Get outta here, ya knuckleheads

Early in the second quarter, with the Thunder cranking up the intensity, it occurred to me what might have been said in the OKC locker room before tipoff: “Do we really want to play these guys one more time?” The answer seemed pretty obvious at the time, but the third quarter hammered it home. The Spurs, held to a miserable 31 points in the first half, got loose for 34; but the Thunder picked up 36, so San Antonio actually lost ground. So I decided to focus on Tim Duncan, the grand old man in grey and black, who had his best night of the series tonight, and just to make it interesting, the Spurs opened the fourth quarter with a 14-3 run, most of which seemed to come from Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder stumbled around a bit, as they’ve done too often in fourth quarters before, with Russell Westbrook inflicting a Flagrant One upon Danny Green. (Green, obligingly, missed one of the two free throws, and the extra San Antonio possession produced no bucket.) But order was restored to the universe, and Duncan and Andre Miller, possibly on their way to Retirementville, were allowed to finish things up in grand style. (Good call, Pop.) Oklahoma City 113, San Antonio 99, and if you had “Thunder in six,” step forward and claim whatever it is you’re supposed to be getting.

This is the juxtaposition that screamed at me from the box score: the Spurs were 13-16 on free throws. Kevin Durant was 12-12. (KD finished with 37 for the night.) And really, I’m not used to seeing San Antonio get a whole crapton of fouls; Manu Ginobili (how?) actually fouled out. Desperation will make you do strange things. And for a while there, the Spurs were flailing about like crazy. Still, you don’t get this far into the playoffs without something intangible. Maybe it was those two elderly gentlemen, Miller and Duncan, showing how it’s done. (Duncan was +13 for the night with 19 points; Miller dished up four assists and snagged three rebounds in a mere nine minutes.) You have to figure that next season’s Spurs will be plenty tough: they still have Kawhi and LaMarcus and maybe even Tony Parker. But, as the poet said, that’s next season. For now, our attention turns westward, where the Warriors will be waiting in Oakland, and they’re tough and scrappy and incredibly freaking dangerous, the way defending champions are supposed to be.

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Gimme five

After the thirteenth Thunder turnover — still in the second quarter, mind you — you might reasonably have concluded that OKC was going down, and going down hard. You might not have expected that they’d learn some ball control in the second half, but they manifestly did: in those last 24 minutes they gave the ball up only seven times. And with 42 seconds left, the Thunder actually held a one-point lead, 92-91. Danny Green stripped the ball away from Kevin Durant, but the Spurs weren’t able to turn that turnover into actual points, and after a difficult inbound, Russell Westbrook made a mad dash to the rim — “and one,” as Dion Waiters is wont to say — and the Thunder were up four with six seconds left. Kawhi Leonard tried a three, Tony Parker retrieved the miss and Green tried another, but to no avail. Oklahoma City 95, San Antonio 91, the Thunder lead the series 3-2, and suddenly something the local pundits had been suggesting started to make sense: give the Spurs three days rest, and they’re fine, but with only one day — well, Tim Duncan once got a DNP-OLD, and he’s way older than that now.

Then again, Duncan played 28 minutes tonight, and if he’s lost some speed, he’s lost none of his slyness. And Danny Green, held scoreless last time out, sprang for 20 points, tied with Kawhi and six behind LaMarcus. But the San Antonio bench, while it did yeoman work keeping the Thunder away from the cylinder, didn’t make much in the way of shots: five reserves, 11 points. (Then again, the OKC second string managed only 20.) The Spurs wound up shooting just under 40 percent, which doesn’t exactly shine. And they pulled in a mere 36 rebounds, while the Thunder collected 54.

Still, it’s never just numbers. And tonight it was Westbrook, blurry like he’d taken some of those Acme earthquake pills, with 35 points, 11 boards, and nine assists. (And yes, eight turnovers.) Kevin Durant added 23. It took those two 48 shots to get 58 points, but what the heck; Steven Adams went 5-8 from the floor and posted yet another double-double.

Game 6 is in OKC. Day after tomorrow. Suddenly that seems portentous.

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Wrenching torque

You always have to wonder what Gregg Popovich is going to throw at you. Tonight, the Spurs didn’t put up so many treys, and David West was turned loose to wreak havoc. West delivered, Tony Parker turned in another sterling performance, and it was obvious that something was going to have to happen if the Thunder were going to climb back into this thing. That something, like so many times before, was Kevin Durant, with 17 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter, while Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge — and possibly even Pop — wondered what the hell happened. With Durant in the middle of a pair of free throws — he got one — Pop pulled the big men, and it was window-dressing from that point. The Thunder won this one decisively, 111-97, and the series is tied up 2-2. “What was going on here tonight?” asked TV guy Brian Davis. “Basketball,” answered Dion Waiters laconically. And he could afford to be laconic; he’d just played keepaway for 24 seconds to burn up what was left of the clock.

Except for free throws, the Thunder owned the major box-score numbers: 51-47 shooting, 39-17 on treys (the Spurs hoisted twelve, hit only two), 40-30 rebounding, 23-12 on assists. Neither Aldridge nor Leonard got a shot from the floor in the entire fourth quarter. Neither Tim Duncan nor Danny Green got a shot from the floor in the entire game. Still, you want a hero here, you go to Steven Adams, +21 for the night, 16 points and 11 boards, much of this late alongside Enes Kanter, Billy Donovan having concluded that going small late in the fourth wasn’t working. (Kanter checked in with 11, and Waiters was a thumping 7-11 for 17.)

Beforehand, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth: what if this were the last game ever for Kevin Durant in Thunder home white? And we’ll probably hear that again before Game 6. The important thing for right now, though, is that there will be a Game 6.

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Another uphill slog

Things were frustrating enough this evening for me to pick out my most transcendent moment early: it was during the second quarter, when the image of Governor Fallin appeared on the big screen at the ‘Peake, and Loud City erupted in a gleeful chorus of boos. Then came the fourth quarter, and with eight minutes left the Thunder, previously down as many as 15, had pulled to within two. Then Serge Ibaka knocked down a trey — his fifth! — and Russell Westbrook added another one. Suddenly it was Thunder by four. The Spurs, of course, were not going to take that lying down; with 1:19 left, having scored on eight of nine possessions, were up seven. Over the next thirty seconds, Westbrook would knock down five; two Tony Parker free throws ran the Spur lead back to four. It took most of the clock for OKC to respond, with a Dion Waiters bank shot; Kawhi Leonard hit two more free throws, and time ran out on the Thunder. San Antonio 100, Oklahoma City 96, and now the Spurs are near, if not precisely in, the catbird seat.

Moral victories, of course, are still recorded as losses, but the Thunder did manage to hold LaMarcus Aldridge down to a mere 24 points, after 38 and 41 in the first two. The problem with that, though, is that it gave Kawhi Leonard more space, and Leonard was really good at using more space, collecting 31 points and 11 rebounds. (Leonard was 9-17 from the floor; Russell Westbrook also scored 31, but he went a startling 10-31.) OKC had the rebounding edge, by five; but they also fouled a whole lot, and they should probably consider themselves fortunate that the Spurs somehow missed 10 of 34 free throws.

The maddening inconsistency of this Thunder squad proved, once again, to be its undoing: they can put together runs, but they still yield them up much more easily. They know this. Pop knows this. Everybody knows this, except possibly Governor Fallin.

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An ominous omen

Radio guy Matt Pinto served up that tautology early on, while the Spurs were busily digging out from an early hole. And he seemed prescient, because whatever holes the Thunder were able to push the Spurs into, the Spurs managed to escape with seeming alacrity. While OKC wasn’t quite so disorganized tonight as they were in Game 1, there were enough discouragingly familiar lapses to keep Thunder fans anxious, and one question remained unanswered: “What the heck do we do about LaMarcus Aldridge?” Billy Donovan seemed reluctant to double-team him, perhaps fearing that if Aldridge were doubled, Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard — but mostly Green — would just collect that many more treys. Maybe not Leonard; with the Spurs down three with 48 seconds left, Leonard put one up, and Steven Adams took it away. So Aldridge made the next trey himself, giving him 38 points. (Where have we heard that number before?) At :18, it was OKC 98, San Antonio 94; four seconds later, having persuaded Serge Ibaka to buy a pump fake, Aldridge went to the stripe to shoot three and got them all. The last Thunder possession went nowhere, Green swiping the ball from Dion Waiters; then Patty Mills readied a corner trey, and when the ball somehow ended up on the floor, Ibaka jumped on it. Ninety-eight to ninety-seven, the Thunder go back home 1-1, and suddenly it’s a whole new series.

In the meantime, we can enjoy a few OKC lines: Russell Westbrook, 29-7-10; Kevin Durant, 28 points; Steven Adams, 12 points and 17 rebounds. Only two Spurs besides Aldridge climbed into double figures: Leonard, of course, with 14, and Manu Ginobili, because he’s Manu Ginobili, with 11. And San Antonio ended up with only six treys in 23 tries; Green made half of them. Still, Aldridge has 79 points in two games. What the heck do the Thunder do about him? I guess we’ll find out Friday.

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Torched and then some

Everyone pretty much figured that the Spurs would come out breathing fire. What they didn’t figure was the temperature of that fire, which would turn out to be somewhere between Texas fire ants — dipped in sriracha, no less — and a Bessemer converter. After the first quarter, it was 43-20, and things would only deteriorate after that. Now one could reasonably expect that some of the calls, or lack of calls, would go the home team’s way, the home team having won 40 of 41 during the regular season; however, I don’t think anyone anticipated that the Spurs would be hitting better than 60 percent of their shots all night. There is dominance, and there is being crushed like, well, a Texas fire ant. Tonight, the Thunder were flattened under San Antonio’s sneakers, 124-92, and you have to wonder what sort of adjustments are going to have to be made for Game 2 on Monday.

At the very least, OKC is going to have to figure out some way to contain LaMarcus Aldridge, who went 18-23 for 38 points in less than 30 minutes. (Thirty-eight points, by coincidence, is twice the production of the Thunder’s leading scorer, Serge Ibaka, who managed 19.) And maybe they’ll have to glue Danny Green to the near end of the floor; Green was 5-6 from beyond the arc and took only one other shot. The Spurs certainly seem to have figured out how to render Enes Kanter relatively ineffective. And any night in which Kevin Durant finishes -31 (16 points on 6-15 from the floor) would seem to be devoid of hopeful signs.

Still, this is only Game 1. This is about as badly as the Thunder spanked the Mavs in that Game 1, and Dallas came back to win Game 2. I wouldn’t recommend going beyond that for an example, though, since the Mavs dropped the next three. And I can’t really deny this:

Right now, though, I’m trying to remember what it’s like for the Thunder to have a 12-point lead.

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Almost with a flourish

Perhaps I spoke too soon. Billy Donovan did opt to rest Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka tonight; however, the only Spur getting time off, other than the wounded Boris Diaw, was Manu Ginobili. And it is the last home game in San Antonio before the playoffs; why not give them a spectacle? The Thunder certainly did that for Loud City last night. That said, the Spurs came to life rather slowly tonight, bottoming out 18 points behind during the second quarter and still down 10 at the half. Came the third quarter, and suddenly things were different: OKC managed only 19 points, with the Spurs picking up 31, and we had a barn-burner on our hands. With 1:50 left, the Spurs were up five, up to that point their largest lead; at the :16 point, the game was tied at 93 on a Dion Waiters and-1. Kawhi Leonard went up for a buzzer-beater jumper, but Andre Roberson was having none of that, and for the only time this season, the Spurs had to play overtime. Not that this worried anyone: Leonard kept on scoring, Tony Parker knocked down two freebies with ten seconds left to put the Spurs up 102-98, and that’s where it ended.

And really, it’s fitting that Parker and Leonard would finish the job; they were the only guys out there into the 20-point range. (In a reversal of the usual Thunder two-guys-get-all-the-shots scheme, four OKC players finished at 17, though Enes Kanter, the only bench player to score that much, also reeled in 16 rebounds.) Pop will rest some guys, we are told, tomorrow night in Dallas.

So it’s 55-27 for the Northwestern champs. By coincidence, the 2010-11 Thunder finished 55-27; they made it through two rounds of playoffs before losing to the Mavs in five. And we still don’t have all the Western seeds in place, so we don’t know the first-round opponent yet: it might be Memphis, it might be Dallas. The Griz are half a game up on the Mavs right now, but they’re on their way to Oakland to hand the Warriors their 73rd victory. Maybe. Weird things can happen, even at this stage.

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The JV comes to town

Gregg Popovich has rested players before, but usually not so many that Boban Marjanović actually gets to start at center: tonight four starters — Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge — plus super sixth man Manu Ginobili were given the night off. That said, the Substitute Spurs outplayed the Thunder for the first 15 minutes or so, until OKC started to get a grip on the situation, and the Thunder were up four at the half. A 35-19 third quarter settled the matter, and OKC went up 2-1 in the season series with a somewhat unsatisfying 111-92 win.

There are things Billy Donovan will not like, and one of them is that the Thunder bench scored only 22 points — and Enes Kanter had 20 of them. (Randy Foye got the other bucket; forget the other guys, especially Kyle Singler, who missed one shot and collected three fouls in seven minutes.) On the upside, shooting was a more-than-respectable 52 percent, Kevin Durant went up for 31 plus 10 rebounds, and Russell Westbrook, despite one little bout with temper that cost him a technical, threw down 29.

The Spurs, perhaps unsurprisingly, were led by two bench guys, David West and Jonathon Simmons, each with 17 points. And Andre Miller’s line — 11 points and eight rebounds in 19 minutes — is pretty darn good for a guy who just turned forty, you know? And yes, Marjanović got into the act, with 13 points and six boards. Still, you have to wonder if at least one of the chaps on the bench cringed at the debacle.

With Sunday off, the Thunder now face a road trip consisting of a single back-to-back: at Toronto on Monday, at Detroit on Tuesday. Both are playoff-caliber teams, the Pistons having fought their way from ignominy back to eighth in the East, the Raptors comfortably ensconced in second. The Clippers come to OKC on Thursday, and then it’s back to the road once more.

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Death wears black and grey

Royce Young, contemplating this game in San Antonio: “What’s so amazing about the Spurs is they have like six guys that look so washed and they’re still 55-10.” And those ten losses came on the road: on the home court they’ve been literally unbeatable so far. The Thunder made some noises about ending that 31-0 streak, and actually had a four-point lead going into the fourth quarter, later increasing it to six. The Spurs tied it up, and then followed it up with a pair of treys, just to make sure OKC got the message. They needn’t have bothered; the Thunder’s by-now signature fourth-quarter collapse made it easy for the Spurs to claim that 32nd home win, 93-85, evening the season series at 1-1.

One of those washed-looking fellows, Tony Parker, got his first point in the game with 33 seconds left, finishing with four. And Manu Ginobili, in the same draft class as Methuselah, scored two. But none of that mattered: Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge worked extremely well together, David West led a spirited Spurs bench, and the Thunder managed only 36 points in the second half, with no points other than free throws in the final four minutes. About the only good news for Oklahoma City was that Andre Roberson, who fritzed up his ankle against the Timberwolves last night, didn’t seem particularly affected by it tonight.

Other than that, nothing much is going on. The hapless Lakers — who, unlike the Thunder, have managed to beat the Warriors once this year — and the unaffected-by-hap Sixers have been unceremoniously escorted out of the playoff race. And the Spurs’ next three opponents are all at home: the Clippers, the Trail Blazers, and the Warriors. We wish them well in the task of disposing of those guys, since apparently it’s not going to get done otherwise.

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Roundball metaphor of the season

And we’re only, like, one game in.

I mentioned in passing Wednesday night that Kawhi Leonard, who scored a career-high 32 points for San Antonio, had been the one “truly dominant” Spur that evening.

Shea Serrano, in Grantland’s probably last-ever “Shootaround,” is a little more lyrical:

There were two separate moments when the Thunder had the ball on offense and Kawhi Leonard crawled inside of Durant’s body and stared out of his eyeballs. Nobody plays defense the way Kawhi Leonard plays defense. If he’s guarding you, you might as well go ahead and just pick up the ball and punt that bitch into the stands, because that’s the only way you’re going to keep him from getting it. Being guarded by Kawhi Leonard is no different than getting dropped into a casket full of anacondas. Being guarded by Kawhi Leonard is like being put inside of a bank vault filled with quick-set cement. Being guarded by Kawhi Leonard looks like an awful thing to experience, but it’s an amazing thing to watch.

All that and 32 points. True dominance, wouldn’t you say?

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Initial contact

The opening tip went to the Spurs; Andre Roberson picked it off and stuffed it through the hoop. And there’s your tone for the game right there: fast and furious, even when the aged wizards from San Antonio sought to slow things in the third quarter. (It’s no accident that the one truly dominant Spur tonight was Kawhi Leonard, who’s not yet twenty-five.) With just over two minutes left, it was tied at 103, with Dion Waiters serving up the tying bucket; fifty seconds later, the Spurs came up dry, and Waiters brought a second helping. Russell Westbrook followed up with a nifty trey; Leonard got a three-point play the old-fashioned way, and with 21 seconds left, it was 108-106 OKC, and the Spurs failed to inbound. Time out, try again. A Danny Green would-be trey hit nothing but air, Kevin Durant dropped in two free throws, the Spurs came up empty again, and Westbrook finished the job from the stripe. Opening night: Oklahoma City 112, San Antonio 106, despite 32 from Leonard, the youngster’s career high.

It’s not that they leaned too much on Kawhi, either; every one of the ten Spurs who saw action collected at least four points, even Obi-Wan Duncan (eight points, 26 minutes). Perhaps the problem is that one of those four-point guys was Danny Green, who came out with a feeble (for Green, anyway) 2 of 9. Still, Manu remains Manu, LaMarcus Aldridge apparently won’t need much integration into the Spurs machine, and 41 bench points will tell you that San Antonio isn’t lacking in depth.

But neither is OKC, with 39 points from Thunder reserves, including a double-double from Enes Kanter (15 points, 16 rebounds). There’s always the question of how a max player starts the year on the bench, but Kanter got nearly as much playing time as Steven Adams, who started in the middle, and, well, Adams is the better defender. The only other double-double came from Westbrook, who finished with 33 points and ten assists. Kevin Durant, you may be sure, was sufficiently Durant-y to suit the capacity crowd, knocking down 22. Still, you look at the plus/minus, and there’s Dion Waiters with a game-high +15. Can he possibly be … clutch?

The early schedule looks bizarre: away, then home, then away, then home, all the way through the 10th of November, before an actual two-game homestand — which is followed by an away game the next night. And not just any away game, either: it’s Memphis. Better fasten those seat belts now.

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Squeeze for the Spurs

It’s not even October yet, and the San Antonio Spurs have sold all their season tickets:

For the first time in club history, the Spurs will institute a waiting list for season tickets next week after selling out of their allotment of 13,200.

Current season-ticket holders will be given first priority, should they want to add to their personal inventory.

The AT&T Center is being renovated, and the seating capacity is likely to change from its current 18,581. Then again, it was 18,797 when the arena opened in 2002.

But take heart, non season-ticket holders: The team will still set aside 3,000 tickets per game for individual and group purchases.

It’s hard to imagine those seats not selling out rather quickly.

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Big Shot Becky

Becky Hammon’s #25 jersey is proudly displayed at Colorado State’s Moby Arena. Weirdly, she went undrafted by the WNBA, but managed to get signed by the New York Liberty, which installed her as the second-string point guard. Eventually she worked herself into the starting lineup, and in 2007 she was dealt to the San Antonio Stars.

Becky Hammon as a San Antonio Star

In 2013, she tore an ACL and spent a year in rehab; during that time she looked for a coaching gig, and found one in San Antonio — with the NBA’s Spurs, on Gregg Popovich’s staff of assistants. Said Pop at her hiring:

I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff. Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic, and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.

Becky Hammon as a San Antonio Spurs coach

This past season’s Spurs finished 55-27 and took the Clippers to seven games in the playoffs before bowing out. This summer, Pop dispatched Hammon to coach the Spurs’ summer-league team in Salt Lake City. They finished 1-2, in a three-way tie for second. (The Jazz won all three of their games to claim the championship.) Undaunted, the Spurs proceeded to the Las Vegas summer-league extravaganza (24 teams!) and won that one.

Oh, and here’s Hammon subtly suggesting that one of the opposing players just might have taken one too many steps:

Okay, maybe not so subtly.

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We wuz strolled

There are only three inevitabilities in life, says Scott Brooks: death, taxes, and the Spurs winning 50 games. That latter has certainly been true for the last 16 seasons, and San Antonio had already won 51 when they arrived at the Peake tonight to trash what was left of Oklahoma City’s playoff hopes. Which is not to say that the black-suited blackguards didn’t have any help from the boys in home white, and all you have to see to prove that is the first-quarter score: San Antonio 29, Oklahoma City 10. Ten. The Thunder managed 31 points in the second, but still lost ground, and after 16 in the third — well, let’s just say it was over long before that. The final was Spurs 113, Thunder 88, the worst thrashing administered to OKC since, well, the last time they played the Spurs, in late March.

Andre Roberson returned to the lineup, though not to his usual starting position. He came up with five points, halfway between the two starting forwards, Enes Kanter (9) and Kyle Singler (1). The starting guards, Dion Waiters and Russell Westbrook, managed 10 and 17; the mostly forgotten Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones collected 11 and 10 respectively, mostly in the fourth quarter. The Thunder, after shooting at a decidedly untorried sub-40-percent clip for most of the game, finished with 41; but 5-19 from downtown is not good, and 15-28 from the foul line is a couple of steps into the Horrible range.

Meanwhile, San Antonio strolled through this one with relative ease, what with Kawhi Leonard matching his career high (26 points) and the team shooting a spiffy 53 percent. The Spurs made only nine free throws, but then they took only 13. Tony Parker (two points) did not return after halftime, having gotten some sort of owie; however, Boris Diaw and Manu Ginobili happily took up the slack. (Diaw played the most minutes of any Spur, at 26; he scored only six, but he was +26 for the night.) If there’s a saving grace in any of this, it’s that the Spurs are already on the plane, heading for Houston, where the Rockets would like to give them a bit of red glare.

While all this happened, or failed to happen, the New Orleans Pelicans moved into the eighth and final playoff slot, half a game ahead of the Thunder, by dint of having beaten the Golden State Warriors 103-100. (And the Birds own the tiebreaker over OKC, should it come to that.) With four games to go, I think the operative word is “tired.”

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Outward blown

After the 32-28 first quarter, this game was looking like typical Thunder-Spurs: fierce competition, and just wait until you see the fourth. Yeah, right. This one was over at halftime — 71-50 — and it just kept getting worse. Can you say 100-74 after three? About three minutes later, the benches were cleared, and Scott Brooks probably spent the rest of the time trying to come up with synonyms for “defense.” The final was 130-91, and if you think a 39-point lead is tremendous, well, you should have seen it when it was 44. Last time the Thunder visited the Alamo City, they administered a beating to the Men In Black, so this is payback and then some, with one game yet to play in the season series.

How dominant? Only at the very end did the Spurs drop below 60 percent shooting, falling to 58. (They hit 51 of 88; the Thunder, 36 of 90. What does that tell you?) They even hit 62 percent of their treys. Rebounding? Spurs, 50-36. Assists? Spurs, 28-16. Turnovers? Spurs, 11-10. (Oh, well, you can’t have everything.) San Antonio got to play all 13 active men, 12 of them scored, and seven of them scored in double figures. Even more remarkable: one of them was Patty Mills, who has not been having a great year. Tony Parker led everyone with 21; sixth man Boris Diaw had 19. And the only Spur on the minus side of +/- was Manu Ginobili, a modest -3 in 15 minutes.

Still, of all the minuses, the minusest was Russell Westbrook, with 16 points, seven assists and four rebounds, a -30 in 26 minutes. Enes Kanter started out with a bang — 10 points in the first quarter — but finished with a whimpering 16, though he did once again collect a double-double, having retrieved 10 rebounds. Dion Waiters got 14; after that, it’s a big jump to Jeremy Lamb’s nine.

What does this mean? Only that the Thunder’s defensive woes continue to be, well, woeful, and that they’re not going to breeze through the last ten games.

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Holiday brawl

How evenly were these teams depleted? Kevin Durant is still out for the Thunder; San Antonio was missing Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw, and in the fourth quarter Gregg Popovich pulled Tim Duncan, perhaps thinking of tomorrow night’s game at New Orleans. (Duncan eventually wheedled his way back in.) Weirdly, Pop pulled all his starters except Danny Green with 1:26 left with the Spurs down six. I’m guessing psy-war, because seven seconds later, most of them were back, the reserves having scored two points. There were few large leads all afternoon; the Thunder were up by three at the half, but it took a 38-point fourth quarter to dispatch the Spurs, 114-106.

As always, the Spurs came from all directions: Pop deployed 11 players, nine of them scored, and seven of them scored in double figures: four of the starters, plus Matt Bonner (a team-high 17), Manu Ginobili (11, plus 13 assists) and Cory Joseph (14). Time management was definitely a factor: only Bonner and Marco Belinelli played more than 30 minutes. But this is your Telltale Statistic for the day: Tim Duncan, highest-scoring starter for the Spurs with 15 points, finished with a -34.

Once again, Russell Westbrook did that dazzle thing, collecting 34 points and serving up 11 dimes. Steven Adams tied his season high with 16 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds. Serge Ibaka had only the one block, but he was good for 21 points and nine boards. Inexplicably, Perry Jones was scoring big-time: 5-7 for 14 points. In fact, this was not really a day for missed shots on either side: both teams shot 42-81, 52 percent. The Thunder, surprisingly, were better on treys (9-15 vs 7-23); however, OKC was terrible at the foul line (21-38 vs 15-21).

And let’s face it, it’s always fun to beat the Spurs. The Thunder will come home for a Friday game with the Hornets before heading down to Dallas for a Sunday clash with the Mavs.

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Temporarily America’s Team

We open, because it fits, with a quote from Roger:

I GOT to root for the Spurs, especially against the HEAT.

He is not alone in his sentiments:

See what I mean?

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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:

Yep.

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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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