Thoroughly bebopped

Nobody is expecting much from the just-out-of-blankies Utah Jazz this season. Still, they’d won four of six preseason games before wandering into Oklahoma City, and all five Jazz starters rolled up double figures well before the official beginning of garbage time, inside the four-minute mark. (Enes Kanter led everyone with 27 points.) It’s a situation we’ve seen before: the Thunder can defend, but they foul. They foul a lot. Utah took 41 foul shots, more than two-thirds of them in the first half, collecting 30 points. (OKC attempted 26, made 13.) And scoring is intermittent at best: the Thunder managed to hit ten of 22 three-point shots, but managed only four fast-break points all night. So the Jazz walk away with a 105-91 win — the seventh time out of seven OKC gives up a triple-digit score — and we get to wonder Wha’Hoppen?

It wasn’t all dross, of course: no game in which Nick Collison can make two treys can be considered a total loss, and training-camp invitee Michael Jenkins managed to create a +10 for the night without making a shot. What’s more, Perry Jones came up with 20 points despite bricking five free throws. Anthony Morrow is calm and collected and occasionally accurate; Serge Ibaka is starting to look like the Serge Protector of old. And Russell Westbrook (14 points, 11 assists) pitched no hissy fits.

Still, from about five minutes in, the Jazz looked like they owned the place, and since they have to come back twice more during the regular season — did I mention this was a preseason game? — well, this can’t be allowed to stand, especially if the Jazz are supposed to suck. Meanwhile, we look forward to the first regular-season game, a week from tomorrow, in the Rose Garden Moda Center.


All Wolves, all the time

Well, not all the time: briefly in the first quarter, the Thunder, still suffering Roster Depletion Syndrome, managed to claim the lead. It was straight down the slope after that, with Minnesota up 23-19 after the first, 49-40 at the half, 82-68 after three, and 112-94 when it was all over.

Today’s version of a starting five: Westbrook, Roberson, Morrow, Ibaka, Adams. They looked … okay, but not much better than that. The bench got a little better as time wore on, but not enough to make a serious dent in the Wolves’ lead. Your Telltale Statistic: Five Minnesota reserves scored in double figures. Thunder? One: Perry Jones, with 21, admittedly a game high. And a couple more numbers jumped out at me: Minnesota pulled off 17 steals, and the Thunder coughed the ball up six times more on their own, while the Wolves suffered only eight turnovers, two steals among them. Anthony Morrow clanked all five of his trey attempts, though he was 5-8 from closer in. And while the Thunder’s shooting has improved a tad, 41 percent is not going to win many games. Still, they did go after the rebounds, and retrieved 50 of them. It’s just that they didn’t turn many of them into actual points.

Tuesday night, the Jazz come to town for the last preseason game. For what it’s worth, Kendrick Perkins did make the trip to Tulsa, so maybe there’s a chance he’ll be able to snarl at the Utahns. At this point, you’ll take any positive signs you can get, and by “you” I mean me.


Prototype birds of prey

Far be it from me to proclaim a disaster in the wake of Oklahoma City’s ongoing Durantlessness, but the Toronto Raptors, a perennial thorn in the Thunder’s side, managed to open several wounds at once tonight in beautiful downtown Wichita: the 37-17 second quarter reflected both OKC’s depleted state and Toronto’s knack for coming up with timely streaks. And if DeMar DeRozen was less of a DeStroyer than usual, his fellow sauri more than took up the slack, with Terrence Ross leading all scorers with 22 and four other Raptors (besides DeRozen) in double figures. They didn’t play a whole lot of defense, but they didn’t have to, with OKC once again shooting below 40 percent and accumulating fouls like Pac-Man swallowing dots: Steven Adams fouled out in 24 minutes; Jeremy Lamb fouled out in 18 minutes; Andre Roberson played most of the fourth quarter with five fouls, yet somehow wound up with a double-double. The return of Russell Westbrook was most welcome, and Serge Ibaka appeared for limited minutes, but with this game actually on television, it was possible to see the forlorn “What do we do now?” look on several Thunder faces. Or maybe it’s sweat, or just my imagination. But Toronto administered a thrashing so thorough — the 109-90 count is deceptively close — that I have to figure the Thunder is spooked. Possible Telltale Statistic: OKC missed 11 of 30 free throws. Perry Jones, all by his lonesome, missed seven of them.

Then again, there were 11 players available tonight, up from nine last night in New Orleans. On that point, at least, the Thunder is improving. But the defense is creaky, and the offense needs to pick up several ticks before they can claim to be creaky: Anthony Morrow, good as he is, is not going to shoot OKC out of its woes. Next round: Sunday evening in Tulsa, against the Timberwolves.

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Birds of prey

And so Russell Westbrook was given the night off, and the Thunder showed up in the Big Easy with a total of nine players. On the upside, we got a hint of Sebastian Telfair’s point-guard suss, which after ten years is still pretty sharp. Unfortunately, he hasn’t quite adjusted to the OKC system, assuming a system can even exist when you show up with only nine players. The Pelicans blew out the Thunder 36-18 in the first quarter, and sustained a lead about that wide for the next 36 minutes, giving radio guy Matt Pinto’s deadpan announcement of 8:20 remaining in regulation a veneer of purest Hail Mary: did anyone really think this was going into overtime? New Orleans 120, Oklahoma City 86, and suddenly a 44-minute game seemed desirable, and a 34-minute game perhaps more so.

The Pelicans had several things going for them beyond merely having bench players to spare. Anthony Davis put in a 26-minute night and collected 28 points for his effort; Omer Asik did a pretty good job of keeping Steven Adams off the rim, though the Kiwi still managed 12 points; the Beaks overall shot 50 percent pretty much all night, when they weren’t shooting 60 percent. (They finished at 55.) Next to these feats, the Thunder’s apparent allergic reaction to the rim seems almost understandable, though 39 percent will get them a tongue-lashing from Foreman Scotty on the road to, um, Wichita, where the Toronto Raptors will meet them more than halfway tomorrow night. In the meantime, we take comfort in Jeremy Lamb’s 20 points, though it took him 42 minutes to do it.


Anonymous bears

Dave Joerger, noting that it is, after all, still the preseason, decided to stick with his second string tonight: no Gasol, no Conley, no Z-Bo, no Tony Allen. Not even Tayshaun Prince. Considering that half the Thunder roster is hors de combat, it’s hard to fault Joerger. And the Griz did pretty good in that first quarter, leading 32-23 after twelve. Meanwhile, Scott Brooks’ current version of the Starting Five of Frankenstein — Perry Jones III and Lance Jones up front, Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson on the wings, Steven Adams in the middle — took a good while to get warmed up, but were fairly awesome when they did: see, for instance, Adams’ 14 points in the second quarter. OKC 60, Memphis 59 at the half, and the redemption of Jeremy Lamb, who came back to life in the second half, brought the Thunder to its second win in Before It Counts, 117-107.

Lamb, in fact, had 23 points, Adams 22, and five others in double figures. (Westbrook had the game’s only double-double: 14 points, 12 assists.) Roberson, alas, continued the Thunder tradition of no actual shooting from the shooting guard, missing all four of his shots. Despite that, OKC shot 53 percent, and if you were wondering if Anthony Morrow would help in the absence of Kevin Durant, look at this line: 5-6 from the floor, 3-4 from outside, 6-6 from the stripe, for 19 points in just over 22 minutes.

Journeyman Quincy Pondexter, gone much of last year, evidently has spent some time working on his 3-ball: he made three of five to lead the Griz with 16 points. Newish guys Jordan Adams and Patrick Christopher carried much of the load towards the end. If Dave Joerger is saying “We do so have a bench,” well, we have to believe him.

Thursday night, it’s off to the Big Easy. Maybe Serge Ibaka will be back by then. Or maybe it won’t be a problem if he isn’t.


Close-order drill

The Thunder, who were shorthanded in Denver, were more so in Dallas, with Mitch McGary, wounded at the Nuggets game, out for six weeks, Sebastian Telfair out with something or other wrong with his ankle, and Reggie Jackson, after 17 minutes retired with a wrist injury. So former Europlayer Michael Jenkins wound up running the Thunder offense — no way was Russell Westbrook going to play in the second half — and Jenkins did a pretty decent job, with seven points and five assists. This is, after all, why one has a preseason, right? Fortunately, the shorthandedness went in both directions: Dallas was Dirkless for the evening, Monta Ellis was unwell, Raymond Felton was hurt early on, and Mavs-Thunder ended up as the usual see-saw, with OKC up by one with 1:33 left and gradually opening up that lead into a 9-point win, 118-109.

Things to note:

  • Anthony Morrow, who was hired as a long-distance sharpshooter, was pretty much that: 2-7 from inside the circle, 4-7 from outside of it.
  • After a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night at Denver, Jeremy Lamb recovered enough to come up with a double-double: 19 points, 11 rebounds. Guards, you may remember, don’t usually get 11 rebounds.
  • If they don’t pick up Talib Zanna and at least assign him to the 66ers Blue, I will be most disappointed.

There were 85 foul shots tonight, 45 by the Mavs (who made 32). Dallas also put up 36 treys, of which 11 actually hit. This is standard Maverick procedure, but it’s easier when you have the starters to work with.

First home game at OKC will involve the Grizzlies, on Tuesday. Fasten your safety belt.


Fair is foul, and fouls are fair

One does not expect flawless play action in the NBA preseason. The Nuggets, who’d already played one game, were a smidgen less sloppy, but only a smidgen. (And they’d lost that earlier game, to the Lakers in San Diego.) The Thunder started out minus four players due to injury — Jones, Ibaka, Collison and Perkins — so big guys were at a premium. Steven Adams, starting in the middle, knocked down seven of eight shots for 15 points to lead OKC; he also collected six fouls. We saw a lot of shots not going in: the Nuggets shot close to 60 percent, the Thunder less than 40. (You want to see a curious line? Jeremy Lamb was 9-10 from the foul line, 1-14 from anywhere else.) And the fouls! Fifty-eight of them, 32 by OKC. (Which means 26 from Denver.) The last OKC lead was four points, early in the fourth; Denver then ran off an 18-2 run to go up 12, and held on for a 114-101 win.

Timofey Mozgov led all the scorers with 20 points; Jusuf Nurkić demonstrated both rebounding (15 boards) and histrionic (quelle flop) talent. And since the Nuggets have only one preseason game at home — this one — it’s probably a good thing they got to show the home crowd some good stuff. As for the Thunder, well, if they’re back at full strength Friday at Dallas, maybe we can figure out something. I’m thinking, though, that the guys who came in for training camp — Lance Thomas, Michael Jenkins and Talib Zanna — really seem to be busting a nut for a roster spot, which is always a good sign.


Dropping Thabeet

Hasheem the Dream heads northeast:

The Thunder have traded Hasheem Thabeet, along with cash considerations, to the 76ers who absorb his contract into their cap space, creating a $1.25 million trade exception.

Why did the Thunder do this? With the emergence of Steven Adams, plus the addition of Mitch McGary, Thabeet [was] firmly the Thunder’s third center and nothing more than an insurance policy. His contract for next season was non-guaranteed ($1.2 million) and was likely to be waived in training camp anyway.

On the upside, if the Sixers keep him, he’s likely to see more time on the floor, if only because there’s likely to be a whole lot of garbage time, especially if Philly isn’t substantially improved from last season, “one of the most dismal in franchise history.”

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The new kids

Mitch McGary, the Thunder’s draft pick at #21, is as close as we have to a Known Factor in this year’s round of Prestidigitation: he’s basically Nick Collison, Jr. (He even wore #4 at Michigan, though he’s wearing #33 for Oklahoma City.) With Collison, Sr. now, um, 33 years old, the need for a new glue guy may have seemed pressing.

This may also explain Josh Huestis, taken at #29:’s draft-prospect analysis considers him to be the second coming of Thabo Sefolosha, what with the original version now a free agent.

And I have to figure that they wanted Semaj Christon pretty badly: Miami picked him at #55, traded him to Charlotte, and the Bobcats Hornets dealt him to the Thunder for a wad of cash of unknown size. Is Christon destined to be the third-string point guard? All I know about him, other than the fact that he played two years for Xavier, is that his first name is “James” spelled backwards.

What everyone really wants to know, of course, is whether Sam Presti has trades on his mind. I was thinking he’d go after the Cavs’ C. J. Miles again. (The Thunder signed Miles to an offer sheet when he was a restricted free agent at Utah; the Jazz, however, matched the offer and kept him.) Miles, however, has been embraced by the Pacers.

Note: Several edits as events got ahead of text.

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And it’s spiked

Early in the fourth quarter, Sports Illustrated jumped the gun just a hair:

With four minutes remaining, the Thunder had closed the gap to two points — 93-91 — but didn’t get any closer until the last minute, when Serge Ibaka blocked a Tim Duncan layup, Kevin Durant dropped in a pair of free throws to tie it at 97, Ibaka then blocked a Manu Ginobili layup, and Durant knocked one down from just off the rim to put OKC up 99-97. Ginobili then sank a trey to give the Spurs a 100-99 lead; the Thunder turned it over; Manu got one of two free throws; Russell Westbrook hit two of them to tie it at 101; Ginobili went for the last shot and didn’t get it. Five blowouts in this series, and finally a game went overtime.

And then, of course, it all went to pieces. Halfway through the overtime, Westbrook slammed down a layup for a one-point Thunder lead; sphinxlike Tim Duncan got the next four points to put the Spurs up three with 19 seconds left, and Boris Diaw added two more to ice the deal. San Antonio 112, Oklahoma City 107, and that’s it: Spurs in six, and the dubious privilege of facing the Miami Heat (again!) in the Finals.

There are several Telltale Statistics to choose from, but I’m going for the most obvious one: the Spurs bench scored 51 points, the Thunder bench five — all from Derek Fisher, no less. To some extent, this was to be expected: when the chips are down, OKC relies on the superstars to carry the load, and Fisher took only four shots in 33 minutes, hitting two. Still, we saw only 12 minutes of Steven Adams (two rebounds, no blocks) and six of Jeremy Lamb (one assist, one steal). Even the absence of Tony Parker, who left the game in the second quarter due to an ankle injury, should have provided at least some kind of opening for these guys. The heroes did what they could: Westbrook punched in 34 points (some of them literally, it looked like), Durant 31, Reggie Jackson 21, Ibaka 16.

And despite all that, the Thunder actually outshot the Spurs, 42 percent to 40, and went 29-33 from the line. (The Spurs were 25-34 on freebies.) Neither side was particularly proficient from outside: 62 treys were put up, and only 19 made. San Antonio had a small edge on the boards — 49-45 — until you look a little closer and see that the Spurs scraped 16 of them off the offensive glass. And that’s what they did best tonight: wangle second chances, while the Thunder were too often one-and-done. Diaw, expected by no one to be a major factor in this series, continued to be a major factor in this series, leading the Spurs with 26; Duncan had 19, Kawhi Leonard 17, Ginobili 15.

So it’s “Wait ’til next year” time once again. And Dr. Pants says it best:


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And it all goes south

Very little went right for the Thunder tonight, and the most visible sign of that might have been just inside the 2:00 mark in the third quarter, with San Antonio up 17, when Kevin Durant drew a foul from Manu Ginobili, and missed both free throws. If desperation hadn’t set in before that, it certainly did afterwards: at the end of the third the Spurs were up 20, and things would only get worse. Pop, always experimenting, had started Matt Bonner in the middle in place of Tiago Splitter, and sent Kawhi Leonard out to pester Russell Westbrook. After a 32-32 first quarter, Pop decided none of this was working, posted Boris Diaw at center, and the Spurs could seemingly do no wrong thereafter: five minutes into the fourth quarter, San Antonio was up 30, the Thunder having scored a big two points in those five minutes. The final was 117-89, and the Spurs are within one game of the Finals.

All sorts of anomalies bedeviled the Thunder. Reggie Jackson, who scored 11 in the first quarter, went scoreless thereafter. OKC couldn’t rebound worth a flip: the Spurs owned the boards, 48-35. The Thunder couldn’t hit the long ball, going 6-24. (San Antonio was 13-26.) But take out those failed treys and Oklahoma City is shooting 51 percent, half a percentage point behind the Spurs. Perhaps worst of all, OKC was 13-20 from the stripe. (San Antonio made twice as many: 26 out of 30.) Still, Durant scored 25 and Westbrook 21, though no one else but Jackson hit double figures.) If there’s a moral victory here — hint: there isn’t — it’s that Bonner, vanishing after the first quarter but returning in the fourth, missed all four of his shots.

Meanwhile, Tim Duncan proved that he’s not too old to put up a double-double, scoring 22 and gathering 12 rebounds. Ginobili led the bench with 19; Leonard and Danny Green each had 14, Diaw 13 and Tony Parker 12. And if Pop didn’t get everything he wanted, he got the most important thing.

Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City. Will the Spurs wrap it up there? How many times have they won there recently? Exactly.

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Something resembling even

Gregg Popovich, we may assume, was not a happy man tonight. Just before the first half ended, he drew a technical; halfway through the third quarter, with the Spurs down twenty, he pulled his starters and turned the bench loose. If the Thunder read this as a white flag, they were sadly mistaken: over the next couple of minutes, OKC ran their lead to 27, but San Antonio cut that to 13 before the quarter was over, and attempts by the Thunder to leave the Spurs in the dust were at best marginally successful. Pop didn’t bring back any starters until halfway through the fourth. Was this a strategic move, or just an effort to “glare at some starters on the bench for a moment”? Pop isn’t talking. The Spurs pulled within twelve several times, but never got any closer: the Thunder won it 105-92, and it’s a 2-2 series.

Reggie Jackson, again starting at the two, sprained his ankle after three and a half minutes and was seen only sporadically the rest of the night. Russell Westbrook took up the slack. In fact, Westbrook took up just about everything, playing 45 minutes, scoring 40 points (12-24, 14-14 at the stripe), serving up 10 assists and executing five steals. And where he wasn’t, Kevin Durant usually was; KD knocked down 31 points in 41 minutes and collected five boards. (OKC had a narrow rebounding edge, 42-41; Kendrick Perkins snagged ten of ‘em.) The reserves didn’t score much, but they kept up the defensive pressure, and that was probably enough.

With the starting Spurs on the pine, Boris Diaw ended up with 30 minutes and 14 points, tied with Tony Parker for team-high, plus ten rebounds. Kawhi Leonard, assigned to hit the midrange jumpers and keep Durant at bay, wound up with 10 points (3-9) and Westbrook more or less constantly on his tail, freeing up KD. Tim Duncan finished with nine. But it may not be so much what the Spurs didn’t do but what the Thunder didn’t do: OKC turned the ball over a mere seven times, versus 22 assists. (SA had 17 dimes and 13 turnovers.) And Pop, as noted, was not happy.

Game 5 is Thursday night in Alamoland. It will be loud and boisterous. And loud.

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Ibakalypse now

Earlier this weekend, as reported by the Spurs guy from the San Antonio Express-News:

Well, he didn’t say when. Number 9 was out there for the tip, and while he got shuttled in and out of the game for occasional calf maintenance, Serge had a very Serge-like line: 6-7 for 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 30 minutes. Halfway through the fourth quarter with the Thunder up 17, the Spurs conceded the matter, and the reserves, eventually including (yes!) Hasheem Thabeet, mopped up, giving Oklahoma City its first win in the series, 106-97.

Brooks, who never screws with his starting lineup, screwed with his starting lineup, installing Reggie Jackson on the other wing in lieu of Thabo Sefolosha. Jackson, who got more minutes (37) than anyone, tossed up a few too many errant treys (1-6), but he turned in a solid performance otherwise, with 15 points and five assists. The KD and Russ Show was worth watching, with Westbrook knocking down 26 points and Durant 25, and 18 rebounds between them. The Thunder dominance of the boards was total: 52-36, with Steven Adams grabbing nine of them. Both Sefolosha and Nick Collison, who had been fairly well throttled by San Antonio in the first two games, drew DNP-CD, suggesting that Brooks is trying to make a point.

Certainly the Spurs got the point. Manu Ginobili was his usual seemingly unstoppable self, six of nine from beyond Boerne to lead San Antonio with 23, and Tim Duncan plucked 16 from wherever it is he keeps them, but Kawhi Leonard (10 points), Tony Parker (nine) and Danny Green (eight) were all below par, knocking the Spurs’ shooting percentage below 40. And while the Spurs still have the advantage in ball movement, it’s shrunk a bit: 22 assists and 16 turnovers versus 17 and 18.

Game 4 picks up Tuesday night in OKC. The crowd will want a repeat of what they saw tonight, and I suspect they don’t care what Scott Brooks wears.

(Title by Spencer Ackerman.)

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And the earth swallowed them whole

If nothing else, we learned tonight that the one starter the Thunder cannot do without is not Kevin Durant, not Russell Westbrook, but the wounded-in-action Serge Ibaka. Royce Young called it correctly: “[T]he Thunder have developed bad habits in their on-ball defense because of the safety blanket Ibaka provides.” Scott Brooks, long before the end, saw it coming; he pulled both Westbrook and Durant with 1:47 left in the third. At the time, it was 87-58 Spurs; the planet shuddered in response. (Maybe a 3.6 earthquake is more than just a shudder. This time, you make the call.) On the upside, something this horrendous to behold tends to end quickly, and losing 112-77 to the Spurs is pretty horrendous.

We also learned this: Jeremy Lamb apparently didn’t get enough minutes in recent weeks to develop those bad habits. In the fourth quarter, he hit six of eight shots, none of them from farther than two feet from the rim. With 13, Lamb was the leading scorer on either bench. To emphasize the point: take out those 20 three-point shots, 18 of which the Thunder missed, and they’re shooting 33-69, a reasonable 48 percent. (The Spurs hit exactly 50 percent.) Look at these lines. Durant was 6-16 for 15 points. Westbrook was 7-24 for 15 points. The rest of the starters contributed four points. If nothing else, this is an argument for playing Hasheem Thabeet: he makes few buckets, but few get past him either.

Tony Parker led San Antonio with 22; Danny Green chunked in 21 on seven treys; the Old Man of the Mountain, Tim Duncan, collected 14 points, 12 rebounds, and one technical foul. The Spurs had a 53-38 advantage on the boards, and missed only two free throws out of 23. (OKC missed five — out of ten.)

Game 3 isn’t until Sunday. At that time, we should see if the Thunder are completely, or only partially, demoralized. If I’m Scott Brooks, and you should probably be grateful I’m not, all previous rotation schemes are null and void.

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Geezers rule

A scribe for Sports Illustrated was ready to predict the Thunder in seven, until the word came down that Serge Ibaka wouldn’t be available for the series; he then amended his prediction to the Spurs in six. In vain will you point out that the Thunder are younger and, Ibaka aside, healthier: Tim Duncan, who once drew a DNP-OLD, calmly knocked down 27 points in 29 minutes, and Tony Parker, playing through a hamstring strain, turned in a double-double (14 points, 12 assists). The Spurs treated the paint like it was their own, and the Thunder led only twice: at the very beginning, and with 4:44 left in the third quarter, after which it would be more than four minutes before they made another shot. At 2:13, with the Spurs up by 21, Scott Brooks waved the white flag, and San Antonio claimed Game 1, 122-105. Sixty-six of those 122 points, you should know, were scored in the paint.

This is the pair of numbers that jumped hardest from the box score: the Spurs had 28 assists and 9 turnovers, the Thunder 19 and 16. Clearly OKC was moving the ball, but not moving it particularly well. And while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook accounted for just over half the Thunder scoring (28 and 25 points respectively), the only other starter to score was Kendrick Perkins with 5. Derek Fisher, who is probably almost old enough to have dated Tim Duncan’s babysitter, led the bench with 16. Nick Collison, who started in place of Ibaka, missed three shots, snagged two steals, and bled from two different locations. Reggie Jackson, usually viewed as the Mighty Spur-Killer, turned in a decent, if hardly lethal, 13 points.

“How did the Spurs do?” is usually easily answerable just from two lines, those of Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. (You already know what the Senior Citizens can do.) Both turned in solid work, Leonard knocking down 16 points and collecting two steals, and Manu going 7-12 in his capacity as Sixth Man of Your Dreams. The Spurs shot 50-87 for 57 percent, more than ten percent percent better than the Thunder.

Game 2 is Wednesday in San Antonio. The guy who said “Spurs in six” might have been off by one.

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A lobless relationship

I’m not quite sure which was less expected: Serge Ibaka’s departure to the locker room in the third quarter — isn’t this guy supposed to be, like, indestructible? — or Nick Collison’s trey with 01.4 left in that quarter to tie the game at 72 after the Thunder had trailed by as many as 16 for 35 of the preceding 36 minutes. That Collison jumper, however, set Oklahoma City firmly on the path of righteousness; over the next 5:15 they outscored the Clippers 15-8, and with 3:11 left, still up seven, Blake Griffin drew his fifth foul, motivating a fan to lob a water bottle onto the court. Forty-five seconds later, Russell Westbrook made his standard mad dash to the rim, and Griffin bit. Goodbye, Blake. OKC ran the lead to eleven before the Clips pushed back with a 7-0 run; a pair of Westbrook free throws made it 99-93 with :32 left. J. J. Redick missed a scoop, Kevin Durant snatched the rebound, drew a foul, made two more freebies. Chris Paul, not going for the obvious trey, came up with a layup; Derek Fisher drew the foul, made two more freebies, and CP3, not going for the obvious layup, knocked down a trey; Reggie Jackson drew the foul, hit one of two, and goodbye, Clippers: 104-98, Thunder in six, and OKC will face — who else? — the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference final.

Three double-doubles contributed to this happy state: Durant, of course (39 points, 16 boards); Westbrook, of course (19 points, 12 assists); and, mirabile dictu, Steven Adams (10 points, 11 boards). Jackson’s last free throw gave him 14 to lead the bench. What is perhaps most remarkable, I think, is that neither Durant nor Westbrook accomplished a great deal in the first half; Westbrook ended up 4-15 for the night, collecting 11 out of 12 from the line, and KD finished with a +6, Westbrook +12. (Both of them will happily point out that Adams was +17 and Collison +16.)

No double-doubles from Los Angeles, though Griffin, his time cut short, came close to a triple: 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists. CP3 led the Clips with 25. Somehow Jamal Crawford, who’s always a threat, wasn’t a threat; he played 14 minutes and made more fouls than shots. DeAndre Jordan pulled down a rollicking 15 boards to go with 9 points. The Clips left eight points at the charity stripe, which can’t have helped their cause. (They were 12-20, OKC 29-33.) And in the end, the Clips were as good as their third seed said they were. It just didn’t happen to be enough.

Monday night in San Antonio. It doesn’t get any better than this — not right away, anyway.

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Zero hour

“They came to play,” goes the cliché. I don’t think there’s any question that the Clippers came to play. Certainly they led most of the night; only briefly did they surrender the lead. And by now, they seem to have Kevin Durant thoroughly cowed. Seriously. At the five-minute mark, KD had the same 17 points he’d had halfway through the third quarter, having made exactly three of 17 shots. (At least he made the free throws, right?) But it wasn’t just Durant. In the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, the Thunder had scored a mere eight points. Slowly, the Thunder crawled back to the land of the living, cutting a 13-point Clipper lead to four while enjoying the spectacle of DeAndre Jordan’s sixth foul. (Jordan didn’t make a shot all night, but he put up some serious defense.) Blake Griffin broke the string with a free throw; a miss on the second freebie was retrieved by Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and a Chris Paul jumper put the Clips up 104-97 inside the 50-second mark. Then followed two Durant specials for five points, and it was 104-102 with :11 left. Russell Westbrook’s trey fell short, but CP3 was all over him, and Number Zero knocked down all three freebies. OKC 105, Los Angeles 104, with 6.4 left, and then Serge Ibaka took the ball away from Paul. The least-winnable game in this series somehow was won.

And in the end, KD redeemed himself, bagging ten points in those last five minutes, to finish with 27. Westbrook, who made it his business to take up the slack, finished with a game-high 38. Nobody else made double figures, but Steven Adams created nine points for himself, and Jackson, Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka all kicked in eight. Still: one point.

The Clippers, nonetheless, had three starters with double-doubles: Griffin (24/17 rebounds), Paul (17/14 assists), and Matt Barnes (16/10 rebounds). Jamal Crawford reeled in 19 from the bench. Your Telltale Statistic: the Thunder were called for 21 fouls, giving Los Angeles 20 free throws, of which they made 16, while the Clippers, amazingly, drew 28 fouls, from which OKC went 32-36 from the stripe. Otherwise, the numbers were very close: 44 rebounds for each; L. A. shot 43 percent/44 from outside, OKC 42/41; nine steals for the Thunder, seven for the Clips; five blocks for the Thunder, four for the Clips. If it could have been closer than one point, I suggest, it would have been.

Game 6 is Thursday night at Staples. The Clippers can be expected to bring their A-game. It may take an A-plus to beat them. Then again, it didn’t tonight.

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The ship continues to sail

Thunder fans were wanting to signal a Blowout Alert in the first quarter after OKC went up an implausible 29-7. Obviously this wasn’t going to go on forever: the Clippers tacked their way back to 32-15 before the quarter ended, pulled to within four in the second, and stayed two or three possessions behind throughout the third. Came the fourth quarter, and a Doc Rivers gamble: put Chris Paul on Kevin Durant. A picture of this accompanies the entry for the word “mismatch” in the dictionary, but it worked: the Thunder offense was thoroughly discombobulated, and the Clippers, who had been down 16 early in the quarter, fought back to a modest lead. And in a scene we’ve seen before, a Russell Westbrook buzzer-beater did not go, and a Serge Ibaka stickback was just a fraction of a second late. Los Angeles 101, Oklahoma City 99, and Doc Rivers is going “Whew!”

This was also the first time in the series that the Clippers outrebounded the Thunder, 45-43. And if the starters didn’t shoot so well, and they didn’t, well, this is where Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison came in, each contributing 18 points to the cause. Blake Griffin, despite playing with five fouls late in the quarter — “I swear to God, Blake Griffin could pull out a gun and shoot somebody on the court, and they’d call a foul on the guy he shot” — had a team-high 25, CP3 finishing with 23 and 10 assists. The number you want to know, though, is seven: Los Angeles had nine turnovers, seven fewer than the Thunder.

Even being hounded by Paul, Durant finished with 40 points, one short of his playoff high, and Westbrook kicked in 27, though he was decidedly hindered by five fouls of his own, as was Ibaka, who finished with a modest eight points, though Serge did come up with four blocks. Too Many Treys Syndrome once again infected the Thunder, who went 7-24 from outside, though it’s hard to cite that as an issue when the Clippers were 3-21. (Both Paul and Matt Barnes missed four each; Barnes, in fact, didn’t connect on a shot all day.) You might consider this, though: the Thunder got off 18 fewer shots than the Clippers. At that level, a lousy percentage (41 for the Clips) doesn’t matter so much.

So there will be a Game 6 in Los Angeles. But first, there will be a Game 5, in OKC late Tuesday, and as radio guy Matt Pinto is wont to say, “we’re back where we started.”

Addendum: Royce Young, very astutely, at Daily Thunder:

I think Doc Rivers used some subversive mindgame voodoo stuff on Scott Brooks by going with CP3 on Durant. The Thunder have this horrible habit of seeing a mismatch and trying to expose it simply by isolation. They did it earlier with Caron Butler on Jamal Crawford. So when the Clippers threw Paul on Durant, it was like a light bulb went off and the Thunder said, “We gotta give it to Durant! He has a small person on him!” The Thunder lost all their spacing and movement.

And, ultimately, the game. I suspect, though, that this is one of those tricks you can only pull off once.

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The Battle of Figueroa Street

This one figured to be close, and it was: first quarter, Clippers by four. Halftime, Clippers by two. Third quarter, Clippers by four. This is Blake Griffin’s theater, and he did a pretty fair job of staying center stage, especially with Serge Ibaka rolling up five fouls. But the Thunder, who weren’t hitting any treys, somehow hit four of them in the fourth quarter, three of them by Caron Butler. With 72 seconds to go, OKC was up six, 113-107; a couple of Reggie Jackson free throws fifty seconds later ran the margin to eight; Griffin dunked, as Griffin will, and Jackson managed to miss the next two freebies. J. J. Redick went after the quick bucket; Russell Westbrook took it away and dropped in a free throw; Redick finally made a trey, pulling Los Angeles to within four; Jackson went back to the foul line, and this time he didn’t miss. Oklahoma City 118, Los Angeles 112, and the Thunder go up 2-1. And no, Serge never did foul out.

The Clips might be wondering just what hit them. As usual, they trailed in rebounds, though they executed five steals while the Thunder managed only one, and they had only six turnovers all night. Griffin ended up with a sterling (sorry about that) 34 points on 14-22 shooting; Chris Paul knocked down 21 points and served up 16 assists; DeAndre Jordan also checked in with a double-double, 10 points and 11 rebounds. But their prowess from down the street failed them: only seven of 26 treys made. (You have to figure that when Danny Granger hits a trey, it’s an omen, and not necessarily a good one. And that was Granger’s only make for the night.)

Meanwhile, the MVP was doing some MVPing: KD played all but two minutes, and collected 36 points. Ibaka got only one block, but he scored 20 on 9-10 shooting. Westbrook served up 13 dimes and scored 23. And the Thunder bench, inconsistent of late, was decidedly less so, with Jackson and Butler each scoring 14 and Steven Adams grabbing nine rebounds in 18 minutes. It was not a high-scoring night for anyone named Collison, though: Nick hit one shot, Darren missed all four of his.

The next Battle will be Sunday afternoon. There were five technicals called tonight, and I have to figure that nobody’s going to be on anyone’s idea of best Sunday behavior.

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Checking the Clippings

No, I did not attend this game: almost exactly at tipoff, there was a power failure, not addressed for several hours, and while I did listen to the radio coverage, I was in too poor a condition to make any notes, even if I could see well enough to write them, which I couldn’t.

That said, Kevin Durant’s comment about Russell Westbrook — “An emotional guy who will run through a wall for me” — evidently was taken seriously. Westbrook ran through just about everything last night, posting a triple-double (31 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds) as the Thunder thrashed the Clippers, 112-101, to even up the series at one apiece.

The newly-minted MVP didn’t have a bad night either, collecting a game-high 32 points and 12 boards. Thabo Sefolosha came to life in the third quarter; he wound up shooting 6-9 for 14 points. Serge Ibaka went 6-10 for 14; Kendrick Perkins, sticking around for 25 minutes, hauled in nine boards and scored eight. The weakness in the OKC offensive machine, once again, was the bench, led by Steven Adams with, um, six. Still, the reserves did show up on defense, making for some interesting anomalies, like Chris Paul getting five fouls. (DeAndre Jordan also had five, but you expect that of Jordan; CP3’s spurned-debutante mien played well enough to earn him a tech.)

Clipper scoring was pretty balanced, with J. J. Redick pounding out 18, Paul with 17, Blake Griffin with 15, and Darren Collison leading the reserves with 13. Their ball movement was good as ever $151; 23 assists, 11 by Paul, and 11 steals divided up among seven players. Apart from being outclassed on the backboard 52-36, they were competitive all the way — all the way into the fourth quarter, when the Thunder had a 17-point lead going in.

This is a travel day; the series resumes in Los Angeles Friday night.

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