OKLAHOMA CITY – Thunder coach Scott Brooks has had a lot of coaching success with Oklahoma City.
But his signature move has always been his ability to answer dozens of different questions exactly the same way. So when he was asked about the importance of Thursday’s game against the Spurs, the importance of home court advantage and the idea of catching San Antonio at the top of the Western Conference standings, he stayed consistent. No need to switch things up.
No, Brooks said. The focus of the game was not standing related. Yes, it was about getting better every game.
If Brooks wants to sell that kind of crazy this late in the season, he can. Doesn’t mean anyone has to to buy it.
Because if this game wasn’t about all about No. 1, it should have been.
And if this game wasn’t all about getting even with the Spurs in the loss column, it sure was hard to tell. Because it felt like it in the 100-88 victory.
Russell Westbrook had a dunk on the first Thunder possession of the game, Derek Fisher looked like his 2002 self and Oklahoma City played with a “Win or go home,” mentality when they were up by as many as 20 and played angrier when the lead slipped to just three with less than 6 minutes left.
So, the Thunder didn’t need home court to beat the Spurs last year in the Western Conference Finals. This year, they do. They’re not the same team that created shots with James Harden joining Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as a viable option. There’s a heavier reliance on jump shots this year and there’s a higher degree of expectation. Anything less than a Western Conference championship will seem like a grand disappointment.
But it’s hard to argue the results from Thursday, and it’s not time to punch holes in and through this win that brings the Thunder to within a half-game of the Spurs and even in the loss column.
The Thunder played like they needed this game, way more than the Spurs. And they needed it because sometimes jump shots just don’t fall on the road like they do at home – like they did Thursday when Derek Fisher made four 3-pointers the first four times he touched the ball in the first half, and five for the game, the most he’s made since 2009.
“That hurt us big time,” San Antonio’s Tim Duncan said of Fisher’s turn-the-clock-back performance. “You’ve got a game plan for everything, but when you have somebody go off like that and score that many points you don’t count on it. He got away from us.”
And sometimes you don’t get the benefit of playing a Spurs team that didn’t have Manu Ginobili, didn’t have Stephen Jackson and played an obviously banged-up Tony Parker just 25 minutes. The Spurs were on the second night of a back-to-back and playing their fourth game since the well-rested Thunder had even suited up.
And often times you don’t make 12-of-24 3-pointers while only getting to the free throw line 13 times.
Thursday the Thunder got all of those things and mixed it together for a satisfying win. And now with just seven games to go in the regular season, the Thunder are in control. Win and they’re the top seed, an accomplishment they’ve never achieved since coming to Oklahoma City.
Fisher scored 17 points on six-of-eight shooting and became that third scorer who will be necessary come playoff time. Westbrook had 27 and Durant had 25. Count on Durant and Westbrook. Past that, who knows, that’s why a victory over the Spurs has to be savored and massaged into something bigger.
So, don’t say this one didn’t matter any more than the rest. Don’t, because why else was Brooks out of his seat, nipping at the refs less than 3 minutes into the game? Maybe because he knows that in the four games this season against the Spurs, the Thunder won two at home and lost two on the road. Last year, in the Western Conference Final between the two teams, five of the six wins came by way of the home team. No one wants to play a Game Seven on the road, not when you have a chance to avoid that situation before it even possibly comes to pass.
“The energy was great,” Brooks said. “Our fans thought it was a playoff game. They were in it. Our guys love playing here. If you don’t get excited about playing here, you should stop playing. That was a big part of our start. It’s always play to win. You’re focused on putting yourself in position to win. You have 82 games to play your best.”
And one last shot in the regular season to even the season series with the Spurs, which the Thunder did.
“It was a good win,” Westbrook said. “We are in a good position right now.”
Yeah, really good, because sometimes some wins mean more than others.