Well, that was interesting. As most thought, Serge Ibaka's absence from the Thunder lineup dramatically changed Game 1. After just two minutes of action, his replacement in the starting lineup, Nick Collison, badly missed two open shots that Ibaka normally makes and the Spurs took advantage. San Antonio jumped out to a quick 14-7 lead, and Scott Brooks was forced to call the game's first timeout.
The Thunder defense had trouble slowing San Antonio down throughout most of the game. The Spurs lived in the paint where they dominated the Thunder 66-32. The Spurs shot 57.5% from the field and 52.9% from distance and there was nothing fluky about it. That is what has to be most worrisome for OKC. The Spurs shot well, because they were able to create high percentage shots for themselves all night long. None of them were really hot, they just made easy, open shots. That means the 57.5% shooting is sustainable, all things being equal.
Is this all a result of removing Ibaka from the equation? Could it really be that simple? While his absence had a lot to do with it, the Spurs are playing at a level few teams can touch right now. Remember, Portland had the Spurs' number. Before they were easily defeated in five games by the Spurs, Portland had an NBA best 14-7 regular season record against the Spurs. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard had their way with the Spurs in every meeting leading up to the playoff showdown. The Blazers were a very good basketball team and one that specifically always played great against the Spurs.
So, what happened to Portland? It wasn't an injury that derailed them. They ran into a Spurs team that was peaking, just as OKC did tonight. The Spurs beat OKC comfortably even though Tony Parker took the second half off after he got the Spurs off to a great start in the first half. Parker had 12 points and six assists at half and finished with 14 points and 12 assists. Tony kept playing, but he quit looking for his shot, because the Spurs didn't need him to score.
In addition, thanks to a swat to the eyeball by Steven Adams, it took Boris Diaw three quarters to contribute. He will have more of an impact in the games that follow because he allows the Spurs to stay big when OKC plays its small-ball lineups, as long as his eyes work. I can see why so many players lose their cool against Steven Adams. He is a master of the grey-area dirty play. Did he mean to follow through at face level? Sure. Did he mean to poke Diaw in the eye? No, but he did it all the same.
The Spurs are playing so well right now that their best player can put it in cruise-control and they'll still win easily. Look, Ibaka's absence obviously had an impact. There was no shot blocker underneath the rim and Brooks clearly didn't have a legitimate game plan heading into this game. I think his idea was to try everything possible and see what worked. In Ibaka's absence, Perkins, Collison and Adams looked over matched as they scored nine points on nine shots while giving up 27 points to Tim Duncan.
Brooks went small often in this game and it seemed to tire Durant and Westbrook more quickly than their usual minutes in big lineups would. He also rode Durant pretty hard for 41 of the game's first 46 minutes and didn't give him a rest in the second half until he waved the white flag with 2:13 remaining. Once the fourth quarter came around, Durant seemed exhausted and the Spurs quickly pulled away.
The only quarter the Spurs lost was the third, 22-23, and in it OKC took their first since it was 2-0. OKC went big in this quarter playing Perkins, Collison and Sefolosha nine minutes alongside Durant (12 minutes) and Westbrook (11 minutes). It was the only time in the game the Spurs offense seemed to sputter, but while this lineup is OKC's best defensive unit, they were unable to make up much ground because they also struggled to score.
OKC took the lead, 79-78 in the third, but the Spurs had an answer in Manu Ginobili. After a terrible series against the Blazers, Manu rebounded in this game to finish with 18 points on 12 shots and just a single turnover. In this critical third quarter, Manu scored nine points, and helped the Spurs close it well to finish the quarter up eight, 89-82.
Brooks, realizing the game was slipping away, chose to keep Durant in the game and went small again hoping to outscore the Spurs. I do not think giving him a rest would have changed the outcome, but Durant on tired legs settled for a few contested threes that missed and the game was over. The Spurs went on to beat OKC 122-105.
- The Kawhiet Riot had himself a game tonight. Kawhi is the reason I discounted the regular season series between these two teams in the preview. The only thing that the last three regular season games against the Thunder taught me was that if Kawhi doesn't play, the Spurs will not be able to hang with the Thunder. That's fine, but the Spurs have Kawhi and boy did he play. With no hyperbole, Kawhi made two Jordan-esque moves tonight and often looked like the best athlete on the floor. Athleticism is what the Thunder are supposed to use to beat the old, creaky Spurs. Instead, Kawhi was the athlete making ridiculous steals and finishing above the rim. Leonard finished with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and a block in 39 minutes. Most importantly, in the fourth quarter Leonard still looked fresh while Durant seemed exhausted. Durant played like the MVP, but Leonard did what he had to do to help his team win the game.
- Tony Parker scored 12 points in the first half and just two in the second. While he recorded six assists in both halves, I thought he purposely quit looking to attack the rim in the second half and I'm glad he did. In the first half he proved that he still had his burst of speed, so why not rest with the game under control? What's important is that the Spurs had another gear that they never had to use. Aggressive Tony Parker pushes this team to another level, and we only got one half of it.
- Tim Duncan had his way with Scott Brooks' small-ball lineups in the first half. Tim scored 21 points on 12 shots to start the game and basically forced Brooks to go big in the third quarter. While that did slow the Spurs offense, it also hurt the Thunder offense and Brooks was forced to go small in the fourth to try to catch up. It didn't work out.
- When OKC goes small, they can't get defensive stops. In fact, they can't even force the Spurs to take difficult shots. But when OKC goes big, they can't score. Their best defensive lineup of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Collison and Perkins was able to get stops, but it didn't do much good since they couldn't put any points on the board either.
- Let me go Hubie Brown on you real quick. If I'm Scott Brooks, I give Westbrook a quick slap to the face and throw a flying elbow at Perkins. Then I'd take off my pretentious glasses and break them in half, realizing that everyone knows I don't really need glasses and just wear them to impress Westbrook. Then I'd slap Westbrook one more time for making me feel like I needed those pretentious glasses to feel smart. Finally, when Game 2 eventually arrived, I'd go big for three quarters and try to muddy up the game. I'd tell my guys to grab jerseys and bump everyone cutting. I'd try to keep it close, and then I'd go small in the fourth and hope the Spurs would be so out of rhythm that my guys would be able to steal the game. Unfortunately for Scotty, and fortunately for us, I think the more time the Spurs spend with OKC's big lineups, the easier it will be for them to manufacture points. As we thought, OKC is in big trouble this series, and I'm not sure if there are solutions to their problems. The Spurs are just better and deeper, and I think that was the case before the Thunder lost their third best player to injury.