The Spurs won the kind of game tonight against hated OKC --their 32nd straight without a blemish at home this season and 41st in a row dating back to last year-- that Gregg Popovich loves. "Both teams played hard" as Rasheed Wallace would sum it up, but neither could throw it into the ocean. But instead of hanging their heads and bemoaning their fate, Pop's guys dug down that much deeper on defense to stay within reach for 24, 36, 42 minutes until finally the dam burst and they sunk the Thunder into another fourth quarter abyss. They suffered their 12th loss of the season in which they blew a fourth quarter lead.
It was the epitome of Jacob Riis' famous credo about the stone-cutter, from which this here blog gets its name. The Spurs kept pounding away and eventually got that rock to crack. Or maybe they just hammered away on the rim enough that it finally widened enough for one of their three-point attempts to fall in.
Really though, while the decisive 101st blow that cracked the visitors came from the Spurs, the most telling one was a self-inflicted.
The Thunder simply ran out of legs in the fourth quarter in a SEGABABA, and while the scheduling was unfortunate for them, they have no one to blame but themselves for letting the lowly Timberwolves hang around for the full four quarters much less letting this happen.
Why yes, I did find that play quite enjoyable. How'd you guess?
The Spurs do a lot of things very well. You don't get to 56-10 without being able have several clubs in your bag. But perhaps what they do better than any team in the league and maybe anyone in NBA history is they absolutely hammer the Timberwolves, Suns and Sixers of the world so that their main players don't have to expend any unnecessary physical or mental energy. Their games against the dregs of the league don't require that 101st hammer blow very often. Usually 40 or 50 whacks are enough to break open those pebbles. Consequently, they have more left in the tank when they find themselves in tight games down the stretch here, especially now that one of their best players feels comfortable with his teammates and they with him.
We'll get to LaMarcus Aldridge in a minute. Really the story of the game was Danny Green, who was the personification of "pounding the rock" tonight. It's no secret that Green's had a bad year shooting the ball. He's hitting just 38.0 percent from the field and 33.8 from downtown. He was ice cold through the first two months of the season, but found his touch in January, hitting at a scorching 49.1 percent clip from deep. After that though his numbers started falling back down to earth and he made just 2-of-19 threes so far in March.
And then there was Saturday night against the Thunder, where Danny kept getting open look after open look after open look against OKC's scrambling, gambling, inattentive defense. And he wasn't simply missing the shots.
I mean, they weren't even close. It wasn't a matter of being on line but short or long. He was missing wide left and wide right. He was barely nicking the rim. It was getting ugly, with the crowd collectively sucking air into their lungs in anticipation and then letting go progressively louder moans after each miss.
Many coaches would've pulled their shooter in a game like this, reasoning that it just wasn't their night. Popovich might have been tempted to with Green, but it's not like anyone else was faring any better. Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili... they were all shooting blanks.
Ultimately what saved Green were two things in addition to his fellow wings also being frosty from the three-point line. One, he didn't pass up open shots, no matter how badly he was missing. Nothing draws Popovich's ire on offense faster than a shooter suffering through a crisis of confidence and sabotaging the offense. That almost always results in an immediate benching.
"He's a pro and we made it clear to him there's only two outcomes," Popovich explained of Green's determination to keep chucking away. "It goes in or it doesn't, but he still gets his paycheck, his family still loves him, so screw it, let 'em fly. And he did."
Even more important than Green's willingness to take the shots he's supposed to take though was his defensive work, particularly on Kevin Durant, whom he helped hold to a relatively inefficient 28 points on 25 shots, including 0-of-5 from three. Green and Leonard switched assignments here and there in transition or off 1-3 pick-and-rolls, but by and large Green checked Durant, and his length, quickness and physicality seemed to bother him.
What was telling to me was Popovich's decision to have Leonard on Westbrook. It speaks to which of the two Thunder stars he believes to be more dangerous. Also, Leonard's substitution pattern was in sync with Westbrook's, not Durant's. Pop felt comfortable enough to defend Durant with Leonard on the bench in both halves. Leonard's wingspan and strength dramatically affected Westbrook's penetration and he forced him into a number of turnovers beyond the three steals he had. It must also be said that Russ looked decidedly less caffeinated than usual, no doubt due to the minutes he put in the night before. He tried attacking the rim early once against Tim Duncan, saw the folly in that and basically didn't venture down that path again unless Timmeh was on the bench. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he was as bad as we've ever seen him, shooting 5-of-16 and committing nine turnovers.
While the Spurs' defense was on point from the opening tip, congesting driving lanes, showing active hands and daring OKC's role players to beat them from outside, they weren't doing much else well. No one could shoot a lick and the Thunder dominated them on the boards just as they did in their previous meeting, the season-opener for both teams, with Enes Kanter --17 rebounds in 28:01-- again proving to be a handful. They were also fouling too much, especially early on.
It was Aldridge who kept them in it in the first quarter, with 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting. It was four more points and two more field goals than he had all game against them in his Spurs debut. Aldridge had it all working, with three mid-range jumpers, a hook over Serge Ibaka, an and-1 in transition and a tip-in off a miss.
Manu's steal sets up this beauty! pic.twitter.com/dHoaLTkqZR— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 13, 2016
Duncan had his jumper falling too and Leonard knocked in a couple, and the Spurs' front line accounted for all 25 of their points in the first.
It was mostly a rock fight after that for the next two quarters, save for the occasional flash of brilliance from Leonard.
Oh you know just Kawhi doing Kawhi things... pic.twitter.com/op6JWiBKpl— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 13, 2016
The Thunder used a 15-3 run midway through the second period (while Kevin Martin was in for the Spurs) to take a lead that swung between two and seven points until David West's third straight bucket tied the game 72-72 with 9:19 remaining.
Get it, D West! pic.twitter.com/NJeCBT6vlm— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 13, 2016
The teams traded a couple baskets apiece and then Westbrook's reckless gambling did the Thunder in, as he left Green wide open in the corner to try to swipe a ball from Aldridge in the high post. Aldridge was secure with the ball and shuttled it over to Green for a wide open three to give the home side a lead they wouldn't relinquish, with Leonard soon doubling the margin with a jab-step triple.
It was the second-worst three-point shooting night of Green's career, ahead of an 0-for-8 night against New Orleans on New Year's Eve last season. But he pounded that rock and made the one he had to.
Aldridge finished with his by now routine 24 and 9, and Leonard was again sensational on both ends, but there were other heroes for the Spurs. Duncan chipped in with 10 first half points and protected the paint well. West had his flurry in the fourth quarter. Patty Mills was the real standout though, showing he can contribute even without scoring. He had seven rebounds, three dimes and was manic all over the floor. When the Spurs rallied in the fourth quarter, it was with Mills at point.
All in all a good night, even with a couple of future Hall-of-Famers looking flat.
What's so amazing about the Spurs is they have like six guys that look so washed and they're still 55-10.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) March 13, 2016
Man, just think how amazing the Spurs record would be if they had a whole team full of awesome players like the Thunder do.
Your Three Stars:
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. LaMarcus Aldridge
3. Danny Green
Up Next: Vs. Los Angeles Clippers (42-22)
The Spurs go from facing one potential second-round opponent to another. Chris Paul is terrifying just like Westbrook except he can shoot from outside and doesn't have nine turnovers too often. The Clips will still be without Blake Griffin, but that didn't seem to hurt them any as they easily beat the Spurs at home right after the All-Star break at home. Both Leonard and Ginobili were out for that one though. The Spurs won the previous meeting at the AT&T Center on Dec. 18, but had to work for it, trailing in the fourth quarter of that one too.