Friday December 26th, 2014

Neither the Spurs nor the Thunder were in particularly fine form for their Christmas Day showcase. Absent was the league’s reigning MVP Kevin Durant, sidelined by an ankle injury, and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, nursing a hand injury. Those left in the lineup made enough uncharacteristic mistakes to remind all watching of how far these teams have yet to go. An April mid-series classic this was not. 

Yet by the very nature of this matchup, San Antonio and Oklahoma City streaked and sputtered their way to an entertaining and relatively even bout. There may be no better game this Christmas than this one waged between two Western Conference powerhouses staggering about in unusual circumstances. The Thunder acclimated themselves more capably. Even without Durant’s help, Russell Westbrook propelled Oklahoma City to a 114-106 victory with a late punch of hard driving. While Westbrook didn’t score in the last 4:20, the Thunder become an impossible cover when his pushes to the rim yield a perfectly timed kick-out and ensuing swing pass. Westbrook triggered the Spurs’ defense into rotations it couldn’t seem to finish, resulting in open perimeter looks the Thunder accepted gratefully.

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Westbrook still found time to chip in 34 points on 28 shots over the course of the day, along with 11 assists, five rebounds and five steals to punctuate his stat line. That output made it easy to forget that Westbrook began the game by missing seven of his first eight shots -- several of which came in the same, over-aggressive fashion for which Westbrook is often criticized. To hold his team over, Westbrook made smart gambles and hustle rebounds. Then, in time, the Thunder star honed his forceful play to a point, piercing whatever perimeter defense he encountered. Westbrook scored in spurts but his presence was felt virtually throughout.

VIDEO: Highlights of the Thunder's Christmas Day win over the Spurs

Otherwise Oklahoma City seemed to lose sight of the details in its play, whether by fouling a San Antonio three-point shooter for no reason whatsoever or limping through sets without creating much separation. Some of the Thunder’s faults could easily be traced back to their having one superstar available instead of two. Others, though, went beyond Durant’s shadow to reflect the funky rhythm some contenders find themselves in at this stage in the season. In this particular game, the catalytic play of Westbrook and Steven Adams (who posted an efficient 16 points, grabbed seven offensive rebounds en route to 15 overall and played near-perfect defense on Tim Duncan) was enough to beat the defending champions.

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Photos: NBA Christmas Day sneakers

This, more than anything, is what makes the Thunder so terrifying: They can shoot 52 percent from the field without their best player against one of the better team defenses in the league and leave the striking impression they could be doing even better. No team in the West should want any part of Oklahoma City come playoff time. The prospect of wrangling a team this explosive over seven games is daunting. That the Thunder makes this evident even without Durant in the lineup bodes well for their potential this season.

San Antonio is ultimately in a similar position, albeit in different form given that Leonard is a very different player from Durant. The Spurs haven’t wanted for firepower in Leonard’s absence, though some element of their proven formula has run amiss this season. Injuries to Leonard, Tony Parker, and Tiago Splitter have all complicated the reflection of San Antonio’s play thus far. Gregg Popovich, however, shockingly finds no room for excuses in his team’s sloppier performances. Thursday was no exception.

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“The sad part is that Tim Duncan comes out and plays every night and he can’t find a group around him to consistently compete and execute,” Popovich said, via the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s got nothing to do with schedule, or injuries, or anything like that. The same mistakes over and over again. Tim’s got to live with them like we do, the coaches, and it gets old. Tonight was a good example of that. They wanted the basketball game and we floated around as if we’re entitled, so that was disappointing.” 

Popovich’s stern judgment was rooted in observable truth. Teams that rebound as well as the Spurs typically do don’t surrender 16 offensive boards without some deficiency in play. Ditto for an effective defense sending Oklahoma City to the free-throw line 38 times. In many cases, this was due to a failure to guard at the top of a possession or because of some delay in help. These weren’t the marks of the world-beating Spurs that played into June last season. Worse yet: Popovich knows another deep postseason run will require San Antonio to be even better than the standard it set a year ago. That much is mandatory with so many quality contenders looming in the West, not least of all a Thunder team that could wind up a first-round opponent rather than a deeper draw.

• STAFF: Check out all of the best sneakers from NBA Christmas Day

Regardless of the timing, one can only hope these two teams find one another for an extended engagement at some later date. The full-speed Spurs are a marvel of engineering, the full-speed Thunder a force of nature. Together they’re a cataclysm – less a mere matchup within the Western Conference landscape than an event upon it.

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