Spurs’ savvy too much for Thunder

GAME TIME: Spurs 99, Thunder 96

This was nothing less than a generational battle pitting Oklahoma City’s young legs against San Antonio’s old heads. Since both teams were on the long end of back-to-back games, the Thunder’s youthful recuperative powers constituted a considerable advantage out of the gate.

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant faced minimum opposition as they drove the ball into the lane. Durant’s pull-ups and surprisingly strong attacks on the rim were also virtually unstoppable — he eventually scored 45 points on 15-for-24 shooting.

Unguarded baseline cutters were the recipients of several assist passes as the Spurs’ defense desperately collapsed around OKC’s quick-stepping penetrators. The home team’s high screen/rolls likewise generated good looks for all concerned.

The ball zipped around the Thunder’s attack zone with such speed and unselfishness that the Spurs were both flat-footed and confused. On one second-quarter sequence, Durant received a handoff and found himself alone as two defenders wound up guarding the passer. KD easily nailed the resulting three-pointer.

Meanwhile, the visitors moved as if they were playing in deep sand. Tim Duncan lacked even a hint of explosive thrust off the floor — the result of several nagging leg injuries, but also of his rapidly approaching 34th birthday.

Antonio McDyess and his 35-year-old legs set a few screens, missed more shots than he made (two of five) and was at least a step behind too many plays.

The Spurs’ bigs were so slow that they rarely came down with clean defensive rebounds. Plus, their two shot blocks (one each by Duncan and DeJuan Blair) occurred only when the ball was heedlessly driven directly into their respective chests.

Richard Jefferson played like the oldest 29-year-old in the history of the league. Not only did Durant eat his lunch, but RJ also didn’t score until late in the last quarter.

Only George Hill (24) and the ageless Manu Ginobili (32-plus) could keep up with OKC’s speedsters.

No wonder the Thunder ran up a 14-point lead midway through the second quarter.

At that point, it certainly seemed youth would prevail and the Spurs’ chances to overtake the Thunder and grab the sixth playoff seed would die a natural death. Hey, hadn’t San Antonio yielded 21 offensive rebounds in losing a hard-fought overtime game the night before in Atlanta? And weren’t the Spurs dull and listless in their last night-after-the-night-before game (against Orlando) less than a week ago?

Now was the time for the aging Spurs to peacefully give up the ghost and let the young’uns have their chance at glory.

But that’s not what happened.

Roger Mason came off the Spurs’ bench and at least partially redeemed his miserable season by knocking down a series of jumpers that sparked a modest comeback.

Duncan might have lost a half-step, but he took maximum advantage of OKC’s double teams by finding open shooters with pinpoint inside-out passes. And TD’s forceful screens single-handedly created shooting space and driving lanes for his teammates. Also, he was the beneficiary of his 12 All-Star seasons when the refs let him get away with a pair of blatant offensive fouls.

Ginobili somehow found a way to take his left hand to the rim. Moreover, strictly on hustle and anticipation, he came up with a couple of extremely significant steals in crunch time.

Hill nailed a couple of treys, several pull-up jumpers, and even made a bunch of complicated layups in heavy traffic.

Late in the game, Duncan and Hill successfully collaborated on the oldest play in the books — a give-and-go. Shortly thereafter, Hill executed a textbook backdoor cut and was fouled after he received a pass from Duncan. Basic, fundamental, even old-fashioned basketball.

Even so, as the game raced to the final buzzer, it looked for a while as though the Spurs were running out of gas: Ginobili missed a right-handed layup, and for an encore he missed a lefty layup. Duncan couldn’t get a potentially game-clinching shot away against Serge Ibaka’s tenacious defense — and failed to register a point in the fourth. Jefferson committed a charging foul when he foolishly tried to blast past Ibaka’s sturdy defense.

At the same time, the young men in the white uniforms fell victim to their own inexperience.

• The ball and the players stopped moving on offense.

• Several too-quick shots were launched (and missed) by Jeff Green, Eric Maynor and Westbrook.

• Ibaka, who played magnificent defense against Duncan, was called for a moving screen that nullified what would have been a critical bucket by Eric Maynor.

• With the Spurs leading by a deuce and only 32.8 seconds left on the game clock, Westbrook botched an attempt to inbound the ball by stepping on the sideline.

The old-timers roused themselves to hold off the younger generation, pull into a tie with the Thunder for the sixth seed in the West and claim the tie-breaker by winning the series, three games to one.

In the game at hand, resourcefulness, perseverance and a patience born of experience trumped youthful impatience, poor decision-making and lack of concentration. Even so, the Spurs don’t dare look back, because both the Thunder and Father Time are nipping at their heels.

If you have a question or comment for Charley Rosen, please email charleyrosen@gmail.com and he may respond in a future column.