The Spurs arrived at "The Peake" on Thursday evening at the end of a brutal stretch of 6 games including matchups against the league's 5 best teams (and one of the worst). Thursday night's game, a SEGABABA and FOGAFINI to match the Thunder's 4 days of rest, had the makings of a blowout win for the bad guys. Despite a severely limited Tony Parker who was unable to dominate a predictably yet uncharacteristically hot Derek Fisher, the Spurs managed to stay in the fight deep into the fourth quarter before inevitably falling to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Co.
The Spurs started this game rather sloppily, committing 3 earlier turnovers which the Thunder converted into 6 easy points. Tony Parker continued to settle for jumpshots instead of attacking the rim, a sign that he is still having trouble trusting that ankle. Additionally, Scotty Brooks went to some early 1-3 switches pitting Parker against Durant, and the Thunder were able to maintain a slim lead despite a good start from Duncan in the post.
With Parker lagging recently, the Spurs have chosen to run the first unit offense through Tim Duncan in the low block. Not surprisingly, considering Duncan's physical resurgence this season, the results have been pretty good. Tim kept the game close earlier by working the low-block through a series of layups, vintage glass jumpers, and a trip to the line.
Then the bench came in and systematically blew the 1st quarter. The Spurs missed several rotations, and Scotty Brooks pulled a Skywalker and rescued Derek Fisher from carbonite. Spurred (ironically) by two Fisher triples, the Thunder went on an 8-0 run in the final two minutes of the first to take a 29-18 lead into the second quarter.
To start the second, the Spurs chose to go small along with the Thunder, surrounding Tiago Splitter with Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Danny Green, and Nando de Colo. The end of the first and the start of the second is where the Spurs lost this game. The bench continued to struggle as Derek Fisher stayed hot, and the Thunder stretched the lead to 20 with just under 8 minutes remaining in the period.
Tim Duncan returned to the action around the 7 minute mark, and the Spurs began chipping away. Gary Neal continued his recent streak of aggressiveness and was able to carry the Spurs with 12 second quarter points. The Spurs finished the quarter strong on the backs of Neal and Leonard, and managed to enter halftime at only a 6 point deficit.
Unfortunately, the Spurs continued the theme of the night, surrendering an early third quarter run as the Thunder reinflated the lead to 19 on a Durant jumper. Again the Spurs fought back, urged on by Leonard's aggressiveness plus two quick triples from De Colo. Neal hit an improbable buzzer beating jumper to bring the third quarter to a draw, and the Spurs again trailed by only 6.
In the 4th, Pop chose to remain with Nando for all but about 2 minutes. Parker headed back to the locker room at some point during the 4th quarter, favoring what appeared to be a sore neck and ankle. He scored only 2 points on 1-6 shooting. The Spurs played tough in the 4th, rallying to cut the deficit to 3 on a dunk by the GOATPUFF. The Spurs made several hustle plays, including a couple of steals and a fantastic block by Danny Green on what was about to be an easy dunk for Kendrick Perkins following a scrum for a loose ball. Despite a tough fight and great performances by Duncan and Leonard, the Spurs couldn't match the Thunder's final run, losing 100-88.
- Kawhi Leonard is on beast-mode cruise control. Tonight, he scored 24 points on 50% shooting with 14 rebounds, 6 assists, and a steal in 42 minutes. He helped force Kevin Durant into 6 (!) turnovers. Over his last 9 games he has averaged 15.3 points, 8.6 rebs, and 2.4 assists per game, all WELL above his season averages. If he can maintain this elevated play in the playoffs, he will be a huge boon for the Spurs' success.
- Gary Neal remained aggressive tonight, with 14 points on 5-11 shooting. He isn't "back", but he is certainly headed in the right direction.
- Tim Duncan continued his stellar play, scoring 24 points with 11 rebounds and 3 blocks. At times last year when the Spurs perimeter attack was struggling (which did not happen frequently), Tim Duncan was relied upon to generate offense. The results were mediocre at best. The same cannot be said for this recent stretch of games without Manu or a fully healthy Tony. That's four straight double-doubles for Timmy (not included his brief showing against the Magic) and his longest streak of double-digit scoring efforts (17) since the start of the season.
- Nando de Colo looked much more comfortable on the floor, even as Parker's replacement late in the game. He committed only 1 turnover.
- Following the three turnovers in the first 3 minutes of play, the Spurs committed only 7 more.
- The Spurs committed only 10 personal fouls, and the Thunder shot only 13 free throws.
- Kevin Durant had 6 turnovers. The Spurs have done a good job of turning him over this season.
- Tony is banged up. He may have come back from injury too early, and his recovery was not aided by heavy minutes in those first few games back. It can't be stressed enough how important a healthy, confident, attacking Tony Parker will be during the playoffs, especially with Manu's health being a gigantic red question mark. Tonight was not a good sign for Tony. Hopefully a home game on Saturday followed by three days of rest can return his game to form.
- Danny Green is still making defensive errors. He has missed several rotations, and was responsible for no less than two wide open triples by the Thunder. I actually found myself hoping Pop would replace him with Neal late in the game.
- Those 10 Spurs turnovers? The Thunder turned them into 21 points. The Spurs scored only 13 points on 12 Thunder turnovers, and two botched fast breaks in the fourth quarter effectively dashed all hope of any comeback victory.
It would be very easy to be discouraged by this loss. The Spurs have lost to three of the best teams in the league in their last four games, and may have just ceded home court advantage to the Thunder. Sure, I really wanted to see a win in this game, but I refuse to mourn this loss, as I was especially encouraged by the play from Kawhi, Gary, and Timmy. We played the Thunder in their arena. Our players were running on low tanks despite Pop's best efforts, and the Thunder were well rested, hitting all manner of jumpers and contested threes. We were never supposed to win this game, and our guys fought very hard all the way to the end. Tonight made me proud to be a fan of the Spurs, even in defeat. 6 more games until Round 1. We will play who we will play. I'd like to see the team just stay healthy and approach the playoffs with focus, determination, and just a touch of nasty. Go Spurs Go.