Thunder have a very big problem — and it needs fixing ASAP
After steamrolling an inferior Portland Trail Blazers team in the second round of the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs were finally supposed to face a stiff test against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. That challenge may still come as the series progresses, but Game 1 on Monday was largely lacking in drama as the Spurs exerted their dominance over the Thunder in a 122-105 rout at AT&T Center in San Antonio.
All night long, the Spurs exploited the absence of Thunder big man Serge Ibaka, as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were forced to try to do a little too much in the second half of OKC’s first loss to San Antonio since March of last year.
There’s still plenty of time for the Thunder to regain their footing, and it would be a surprise, if not a shock, to see this series play out like Spurs-Blazers did last week. But the Spurs are distancing themselves from that first-round nail-biter against Dallas more and more with each passing game, and right now, they’re looking every bit like the West’s surest bet to dethrone the Miami Heat as champions.
Spurs lead 1-0
Takeaway: Offensively, there was little the Spurs couldn’t do with ease against Oklahoma City in Game 1. San Antonio had its most efficient offensive performance of the playoffs by far in the win, shooting 57.5 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from long distance — the latter figure coming despite going 0 for 5 on corner 3s. Twenty-five of the Spurs’ 50 total baskets came from inside the restricted area, where they shot 86.2 percent, compared to just 12 baskets from inside the restricted circle on 54.5-percent shooting by the Thunder. And there were virtually no weak links for San Antonio, which saw every player who took a shot make them at a clip of 42.9 percent or better, with just two players posting a mark below 50.
It wasn’t just that the Spurs won that was the problem for OKC, but rather how simple they made it all look against an incredibly talented Thunder team that looked discombobulated all night. And even when they did face what little adversity the Thunder offered up, the Spurs regrouped quickly, finding the hot hand to help put the game out of reach. After falling behind by as many as 15 points in the first half Monday, Oklahoma City actually battled back and briefly took the lead at 76-75 on a Westbrook jumper with 5:09 left in the third. But from that point on, San Antonio followed the lead of Manu Ginobili (15 points on 6-of-7 shooting over the game’s final 17 minutes) and shot 64.7 percent from the floor as a team in that span.
Star Review: You want proof that the Thunder missed big man Serge Ibaka on Monday? Look no further than San Antonio’s scoring in the paint. In four regular-season losses to OKC this year, the Spurs averaged just 41.5 points in the paint per game. In Game 1, however, the Spurs had 40 points in the paint by the half and finished the game with 66. That dominant first half inside came in large part because of the play of the ageless Tim Duncan, who made quick work of anyone the Thunder threw at him defensively and scored 21 of his 27 points in the first half on 9-of-12 shooting, including a perfect 8-of-8 on shots at the rim. In the second half, Duncan ceded control to Ginobili (18 points) and Danny Green (16 points, 6-of-7 shooting, 4 of 5 from 3), and of course, Tony Parker (14 points, 12 assists) and Kawhi Leonard (16 points, six rebounds) did their part, too. But ultimately, OKC’s struggles defending Duncan were the origin of their difficulties stopping anyone else.
As for the Oklahoma City offense, it was again forced to be too reliant on the play of Durant (28 points, 10-of-19 shooting) and Westbrook (25 points, 9 of 21). Those two played well in their own right, but got little help from the rest of the starting lineup, which accounted for just five points on 2-of-10 shooting. After their team fell behind by as many as 15 in the first half and took an eight-point deficit into the break, Westbrook and Durant combined to score 24 of first 26 second-half points for the Thunder, but that kind of dependence on their two stars — talented as they are — just wasn’t tenable for the duration of the game. Reggie Jackson continued his outstanding play against the Spurs this season with 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but they’re going to need more from him (and just about everyone else) if coach Scott Brooks can’t devise a way to at least contain San Antonio inside.
Looking Ahead: Game 2, at San Antonio, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET
What To Look For: If there’s a bright side for the Thunder after Monday’s loss, it’s that they should be kind of used to this by now. Oklahoma City now has faced a Game 1 on the road four times since moving from Seattle, and the Thunder were on the losing end of each of those games. (In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1992 first round against Golden State to find a Game 1 win on the road by the Sonics/Thunder franchise.) The Thunder went on to lose two of those series, falling to the Lakers in six games in the 2010 first round and the Mavs in five in the 2011 conference finals, but in the 2012 conference finals against these same Spurs, OKC climbed out of a 2-0 hole to advance to the NBA Finals. Now, what does that have to do, directly, with this series? Admittedly, not much. But that comeback certainly will be a talking point for the Thunder and their fans as they attempt to convince themselves that Game 1 wasn’t a bad omen.
As for some practical tips for keeping this series competitive? It’s got to start in the middle. Ibaka isn’t coming back, barring some sort of miracle, so the Thunder will have to make lemonade. Nick Collison didn’t really get a fair shake at guarding Duncan in Game 1, playing just 15 minutes in a starting role, so perhaps Brooks will try to rely more on Collison in Game 2 — because the “small” lineup of Westbrook, Jackson, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Durant (which played seven minutes together and watched San Antonio shoot 66.7 percent in that span) is not going to win them this series. In addition, the Thunder will need a much better effort out of Thabo Sefolosha, who played 15 ineffective minutes Monday, and if they can’t get it, maybe it’s time they shift Jackson, a headache for San Antonio all season, into a starting role. OKC was at its best offensively with Jackson, Durant and Westbrook on the floor together, shooting 57.7 percent in those 17 minutes. And while they won’t stand a chance if they can’t get their defensive affairs in order, the Thunder certainly could benefit from a more fluid offensive effort in the meantime.