clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Spurs fans should be cheering for the Thunder this year

Whereupon your narrator writes far more nice things about the Clippers than he feels comfortable with.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder had one of his trademark coast-to-coast jaunts to the rim Sunday afternoon in a nationally-televised game against the Cavs, finishing it off with a typical assault of the rim, and then the usual Russ histrionics afterward.

Here, let's watch.

Yes indeed, quite vicious. Pretty similar to Kyle Anderson's against the Suns, all in all, but less impressive in my opinion because he didn't have the pressure of an impending shot clock violation.

Westbrook's ferocious dunk inspired his teammates to such a degree that they... immediately surrendered an 11-0 run which stretched out to a 29-7 run. In fact on the very next play Matthew Dellavedova easily scooted around the pumped-up Westbrook and hit a floater worth exactly the same two points as his dunk.

The game largely played out like one two-hour long Sportscenter highlight with stars on both sides not wanting to ruin each other's plays by getting in the way, but the Cavaliers gained separation over the second and third quarters, taking advantage of their superior depth, with their role players performing far better than their OKC counterparts. They blew the Thunder out on the road, even with Iman Shumpert and Mo Williams sidelined by injury, newly-acquired Channing Frye unavailable and Kyrie Irving limited to nine ineffective first quarter minutes due to a mysterious flu that he alleged was caused by bed bugs in his hotel room.

Timofey Mozgov, Dellavedova (and some other guy whose name escapes me) were all fantastic off the bench for Cleveland, while Enes Kanter, Anthony Morrow and new piece Randy Foye all performed miserably. But the real difference-making matchup was at two guard, where J.R. Smith nailed five threes while Dion Waiters missed his first seven attempts --badly-- before finally making one in garbage time. He didn't look like an NBA player out there and he seems completely unnerved by the presence of Foye on the roster.

The game, from beginning to end, was an indictment of the Thunder, from Kevin Love repeatedly abusing Kevin Durant down low, to Westbrook's foray to the basket producing an exultation of sound and fury signifying nothing. The former has been nearly as efficient as he was during his MVP 2013-14 campaign (except he's taking about two-and-a-half fewer free-throws per 36 minutes these days) while the latter has never been better as a play-maker and rim-attacker. Westbrook's chemistry on the pick-and-roll with his centers is superb, he's gotten really good at setting up everybody in their sweet spots and his touch around the rim on his breakneck drives is much-improved.

As offensive players, KD and Russ are practically peerless. The problem is that the better they get offensively, the more careless they get on the other end, where Durant continues to be too passive and Westbrook keeps gambling for steals and refusing to simply stay with his man. There was a hope that the hire of a new coach in Billy Donovan would instill more discipline and accountability from not just the team's role players but also its leaders, but that doesn't seem to be happening, as evidenced by this string of tweets from Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

Westbrook is a shameless stat-chaser, but he's hardly alone there. All the league-leaders in triple-doubles, from Draymond Green to Rajon Rondo to LeBron James are all pretty brazen about being aware of what they need to reach the elusive double figures in this category or that and always seem to seek that one final carom or deciding pass with extra vigor, even with a lopsided margin on the scoreboard, before retreating to the bench when the achievement has been secured.

I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone do it down 20 before though.

The Thunder have had late meltdowns at home in losses to Toronto, Chicago and Indiana and have already dropped seven games at Chesapeake Arena. They're a stupefying 13-11 so far versus the Eastern Conference, and not being able to defeat any Eastern teams is going to put a crimp in their championship plans. OKC ranks just 11th in defensive efficiency, and they've got the toughest schedule in the league left (their opponents have a cumulative .590 winning percentage, the Spurs have the next-toughest at .572)  with 17 of their final 26 remaining games on the road. They still have three games left apiece with the Spurs and Clippers, and two more with the Warriors, with half of those eight coming on the road. The Clippers are only three games behind, so it's certainly conceivable that L.A. can catch them for the third seed and the chance to avoid the Warriors until the conference finals.

Would that be a good thing for the Spurs though?

More and more I'm starting to feel that the Clippers would be a tougher match-up for San Antonio than Oklahoma City. The Thunder have two freak athletes surrounded by a bunch of meh, with not much shooting and even less defense. Even Serge Ibaka isn't the force he once was, with his shot-blocking numbers plummeting for the fifth straight season, from 3.7 in 2011-12, to 3.0, to 2.7, to 2.4, to 2.1 this year.

The Clips, on the other hand, threaten to actually out-basketball the Spurs, and the foursome of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick continue to confound their defense no matter what PATFO tries. Outside of Stephen Curry, Paul might be the single most terrifying player in the world for the Spurs to defend for the simple fact that he shoots from outside so much better than Westbrook does. It's more than that of course. His mastery of flow and tempo, his ability to manipulate both referees and match-ups to his will is unparalleled. He's relentless in probing the defense and getting switches to his advantage. He can throw pin-point lobs from anywhere with either hand, any body contortion, to a pair of trapeze artists in Jordan and Griffin. And he can get to the line seemingly whenever he wants.

Jordan's ability to corral just about any pass underneath the roof forces opposing bigs to play extra snug with him, while Griffin continues to be a tricky match-up for anyone on the Spurs, too strong for Kawhi Leonard and too quick for the bigs to handle. All they can really do is back up and hope he misses 17-footers. Then there's Redick, who gives Leonard and Danny Green more difficulties than just about any wing in the league with his Reggie Miller-esque ability to scoot all over the court using multiple screens to dislodge would-be defenders. Leonard and Green are generally excellent on-ball defenders, but they get stuck on those side-to-side screens.

The Clippers are by no means a perfect team, and their bench continues to be a work in progress (Cole Aldrich has been a find). They too have had well-chronicled issues collapsing late in games, particularly on the big stage. They are better about playing to their strengths (I don't think Doc Rivers would let Westbrook shoot four threes a game when he's stroking them at below 30 percent) and a bit better defensively than OKC.

Beating the Clips or the Thunder will be a massive chore for the Spurs, but I feel a wee bit more confident against the Thunder because they have only two dependable players (and only on one end of the floor) while L.A. has four. The Clips have a more battle-tested roster and a far more experienced coach. Whereas Leonard can be expected to cause either Durant or Westbrook some problems defensively, he hasn't shown that he can effectively guard any of the Clippers' top players, which eliminates one of San Antonio's biggest nominal advantages. They also have guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Jeff Green to throw at Leonard on the other end, and that may be problematic as well.

The team would be just fine to see the standings stay just as they are.