ANTONIO — Russell Westbrook rose off the San Antonio hardwood so quickly that the only thing Tony Parker could do was lunge out wildly and look up helplessly.
The jump shot splashed through the net, and the Thunder led for the first time in the second half.
Not coincidentally, the Thunder point guard was locked in.
The Thunder was at its best Monday night when that was the case. Didn’t matter if it was Westbrook manning the position or if it was his backup, Reggie Jackson. When those guys were dominating, the Thunder was the better team, even with Serge Ibaka on the north side of the Red River.
But in the aftermath of the Spurs’ 122-105 victory in the opener of the Western Conference Finals, it became clear that the Thunder is going to need even more dominance from its point guards if it stands any chance of winning this series.
The Thunder won all four regular-season meetings against the Spurs, and in every game, point guard play was a key. Jackson had 23 points in the first game and 27 in the third game while Westbrook went for 31 points in the second meeting and 27 in the fourth.
And every bit as importantly, they kept Parker in check about as well as anyone could expect. He had a 37-point explosion in one of the games, but he also managed only six points in one of the other meetings.
But on Monday night, the Thunder didn’t get enough offense or defense out of its point guards.
Yes, Westbrook scored 25 and Jackson added 13, but they needed 32 shots to get those 38 points. Sure, they held Parker to 14 points, but he had 12 assists. That meant that he had a hand in more than a third of the Spurs’ baskets.
In Ibaka’s absence, Westbrook and Jackson have to be better.
Is that asking a lot?
But these two have shown that they can do it, even against a team as good as the Spurs. And they showed in spurts Monday night that they can kick this Thunder team into another gear.
Right before halftime with the Spurs threatening to really put their foot on the Thunder’s throat, Jackson scored a layup with an assist from Westbrook. Then after Jackson rebounded a San Antonio miss, he hit a pull-up jumper from 20 feet.
He was locked in, and he took it to the Spurs.
Then in the third quarter, Westbrook went on the offensive. He hit a three on an assist from Kevin Durant. Drove to the basket for a basket. Got to the free-throw line. Scored in transition. Assisted a Durant three. Got back to the free-throw line when he attacked the basket in transition. And finally, he hit that pull-up jumper that left Parker grasping at air and put the Thunder up with 5:08 left in the third quarter.
During that same stretch, Parker had no points and no assists. That put the brakes on the Spurs’ attack.
“And at the same time,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “Russell attacked us.”
It changed the game.
But for the next nine-plus minutes, neither of the Thunder point guards scored. By the time Jackson ended that drought, the Spurs had a double-digit lead again, added by several defensive lapses on the perimeter.
“We have to figure out ways to keep them out of the paint and off the 3-point line,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “They’re a very good team. They’re a team that can beat you in a lot of ways.
“In order to beat this team, you have to have all five guys on point, every possession, 24 seconds.”
That starts with the point guard. Defense. Offense. All of it flows through the point guard. That’s always the case, but when you’re missing a key cog like Ibaka, it’s even more important for Westbrook and Jackson to be at their best.
“Yeah,” Westbrook said, “but be smart. My job is to stay in attack mode but also find guys and try to find open shooters.”
Both Thunder point guards did that in spurts Monday night, but to beat these Spurs, they’re going to have to do it a lot more Wednesday night and beyond.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.