Oklahoma City has progressed by leaps and bounds ever since drafting Kevin Durant in 2007, back when the team was still the Seattle SuperSonics. A record of 20-62 his first season, 23-59 his second, 50-32 in his third, 55-27 in his 4th, 47-19 (71% winning percentage, a high for Durant) and a current standing of 47-16, good for a 75% winning percentage. Kevin Durant didn't transform this team all by himself; it was the work of former Spur executive, Sam Presti. Hired out of the San Antonio office, he went straight to work, picking Kevin Durant with the 2nd pick in the 2007 draft and drafting Ray Allen for Jeff Green. In 2008, he drafted Russell Westbrook with the 4th pick and Serge Ibaka with the 24th. He would strike gold again the next year, selecting James Harden with the 3rd (the first ever official pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder). He even drafted Eric Bledsoe, Carl Landry and Glen Davis, good players for other teams at the moment. Their last two picks have been low in the order due to their superb record, but have drafted a backup point guard (Reggie Jackson) and a bench big with potential in Perry Jones III. By purposely tanking in his first couple of years, he accumulated high draft picks, chose wisely and developed these players, turning those picks into All-Stars, All-NBA and All-Defense selections, who would lead the team to the Finals in less than four years.
Just like their record, the Thunder advanced in the playoffs incrementally, reaching the semis, then the Western Finals and finally broke through to the Finals last year. While they lost to the Heat convincingly, they are still seen by most of the media as the top threat in the West, and the likely matchup for the Heat once again. The Thunder are led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, 1A and 1B. Both players can score at will, it seems, as shown by their 1st and 6th place scoring rates league-wise, respectively. Durant has been on such a tear since entering the league, that if he wins the scoring title again this year (4th in 5 years in the league), he'll be the third player to lead the league in scoring four consecutive seasons, joining the truly rarified air of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. There is no doubting that Durant is a superstar in his young years, and can only get better, as he can add mass to his frame and even more moves and shots to his arsenal. We've all seen how LeBron transformed from a skinny kid to the unstoppable train that he is, can KD do it? Only time will tell. Russell Westbrook is the more enigmatic of the two: he of the interesting fashion sense, the lack of restraint, and high temper. The media loves to nitpick at his faults, which used to be that he didn't pass the ball enough and that he shoots the ball waaaaaaay too much. The first complaint is no longer applicable: now that James Harden has been traded away to the Houston Rockets, the Thunder don't really have a reliable ball-handler for the bench, meaning that Westbrook is burdened with even more of the playmaking, leading to 7.6 assists per game, good for 5th in the league. This has led to his second place in the league usage rate, at 30.9, meaning he takes nearly a third of his team's possessions for himself, resulting in either a field goal attempt, a free throw attempt, an assist or a turnover. Only Carmelo Anthony has a higher usage rate, clocking in at 31. Kobe is lower, and so is Kevin Durant, who only uses 27.3, a low number for such a prolific scorer. That's what happens when you're as efficient a scorer as Durant, who is on his way to the heralded 50%FG/40%3pt/90%FT mark, last reached by a small forward in the 80s, by White Jesus himself (Larry Bird). Setting so many records at such a young age, Durant is likely to take over the league if LeBron ever shows signs of slowing down, which honestly, doesn't seem like that's going to happen anytime soon. I have a feeling that LeBron will be the Michael Jordan to Durant's Malone/Barkley.
Breaking up the Thunder this year in order to preserve the team's long-term future was a smart move front office wise, but I believe that it took them out of contention this year. If you trade an All-Star for a has-been (Kevin Martin) and a couple of other players and picks, then your current players will feel the burden of having to replace those points and the playmaking ability that Harden is so good at, be it driving to the hoop, getting passes to teammates or hitting daggers. The current Thunder team may be better statistically, as their defense has gotten a bit tighter and their offense is once again in the elite, but their ball movement seems a little off and their bench doesn't strike fear in anyone's heart as it once did. Kevin Martin is a good player, don't get me wrong, but we have all see what The Beard has been doing with more minutes and playing opportunities in Houston. He's taking what should be a lottery team to the playoffs and even has them among the elite in scoring. To me, that Harden trade put the Thunder a notch under the Spurs this year, as they brought in new pieces to complement their core of Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, but as the Lakers have found out, chemistry isn't quick and easy, it takes time. Pop has the time. He's been at this for a while.
Quotes of the Game
"I don't care. I don't know. You figure it out."
Pop on whether or not OKC is better without James Harden.
"1:22 left, Spurs by 11, but why are we nervous?"
I wholeheartedly agree with Bill.
Quick Game Hash
Check out Matthew Tynan's recap for further information.
After struggling in the first quarter, the Spurs came out with a vengeance in the second quarter, outscoring the Thunder 35-18. Kevin Martin was 3-3 from three point range early in the second, and hit a three to extend the Thunder's lead to 13. Little did he know that it would be his last field goal of the game, as the Spurs would rally, going on a 32-9 run, effectively turning the 13 point deficit into a 7 point lead heading into the break. The key plays during the quarter shifted the momentum greatly towards the Spurs' favor: Tiago hit a shot with 8:22 left, Durant made a shot to counter, but Verde would answer, hitting two three pointers back to back. Kawhi joined in on the fun, and hit another three pointer from the corner (with an assist from Tiago), cutting the lead down to 2. After two timeouts by the Thunder and a missed three from Derek Fisher, Kawhi would make a jumper to tie the game. Kawhi also stole the ball from Westbrook and flew down the court for a left-handed jam. As a Spurs' fan, I haven't been accustomed to high-flying dunkers, but I will accept Kawhi's contributions. That play energized the Spurs and especially the home crowd, which was the loudest I've seen all year. The Thunder would only score 8 points in the rest of the quarter, 4 of those coming in the frantic last minute.
The rest of the game consisted of the Spurs holding off the Thunder's runs with runs of their own, as they won each quarter, 26-24 for the third and 22-19 for the fourth. The third quarter started off close, and the lead was pared down to one, bookended by Danny Green's break-away dunk and Boris Diaw's timely jumper, which saved their momentum after a four-minute drought. He hit the long jumper, a three pointer and then assisted Timmy on a layup, stretching the lead back to 8, and pretty much turning the tide. The Spurs started the fourth quarter hot, ripping off a quick 9-0 run, and led by 18. Even though the lead was pretty comfortable for most of the second half, I was never truly at ease due to OKC's ability to pile up points in a hurry. Thankfully, the Spurs' team defense didn't allow the Thunder many open looks and shut down their supporting players, forcing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to try to win the game. This time, they couldn't do it. They must miss James Harden more than they think.
My Game Boss
Tiago was a beast down low, hitting 9-11 shots, grabbing 10 rebounds, and even dishing out three assists and a block for good measure. He played with energy and ferocity, taking advantage of the Spurs' frontcourt power.
My Game Runt
Do you even need to ask? He missed every shot, didn't have a single assist and had a -21 plus/minus in only 12 minutes.
The Thing Was Over When…
…Kawhi stole the ball from Russell Westbrook and streaked down the court for a left-handed dunk. Sure, the Spurs didn't have the lead, but I think that play really shifted the momentum and instilled some confidence in the team. Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal played great in this game as well, even though their box scores might not show it, and Boris Diaw's contributions to the 7-0 run I wrote about in the Quick Game Hash was key to the win as well.
Numbers of Note
- 7 - Steals by the Spurs, with three each by Kawhi and Danny.
- -8 - Margin of rebounds for the Spurs (23rd in the league) coming against the 8th ranked Thunder.
- 27 - Shots attempted by Russell Westbrook. He made 11. I'll take that any day.
- 11 - Number of free throws made by the entire Spurs team…and Kevin Durant all by himself.
- 25 - Points off of turnovers for the Spurs, compared to 14 for the Thunder. The Spurs had to win the turnover battle if they wanted to have a chance in this game.
- 6 - Spurs in double digits, compared to only three for the Thunder. Can you guess who?
- 25 - Assists by the Spurs, a +9 advantage.
Odds & Ends
- Kawhi AND Danny are high-flyers now? We need to tell them to stay off of the highlight reels if the Spurs are to sneak up on anybody in the postseason.
- More on the dunks: three pointers can turn the tide, but breakaway dunks are a whole different beast, and an element that the Spurs lacked before Kawhi and Danny arrived last year. They add so much to the team, from defense, three point shooting and overall energy.
- Gary Neal seems to have shaken off the rust from his ankle injury/plantar fascists. According to Bill and Sean, he was wearing an insert in his shoe, which seems like it must've helped, as he dished out 6 assists, a team high. He was also +20 on the game, and was energetic on defense, guarding everyone from Kevin Durant to Derek Fisher.
- The Thunder were 4-20 on field goals in the fourth quarter. Now that's what I call some good old-fashioned Spurs defense. They somehow still scored 19 points, thanks to free throws.
- According to STATS LLC, Splitter has recorded his eighth double-double of this season, after only getting three of them the past two seasons. He's been given more responsibility as his minutes increase, and he's showing that he deserves them.
- The Spurs didn't make a three until the second quarter, and then promptly hit three in a row. Good things come in threes.
- I swear Bill's voice was cracking at some points during the broadcast because he was so excited that the Spurs were winning. Too many 'Oh Mama!' moments from Kawhi and Danny will do that to a play-by-play announcer.
- For all of Westbrook's merciless gunning, he still gives you a good 6 rebounds, 6 assists and is seemingly all over the floor. He is a blur, and can fly out from the perimeter to the rim to try to grab a rebound whenever he feels like it. I thought Eric Bledsoe was athletic, but Russell Westbrook is on another level.
- Cory Joseph had another solid, if unspectacular, start. He played 19 minutes, didn't turn the ball over and defended well. Not much more we can ask from our former D-League assignee.
- Danny was on fire from downtown, hitting all four of his threes, kicking up his total to 144, tops for the Spurs and 5th in the league. He's not going to catch up to Stephen Curry, who has 192+! Danny is also hitting at an elite level this season, connecting on 44%.
Going into the Next Game, the Spurs Need to…
…take a breather, but keep competing. They knew they had to bring their A game against OKC, especially minus Tony Parker, and they did, showing the Thunder who's #1 in the West. The 6 game home stand has ended, and the Spurs are likely flying to Minnesota as I type this. If they keep playing Spurs basketball, they'll be fine.