Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
If there was a way to end this San Antonio swing — one that featured the loss of Tony Parker, two blowout wins and two strange losses — it was like this.
The Tony Parker-less Spurs managed a 105-93 win over everybody's favorite in the Western Conference, Oklahoma City, pushing them two games ahead of the Thunder for the top spot in the West. With their leading scorer out and their primary competitor breathing down their neck for the No. 1 seed, this was as important a game as you'll see this early in March. With San Antonio's recent and inexplicable stumbles against Phoenix and Portland, winning these kinds of games is some of the most delicious gravy you've ever had.
The Spurs faced an 11-point deficit with 8:09 remaining in the second quarter. With 6:15 left in the same frame, the game was tied at 42 on a Kawhi Leonard jumper. During a span of less than two minutes, Danny Green hit two threes, Leonard hit one and then knotted it up on a pull-up elbow jump shot, and the game had completely changed in the blink of an eye.
Green and Tiago Splitter, the two players whose disappearances in the Western Conference Finals had as much to do with the team's collapse as anything else, were arguably the best Spurs on the floor. Splitter's 21 points and 10 rebounds killed the Thunder inside, and Danny Green hit all four of the 3-pointers he took on his way to 16 points. Then there's Leonard. The second-year man just continues to blossom into this do-it-all, go-go-gadget Swiss Army Knife of a small forward.
San Antonio had begun to rain threes and flip the game upside-down when this happened.
As if playing that brand of defense on Durant — forcing him out of his spots and disrupting his crossover with his equally ridiculous reach — wasn't enough, Leonard continues to emerge as the type of offensive threat on the perimeter that is invaluable with the sort of question mark Manu Ginobili has become. The evidence continues to pile up that this kid could emerge as a huge difference-maker if these two meet again come playoff time.
And the difference overall was the defense. After giving up 32 points in the first quarter and looking like the group that watched the Blazers drop 136 points on its home court, the Spurs locked down. The Thunder shot just 42 percent for the game and committed 19 turnovers (which resulted in 25 Spurs points), and Russell Westbrook went into BAD Russ mode. While it should be noted Oklahoma City was on its fourth game in five nights, winning without Parker means a lot for a team that struggled mightily against the Thunder during the final four games of last season.
But this was a matter of the performances of Splitter, Green and Leonard. Splitter's interior presence represents an entirely new puzzle piece against the Thunder and the defense and shooting of Green and Leonard have carried this team at times.
It's funny how the narrative comes full circle. Prior to the season I wrote about the difference at the end of the season being the role players failing to stay consistent. For as close as last year's conference finals were, a couple of shots from Green here and a few up-and-under finishes from Splitter there, the story we're telling now could be a little different.
And isn't that the crazy thing about youth? It just improves with age.