By Rob Mahoney
The Thunder and the Spurs aren't merely rival powers in the competitive Western Conference, but fitting foils in their stylistic contrast.
Oklahoma City relies heavily on the fundamental talent and versatility of its central stars, and complements that pair with shot-blocking, spot shooting and screen-setting. San Antonio does more or less the same, albeit through very different means. Rather than derive value so directly from the individual shot-creating abilities of two incredible players, the Spurs channel their offense through a series of basic principles and choreographed movement. Neither approach is perfect, and it's fascinating to watch the quality players on both sides find flaws in one another.
Yet on this particular occasion, it was the Spurs -- undermanned though they were -- who got the best of the Thunder. After fighting through a competitive game, San Antonio used its depth to create some leverage late, and eventually rode out a 105-93 victory Monday night in the wake of an even larger lead.
• This Spurs team is awfully good. Tim Duncan (13 points, eight rebounds) turned in a merely decent performance, Manu Ginobili (12 points, four rebounds, four assists) was helpful but hardly himself, and Tony Parker was absent entirely as he recovers from a sprained ankle. Yet none of that prevented the Spurs from biding their time and gradually building up an 18-point lead against one of the best teams in the NBA. A few periodic runs were all that was needed to give San Antonio a nice advantage and some room to work with, as a balanced offensive effort was validated by the six Spurs who scored in double figures. Tops among them was Tiago Splitter (21 points, 10 rebounds, three assists), who did most of his damage as an off-ball cutter. San Antonio's spacing creates lanes aplenty for any player willing to dash through the middle of the paint, and Splitter was able to act as a consistent source of scoring based on that opportunism.
It's on occasions like these that the Spurs' offense truly validates its mystique, but there's also something to be said for the types of players that San Antonio acquires and the way in which Gregg Popovich constructs his lineups. That players like Splitter are able to go off for big performances isn't a testament to the value of some static system, but a credit to Popovich for putting the right players -- and in this case, the right passers -- in a position to facilitate the flow of a cogent offense. Splitter didn't just have the space to jet toward the hoop, after all, but had the necessary playmaking support to get the ball at the right times. No one player is responsible for that factor, as evidenced by the Spurs' glut of notable assist-men. Ginobili (4 assists), Danny Green (5), Gary Neal (6), Boris Diaw (3) and Splitter himself (3) each made for fitting instruments of San Antonio's unselfish style, and in the process anchored a notable win over another Western Conference contender.
• Oklahoma City led or remained close for the majority of this game, but there was an early tell that the slightest variable could trip up the Thunder offense. Scoring efficiently wasn't exactly a problem for OKC, but the overall output obscured some specific half-court failings. Transition points helped boost the overall scoring marks, as they are ought to do. Offensive rebounds, too, helped to extend possessions that should have been lost. The Thunder also helped their cause by earning 24 free throw attempts -- a fairly typical number for a team that draws contact and challenges opposing defenses so effectively. It was through this three-pronged support system that OKC was able to hide the fact that they just weren't shooting all that effectively on this particular occasion; no member of the Thunder rotation was able to catch any kind of offensive groove, with even the prolific Kevin Durant (26 points, six rebounds, five assists, five turnovers) and Russell Westbrook (25 points, six rebounds, six assists, four turnovers combining to shoot a mediocre 18-for-40 from the field. That isn't the kind of mark that would doom the Thunder in itself, but with no other player stepping up to carry the scoring burden, OKC left itself vulnerable to a brutal run when those transition, second-chance, and free-throw opportunities dried up.
And inevitably, they did. The Spurs used sizable offensive runs in the mid-second and early-fourth quarters to close a gap and, later, bulk up their lead, in part because the Thunder's supplementary scoring vanished in an instant. Typically, Durant and Westbrook alone are enough to guarantee quality possessions and high-value shot attempts. But on Monday night, neither star could provide the spark that OKC needed to sustain itself. The Thunder were still able to linger on the game's margins and claw back to make the final score respectable, but the Spurs guarded well, good shots bounced the other way and an offensive juggernaut was reduced to a cast of hopeful jump-shooters. • Spurs reserve Cory Joseph isn't exactly setting the world ablaze while filling in for the injured Parker, but he also hasn't let San Antonio's offense burn to the ground in the absence of its full-time custodian. Parker is the impetus for so many of the Spurs' play actions, and Joseph is both too raw and too limited a player to be even a fair Parker facsimile. Instead, he operates within San Antonio's offense as he can, and largely defers to Ginobili, Neal and Green to do the majority of the ball-handling. Joseph still winds up having to create in spots, and he's proven very capable of making the right reads off the bounce in select situations. He needs a bit more progress along the developmental curve before he's ready to actually initiate an offense, but that he's a viable NBA player is impressive in itself given that Joseph has bounced back and forth between San Antonio and the Spurs' D-League affiliate in Austin.