Seemed like forever since the Thunder had played a big game. That finally changed Thursday night in Chesapeake Arena.
Seemed like forever since the Spurs had lost. That changed, too.
The Thunder rallied from a rocky start, beat San Antonio 106-94, ended the Spurs’ 19-game winning streak and reminded us how great would be a Western Conference Finals series between these river canal rivals.
“Did feel like a big game,” said the Thunder’s Nick Collison. “There was energy in the building. I think we were really geared up for it. All the games are important, but of course, when you’re playing a team that’s No. 1 in the conference, it’s a big deal.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich blessed us by playing his ballplayers. Manu Ginobili sat out, but the weary Spurs’ other veterans played. So did Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, for the first time in six weeks. So the only missing mainstays were Ginobili and Thunder defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha.
The Thunder hadn’t played one of the NBA’s other elite teams (.600 or above winning percentage) since March 11 and had played only one (Houston) since Feb. 23. The rust showed early.
The amazing Spurs were efficient early, made 19 of their first 35 shots and had the Thunder huffing and puffing just to stay within striking range. The Thunder had won nine of their last 11 games against the Spurs, but San Antonio hadn’t lost to anybody since Feb. 21, and you were starting to wonder if Popovich’s powerhouse ever would lose again.
But the return of a big game or the return of Perkins (sidelined since Feb. 20 with a groin strain) or a sense of late-season urgency had the Thunder ready for such a volley. The Thunder toughened up like we haven’t seen in a long time. Popovich hailed the Thunder’s physicality. The Thunder roughed up the Spurs the last 27 minutes of the game.
“We’re a team that’s going to come and get real physical with you,” said Perkins, who only played 12 minutes but made a noticeable difference just in attitude, as much as anything. “Our energy level was high.”
The Thunder finished with more steals (14) than turnovers. Serge Ibaka, despite his shot not falling, played ferocious interior defense. Perkins made those dozen minutes miserable for Tim Duncan. Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher and Caron Butler repeatedly got their hands on Spur passes and dribbles.
With three minutes left in the first half, the Spurs led 46-38 and were shooting 54.2 percent from the field. Over the next 15 minutes, San Antonio made just nine of 33 shots, and the Thunder had an 80-71 lead. When the Spurs committed turnovers on three straight possessions to open the fourth quarter, capped by Jackson’s hustle steal and layup, the Thunder was up 13 and in total command.
“I think we were really locked in defensively, particularly the second half,” said the Thunder’s Nick Collison. “When you’re engaged like that defensively, you put guys in tough positions. You’re swarming around the ball, makes decisions more difficult.”
That kind of defensive ferocity has mostly been missing from the Thunder since the all-star break. Good to see it return.
Of course, the Spurs certainly had reason to run out of petroleum. This was their fifth game in seven days. They had been playing at such a high level — their closest call in the 19-game win streak was five points, and only five of the victories were by single digits — that a comedown was due. Especially with the West’s No. 1 seed all but assured.
And despite the Thunder’s four-game series sweep — the first of the Spurs in four years, since the 2009-10 Jazz — the Spurs found reason for optimism. Kawhi Leonard bothered Kevin Durant into a sub-par shooting night (11 of 26). Durant didn’t reach 25 points until 3:31 left in the game, extending his streak of at least 25 points to 39 games.
Leonard was saddled with foul trouble but showed that the Spurs are better suited to corral Durant than they were in the 2012 West finals, won by the Thunder in six games.
So this game was not necessarily a referendum on a potential West finals showdown. The Thunder remains a bad matchup for the Spurs. But the Spurs remain a proud and battle-tested team. Their streak is over. Their quest is not. Bring on the playoffs, where the Thunder is the West favorite if it plays defense like this.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.