Coming into this series, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder faced each other like two cage fighters. One stared stoically while the other glared, chest heaving and one corner mouth glistening red with blood. The fighters had split the first two rounds of their bi-annual playoff duel, with the Spurs delivering the KO to OKC in 2014 as vengeance for the Thunder's victory in 2012. Now Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were back, spitting mad and having seemingly vanquished their clutch-time demons against a lesser opponent in the first round of these playoffs. They were ready for the Spurs once again. "Best, 2 out of 3" said the bloodied warrior. The calm eyes of his opponent said nothing, nor did the lips. They did not telegraph the haymaker that was prepared for Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
The Thunder thought they were ready for the Spurs. But they were wrong.
It won't be this simple every game. The knockout punch will not be as swift, the victory so devastating, precise and beautiful. LaMarcus Aldridge won't set a Spurs' career high in points in every game and Kawhi Leonard won't set the tone the first play of every game by dunking in Steven Adams' grille. Heck, Billy Donovan might even stop putting Kyle Singler on Kawhi.
By definition, Aldridge will not hit his first 3 pointer of the season in every game, and Danny Green *might* not hit 5 of 6 from behind the arc. Then again, he might.
As a quick aside, while Leonard is rightly the face of the post-Big 3 era, Green best symbolizes the reclamation project that changed the Spurs' fortunes a half-decade ago. This team was a floundering former title contender when Icy/Hot began the third iteration of his Spurs career. "The first two times we cut him, he was God-awful," Gregg Popovich said in typical Popovichian fashion. "Over the last few years, he's really taken pride in his defense." Sure, Danny was a TAR HEEL and had the physical tools to succeed, but he had to take some knocks before accepting what needed to change. So too did the Spurs have to endure three straight humiliating playoff losses in 2009-2011, years in which they won only one playoff series and the Big 3 began to look increasingly mortal.
Other organizations might have played it too conservative and rode their core for too long; others would've blown things up after listening to people (like me) who said things like "Trade Tony Parker while he still has value!" or "Encourage Duncan to retire and go for a splashy free agent or a high draft pick!" Instead, PATFO played it down the middle with a bold trade for Leonard and an investment of resources in high-character, high-upside guys like Green. Even when Verde struggled with some frankly god-awful shooting this year and people (like me) started eyeing Jonathan Simmons as a replacement at 2 guard, Pop never lost faith. Though the 3 was dormant, the D was still enough to give the Spurs a unique defensive look on the wing. The shooting would come around eventually. Tonight, it finally did.
So back to this...well, we'll call it a game. It was mostly a referendum on the Thunder's top-heavy, iso heavy, defense-optional, uneven and overly emotional approach. "You like to dance before the game?" the Spurs politely said to their opponent. "Dance your hearts out, because your feet are going to feel awfully heavy 48 minutes from now." This after SA spent all week showering praise on OKC's two superstars, killing them with kindness as Tim Duncan once did to Steven Adams:
Thunder beware: Tim Duncan will be really nice to you, then dominate you. https://t.co/mtiPGloszZ— SB Nation (@SBNation) April 29, 2016
We all know Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will each have big games in this series, as everyone expects. And the Oklahoma Optimists Club will perhaps point to the fact that SA ran away with home games early in both the 2012 and 2014 WCF (game 2 in 2014 was a 112-77 bloodbath in which Durant and Westbrook combined to shoot 13-40 for 30 points - tonight they combined for 30 on 11-34 shooting). The script eventually flipped in those series, at least temporarily. "Every game is a playoff series of its own," Green said after Saturday's devastation. In the postseason, you're only as good as your last trip down the floor, and no one at all would be surprised if the Spurs return to Earth enough to keep things interesting in game 2. But interesting, close games are not an area in which Thunder have thrived this season. And nerves aside, OKC has personnel problems, as I'll let these guys explain:
Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters, Randy Foe, Kyle Singler: 35 minutes, 0 points.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 1, 2016
Donovan mentioned Thunder spacing wrong allowed SA to congest the middle. Problem though, they don’t have many high % 3PT shooters.— Paul Garcia PS (@PaulGarciaPS) May 1, 2016
Beyond their Big 2, who on the Thunder will fight back before the series gets out of hand? Granted, the four mentioned by Haberstroh didn't finish the game with 0 points, thanks to an entire half of garbage time. Serge Ibaka scored 19, mostly on jumpers, but got Dream Shook by Aldridge and generally continued his season of relative malaise as OKC's defacto third option. Remember in 2014 when it looked the Spurs were having waking Ibaka nightmares every time they thought about venturing into the paint? Ancient history, thanks to a Cory Joseph dunk and - with apologies to quatrogenarian Timmy D - the acquisition of a stud big man of their own.
So sure, not many first quarters will end with the Spurs on pace for 172 points, and the lane won't always look like the Bermuda Triangle to Oklahoma City. But the Spurs' effort is repeatable, and the Thunder's propensity toward frustration when shots aren't falling isn't going anywhere. And despite what might have happened in the Dallas series, OKC hasn't yet solved a fourth quarter bugaboo that practically requires them to have a 20 point second half lead in order to ensure victory. Who knows, in one or two games this series they might actually get there; the Spurs are capable of laying eggs, too. But as Jack Winter put it in this amazing series writeup for Dime, the Thunder no longer have something the Spurs lack. Aldridge and Leonard give the Spurs the ability to match OKC's two stars on the offensive end, without giving up anything on defense. The matchup may look similar on paper, but the combatants have changed in the last two years.
As for Green? If he keeps shooting like this, it's goodnight Thunder. And maybe curtains for the rest of the league, as well.
Game Day Vibes pic.twitter.com/e27MjOA8N9— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) April 30, 2016
Tim Duncan on Spurs' approach to defending Westbrook. I think we can all read between the lines: pic.twitter.com/ReoYP4u7FX— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 29, 2016
Really digging the Spurs t-shirt giveaway for Game 1. pic.twitter.com/qPAWeQr8pG— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) April 30, 2016
Good thing Westbrook showed up wearing a hospital gown tonight.— Gregory Popovich (@FakeCoachPop) May 1, 2016
If you thought the night wasn't going to get any uglier for OKC you were wrong pic.twitter.com/M1E7NKZ42k— Bruno Passos (@BrunoP_PtR) May 1, 2016
First Quarter Score: pic.twitter.com/UyiEaGaVxX— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) May 1, 2016
Danny Green has blocked 3-pointers by Kevin Durant and Steph Curry this season.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 1, 2016
we may have to task the large hadron collider with finding OKC's pick and roll defense— ☕netw3rk (@netw3rk) May 1, 2016
Thing we've said all year: Spurs' offense will hit supernova when Danny Green shows up. He's 4 of 4 from 3-point range tonight.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 1, 2016
Billy Donovan’s second-quarter adjustment of fouling every 3-point shooter does not seem to be very effective.— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) May 1, 2016
Singler guarding Kawhi is like if a seat-filler had to give an Oscar speech— Eric Freeman (@freemaneric) May 1, 2016
Spurs’ defense is alien technology.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 1, 2016
This is just something else: Leonard and Aldridge have a combined 57 on 25-33 shooting. Thunder have 53 on 22-57. I can't get over this.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 1, 2016
When people refer to Spurs at "machine-like," I think abt the slew of machines I own that dont work anywhere near as well as the Spurs do.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 9, 2016
This would be the point in a middle school game when the parents of the losing team start calling the district office to file a complaint.— Ryan Nanni (@celebrityhottub) May 1, 2016
It's like the Thunder have never encountered the concept of cross-matching, and what it means for transition defense.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 1, 2016
I wonder if Pop is happy with the 39 point lead pic.twitter.com/oUVrdpmJOb— Project Spurs (@projectspurs) May 1, 2016
This marked the first time in the Gregg Popovich era that the Spurs led by 40 or more in a playoff game— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 1, 2016
Jeb Bush checking the score of the game on his Apple Watch: pic.twitter.com/mGX0Pz2u1q— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) May 1, 2016