Spurs 99, Thunder 96
Even without Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs are making up ground in the playoff race.
George Hill stepped into Parker's starring role and scored a career-high 27 points, and the Spurs overcame Kevin Durant's 45 to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 99-96 on Monday night and forge a tie between the teams for sixth place in the Western Conference standings.
``Every game right now is important and big,'' said Hill, who surpassed 20 points for the eighth time this season. ``The playoff race is close and we need every win that we can possibly (get) knowing that we have a tough stretch.
``And it gets even tougher coming up these next couple games. I think tonight was a great win, a great team win, and very much needed.''
The game could be a pivotal one in the race for playoff positioning in the Western Conference. The teams entered with only a game separating them in the standings, and each ends the season with a brutal schedule, facing 11 opponents with winning records in their final 14 games.
Next up for San Antonio: visits from the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers and East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Spurs have won 10 of 13 heading into the homestretch, despite playing without three-time All-Star Parker for the last nine games. That has thrust Hill, who cracked the starting lineup at midseason, into a bigger role in the backcourt alongside Manu Ginobili.
``Someone has to step up in that Tony Parker role,'' Hill said. ``We know it's going to take a team effort but if we get two guys to do it, then it's going to help us.''
Ginobili made two free throws with 32.8 seconds left to break a 96-all tie after the Thunder had scored the previous six points to tie it on Durant's 13-foot jumper. Russell Westbrook then turned the ball over by stepping on the sideline on his inbounds pass, but Serge Ibaka came up with a big stop to give Oklahoma City a chance for the win.
Ibaka, a rookie, swatted away Tim Duncan's layup try to give the Thunder a chance with 8.8 seconds left, but Thabo Sefolosha missed a 3-pointer from the left wing with 5 seconds remaining after he was left open because of a double-team against Durant.
``I was going to shoot a 3 and they doubled me. I definitely don't want to force anything in a game on a bad shot or a fadeaway out of bounds,'' Durant said. ``I trust Thabo. ... If it happens to me 1,000 more times, I'm going to make the same play every time.''
Ginobili then hit one of two free throws with 2.3 seconds left, and Westbrook couldn't connect on a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to tie it for the Thunder - who were out of timeouts.
Oklahoma City had a six-game home winning streak snapped and lost back-to-back games for the first time in a month. The Thunder were coming off a 121-101 loss at Indiana that Durant called a ``disgrace.''
``There's no moral victories but I'm proud of how we bounced back from not bringing anything last game to bringing that energy,'' said Durant, who matched his highest scoring output of the season and fell two points shy of tying his career best. ``It's something you've got to feel good about.''
Ginobili added 21 points, Duncan scored 14 and reserve Roger Mason Jr. had 13 points for San Antonio, which clinched a tiebreaker over the Thunder with a 3-1 advantage in the season series.
Jeff Green had 16 points, Westbrook 12 and Ibaka 10 for Oklahoma City. The Thunder built an early 14-point lead with a hefty advantage at the foul line but saw it evaporate less than 90 seconds into the second half.
Hill had 14 points in the third quarter, including two free throws and a three-point play in an 8-0 run that put the Spurs up 81-74.
``The last few games, he has been deferring the basketball,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ``We want him to be a killer.
``In the second half tonight, he did that. He was aggressive for us from a shooting standpoint and created a lot for us also.''
Durant kept the Thunder even for a while after starters Green and Westbrook headed to the bench with four fouls early in the second half. Durant scored Oklahoma City's next eight points, but then San Antonio put together an 8-0 run that featured back-to-back three-point plays by Hill and Matt Bonner to go up 81-74 late in the third quarter.
NOTES: Several Thunder players attended a Jay-Z concert in Indianapolis on Saturday night before Oklahoma City gave up its most points of the season in a 121-101 loss to the Pacers in a matinee game the following afternoon. But coach Scott Brooks said all the players were back at a reasonable hour and he doesn't enforce a firm curfew. ``I trust our guys. They've given me no reason not to trust them,'' Brooks said. ``Our guys are very professional and they really take their jobs serious and they have a lot of pride in our team. If it ever became a problem, which I don't see it, then I would address it. But no issues with that whatsoever.'' ... Oklahoma City finished 28 for 32 at the foul line.