Did the Spurs defense really beat the Thunder?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs defeated the Thunder on Monday night, but did they do it with their defense, as Mike Prada argues in today's post on the main NBA page, or was it just an off night from the Thunder? And who better to discuss it with than J.A. Sherman, Thunder blogger extraordinaire?

Earlier today, over on the SB Nation's Oklahoma City Thunder's blog, Welcome to Loud City, J.A. Sherman put up a great post about Russell Westbrook's 45 foot heave toward the end of the 3rd quarter, with the visitors down by three measly points.

Here's the play.

And here's the most relevant section:

To be sure, there are excuses. The Thunder were tired, having played 4 games in 5 nights. Russell Westbrook was working back from an ankle injury. The Thunder were fatigued trying to come back from a big deficit. All of these things come into play when players have to make decisions under duress. However, plays like this cannot happen, not against a potential playoff foe. That was a Gilbert Arenas"I'm just messing around" kind of play, not the play of a team who understands that possessions matter, especially against the Spurs (and Heat).

After reading the whole thing, I reached out to J.A. in order to chat over something that's been bugging me since last night. Here's our exchange.

J.R. Wilco

Do you think Gary Neal really fouled RW on that play?

I know that's not the point of your post, but that's what your readers seem to think, and it's not what I see when I look at it, so curious.

J.A. Sherman

You know, it was a weird play. Did Pop call for the intentional foul? If so, I must have missed it, but my readers seem to think that he did, and then Neal ran up and tried to put his hands on RW. I have no idea why he would have though, given the situation. In a way though, RW bailed Neal out by chucking it; there was no way the refs would call the foul then.

That said, even if he did call for the foul, it was just a horrible decision by RW to try and pick up cheap points. That's what killed me about it; he had his team right there almost recovered from that horrid 2nd quarter, and they just needed to keep working and produce good offense, yet he literally just threw it away and the game ran away from them.

JRW

Yeah, I'm with you on every point that you make. As far as the defense is concerned, I'm not sold on the fact that the Spurs did anything to actually cause the Thunder's field-goal percentage to plummet. Did you see anything that they took away from Oklahoma City that they normally have?

I kind want to be excited about last night, and take that success as a blueprint for how to move forward against you guys, but I'm just not real comfortable doing that based on what I saw in watching it the first time. Durant talked about how they got the ball out of his hands and turned him into a passer. Did that really happen to your eyes? Or is it just one of those things that players say like "They gave more effort ... we just need to try harder"?

J.A. Sherman

SA to me is the superior team this season, and they played like it. Better balance, more consistent bench. However, I don't think you can brush over the fact that the Thunder did play 4 in 5 nights, including a Sunday afternoon game against the Celtics, which is always brutal. OKC looked gassed by halftime. Durant's game turned into a perimeter affair instead of a post-up affair, and that probably aided the Spurs' defense b/c its easier to check him out there. You don't have to contest his shots, you just have to stay in front of him, which Kawhi can do.

This might sound kind of counter-intuitive, but I would say that in a way, the Spurs' best defense is their offense. After the Thunder kind of blitzed them in the 1st quarter, the Spurs defense settled down a bit and did better staying with their man. However, it's not like they were doing a ton of trapping or anything to get the ball out of Durant or Westbrook's hands; they were just playing straight-up D and trusting that Kawhi could do enough to stay in front of Durant.

That 3rd quarter was so pivotal because that's when the two teams' contrasting styles came to a head. The Thunder's individual talent was starting to wear down the Spurs defense, but thanks to that Westbrook heave, the momentum was broken and then the Spurs' superior offensive flow took over. During the last 2 minutes of the 3rd and the first 3-4 minutes of the 4th, the Thunder couldn't convert while the Spurs converted almost every time. And every time SA converted, it put more and more pressure on the Thunder, which made their offensive sets more and more panic-driven instead of patient. For example, early in the 4th, instead of Jackson or Martin trying to manufacture points at the line, they kept trying to set up 3-pointers, and nobody was hitting. That stretch all but ended the game.

I think it's probably fair to say this game was the inverse of the last game, where SA was coming off the double-header and didn't have the energy late in the 4th to stay with Durant/Westbrook, and their individual talents overcame the Spurs' flow. Would you agree?

JRW

I do agree with J.A.

How about the rest of you £ers?

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