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Thunder notebook nuggets: The undeniable OKC advantage over the Spurs

by Darnell Mayberry Modified: April 4, 2014 at 8:35 am •  Published: April 4, 2014

That was the best Thunder ballgame I’ve seen in a while…

  • For two days, maybe more, we had to wonder. What would Gregg Popovich do? The Spurs skipper seemed destined to sit his stars and squash a highly-anticipated showdown between two heavyweights battling for conference supremacy. Ultimately, Pop gave it a shot. He played his big guns, or most of them anyway, and put San Antonio’s league- and franchise-best 19-game winning streak to the test. But this one ended the same way 10 of 12 now have ended, with the Thunder winning and with Oklahoma City again showing San Antonio just how much of a matchup problem it is.
  • The Thunder just has too many weapons for the Spurs. And it’s not just the stars. It’s the role players and the X-factors, too. Serge Ibaka looms as an intimidating shot-blocking presence. Reggie Jackson comes off the bench and slaps San Antonio with a watered-down but still-potent mix of Russell Westbrook-style attacking and James Harden-style playmaking. Derek Fisher likes to hit nearly every shot he throws up against the Spurs. Nick Collison’s savvy helps stop San Antonio’s precision and execution. And now Caron Butler and Steven Adams have added more size, length, strength and shot-making.
  • “They’re a hell of a basketball team,” Popovich said.
  • The Thunder became the first team to since Utah in 2009-10 to sweep a four-game series with San Antonio.
  • As much as the Thunder tried to downplay it before the game, it became undeniable afterward. Oklahoma City just has San Antonio’s number. Plain and simple. “We just focus in more,” Westbrook said. “Obviously, when you play San Antonio you can’t be lackadaisical. As you see, we started the first half just kind of going through the motions and they scored points real quick. And I think we’ve been doing a great job the last couple of years just focusing in and being real particular on what we do on different players.”
  • What was the turning point? “I don’t know,” Westbrook said. “I think maybe just playing them enough; in the playoffs. We’ve gotten older, a lot more mature and I think that may help us out.”
  • San Antonio still holds a three game lead over the Thunder for first place in the West. With six games remaining, the Spurs’ magic number to clinch the conference is now five, meaning any combination of Spurs wins or Thunder losses equaling five will assure San Antonio homecourt advantage through at least the West Finals.
  • With the way the Thunder has beaten San Antonio in recent years, and because of everything mentioned above, I’m starting to think the Thunder might not need homecourt advantage to knock off the Spurs in a potential rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Is it good to have? No doubt. But I think it’s safe to say the Spurs need it much more than the Thunder.
  • With the win tonight, the Thunder’s magic number to win the Northwest Division is now just one. OKC can clinch that with a win Friday at Houston or a Blazers loss Friday versus Phoenix.
  • Westbrook imposed his will tonight. On both ends. He relentlessly attacked the cup and pressured the passing lanes. He made big play after big play, using his energy and athleticism to make himself a pest all night. And the Spurs didn’t have an answer.
  • When Westbrook pulled up from deeeeeeeep on a two-for-one opportunity with 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter, he buried the shot and then stared at the Spurs bench. He smirked and then said to San Antonio “I ain’t gon’ stop. You know that. I’m gon’ keep going.”
  • Twenty-seven seconds later, Westbrook converted a fast-break layup off a feed from Kevin Durant. It trimmed an early 11-point Spurs deficit to three at the half. “I thought Russell’s big 3 at the end of that second quarter was a big shot,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
  • Before that bucket, Westbrook was 4-for-10. He had missed four of his first six shots, with five of his first-half misses coming within 11 feet.
  • “I’m not going to stop regardless if I start 0-for-20; turn the ball over 10 times,” Westbrook said. “I’m going to keep coming. Keep coming. That’s my motto. That’s what I stick by.”
  • Brooks on Westbrook: “He wants to lead our team every night. He’s an emotional guy. He plays every possession with fire, and that’s what makes him a special player.”
  • On a related note, Tony Parker scored six points on 3-for-10 shooting. He had just three assists against three turnovers. “The thing that’s underrated in Russell’s game is his leadership and his ability to defend,” Brooks said. “He’s an amazing scorer. He can put points on the board. He can get KD a lot of looks. But what he does, he leads and he defends at a high level, and that’s what really makes us a good basketball team.”
  • Of course, because Westbrook played tonight that means he’ll be held out Friday at Houston to rest.
  • Kendrick Perkins will get the night off Friday as well after making his return tonight following a 17-game absence. Perkins is being limited to 10 minutes right now and, like Westbrook, will be held out of one game on back-to-backs.
  • I thought Perk was solid. A little rusty, which was to be expected after such a long layoff. But overall, I thought he did a good job on Tim Duncan (17 points, 5-for-15 shooting) and made his touches and attempts difficult. “I felt good,” Perk said. “Just wanted to get my feet wet a little bit. Play a little bit. Just take it one game at a time.”
  • Perk got into a shoving match with Duncan early in the third quarter. The two got tangled up. Duncan threw Perk’s hands off him. Perk then turned around and shoved Duncan in the back. A double technical was called. Welcome back, Perk.
  • Gotta love the ovation The Peake gave Perk. It was clear the home fans missed him. “I love the crowd’s response to him,” Brooks said. “They appreciate what he does. That’s all that matters. We love what he does. He impacts the game in so many ways that the stat sheet, you might as well not even look at it. He’s a winner. He wins.”
  • More from Brooks on Perk: “It’s always nervous coming in for your first game. He probably won’t tell you that because he’s too tough, or at least he tries to act tough in front of you guys. But he hasn’t played in a while. But I thought he did a good job of coming in and the nerves kind of settled down in the second half and he did a good job.”
  • I’m sure y’all noticed. But Perk got rid of the beard. “I can’t play with that,” he said. “So I had to go back to what I usually do.”
  • Someone asked me before the game if I thought there was a better chance of the Spurs winning by 16 or Durant being held under 25 points. I took the former. That’s how confident I was in Durant doing his thing. No way did I see Durant being held in check. But he was. And a mix of Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw and Durant just being off was the reason why. Durant finished with 28 points, a game-high, on 26 shots. You know that’s a bad man when a game-high 28 points is considered struggling.
  • No Manu Ginobili tonight for San Antonio. He was the lone Spur to get the night off to rest with San Antonio playing its fifth game in seven nights.
  • I said on Twitter on Wednesday night that I didn’t think Pop would sit his main guys. I guess I was mostly right. I just couldn’t see him resting guys who are well-rested. No Spur averaged 30 minutes in their 19-game winning streak. The big guns were taking off entire fourth quarters and getting ample rest while blowing out opponents. And with a big test in the Thunder, the kind Pop seemingly has been seeking, it just didn’t add up, him passing up the opportunity to take that challenge.
  • A few whispers tonight that the Spurs played their main guys (most of them) because they wanted to keep the streak alive. That they wanted to get a win this season against the Thunder. I don’t buy that. I believe the Spurs genuinely didn’t care about the streak, and in a weird way going winless against the Thunder might do more for stoking San Antonio’s motivation in a potential conference final than it could for boosting its confidence in the same scenario.
  • Without Ginobili, the Spurs bench wasn’t as dominant as it’s been during the streak and all season. Patty Mills erupted for 21 points, but the rest of the reserves had just 20. Still not a bad night. Just not as good as that bench has been.
  • Jackson allowed Mills to get going. He closed out too slowly to sufficiently contest his first 3, and then he laid off Mills as he stepped into a transition 3 (a terrible shot but, hey, it fell). Mills then shook Jackson on a side pick and roll before pulling up for a jumper. And after Jackson fumbled a feed from Westbrook out of bounds, Mills burned Jackson and the entire Thunder defense in transition for an uncontested layup as the Thunder hung its head. At that point, Mills was a man on fire.
  • Offensively, though, Jackson was terrific. He scored 14 points, grabbed four rebounds and dished four assists. He had just one turnover. He made six of eight shots and took whatever the defense gave him. He didn’t force anything. He set up teammates throughout the night, so much that his four assists don’t tell the story of how many shots he created for his crew. Just a fantastic, under-control game by Jackson.
  • Andre Roberson was a rebounding machine early. Again. He grabbed three of his five boards in the first five minutes. Two of them were offensive boards, one led to an easy putback.
  • Roberson hit a corner 3 tonight off an extra pass from Westbrook. He took it with confidence and splashed it.
  • One of the things I don’t like hearing is people compare Brooks’ philosophies and strategies to Pop’s and use the difference in the two as some sort of reasoning how Brooks can be better (or isn’t a good coach, according to some). But I’m about to do it. Notice what Pop did at the start of the second half? He started Boris Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter and Marco Belinelli in place of Kawhi Leonard. Pop said he sat Leonard to buy him some time because he had three fouls. I’m not sure what the logic behind putting Diaw in for Splitter, but my hunch is that he wanted to suck Ibaka away from the basket with Diaw’s ability to hit the 3. Both maneuvers, I thought, were magnificent. And I’m not just saying that because it was Pop who did it. I’m saying it because they made sense. It’s little things like that that I think Brooks could do more. And maybe he will as time goes on.
  • Collison had a nasty gash on his head that left him with a face full of blood and forced him to leave the game with 1:36 remaining in the third. He got elbowed inadvertently by Jeff Ayers (formerly Pendergraph) and needed staples to stop the bleeding. But Collison said it looked worse than it actually was. “Really, I’m surprised it was bleeding. It hurt a little bit. It stung. But I saw blood coming down my nose so I knew I had to come out.”
  • Nick then supplied this gem: “It was one of those ones that’s awesome because you get a ton of credibility from blood coming down your face. But it really wasn’t that big of a deal.”
  • On Wednesday, I wrote about five things you should know about the streaking Spurs. One of my takeaways was turnovers could be an unexpected weakness the Thunder could exploit. San Antonio had turned it over more than its opponent in nine of its 19 games during the streak. The Spurs had finished with the same number of turnovers in another three. And they weren’t forcing many, which meant if the Thunder could take care of the ball and get San Antonio to cough it up things would be looking up. And that’s exactly what happened. The Spurs turned it over 19 times, many of them live-ball turnovers, and the Thunder turned those into 30 points. OKC had just 13 turnovers, which the Spurs converted into only 14 points.
  • Up next: at Houston on Friday

by Darnell Mayberry
OKC Thunder Senior Reporter
Darnell Mayberry grew up in Langston, Okla. and is now in his third stint in the Sooner state. After a year and a half at Bishop McGuinness High, he finished his prep years in Falls Church, Va., before graduating from Norfolk State University in...
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