9:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: San Antonio -8, Over/Under: 209
The Second Round of the Western Conference Playoffs was expected by many to be where business picks up, but after Game One’s completely lopsided affair at AT&T Center, one has to wonder just how long this series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs will go. That’s because the Thunder (55-27, 1st in Northwest Division) were utterly annihilated Saturday Night, in a 124-92 debacle that has sent Billy Donovan and his charges back to the proverbial drawing board. After all, history tells us that the prognosis for teams that get blasted in such a manner in Game One is not very good moving forward; the last team to come back and win a Best of Seven Series after losing by thirty or more points in Game One was the Los Angeles Lakers back in 1985. Hardly an inspiring story by any means, but Donovan must find a way to right the ship at the risk of falling into an even deeper hole. However, where exactly are they supposed to start? One thing is for certain though: any immediate turnaround simply must involve significant improvement on the defensive end, for they were absolutely abysmal on Saturday Night. Oklahoma City permitted the hosts to shoot a blistering 60.7% from the field, including 60.0% from beyond the arc, all the while dishing out a ridiculous thirty-nine assists (WTF!?!?!?). That last figure is an indictment on their lack of defensive pressure, which is uncharacteristic for a team that was one of the better defensive units during the Regular Season; the Thunder yielded just 43.8% shooting from the field over the duration of the campaign (5th Overall), including 34.2% from downtown (8th Overall), while leading the league in rebounding (48.6), and allowing just 21.5 assists (10th Overall). Furthermore, they were the top offensive rebounding team in the league (13.1), while outrebounding their opponents in general by 8.4 boards a night. Hell, in their four Regular Season meetings with San Antonio (which they split, by the way), they owned a sizeable advantage on the glass (+11.8), but in Game One they were bested in that regard 48-45. In fact, they were far more competitive in those meetings than on Saturday Night, winning both games in Oklahoma City by an average of 12.5 points, while their two losses at AT&T Center were by eight and four points respectively. At the end of the night, the Thunder had the look of an unprepared neophyte, not a veteran group that has been to the Playoffs six times in the last seven years. And while this may sound like hyperbole, they need to get more out of All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. After combining for 51.7 points during the Regular Season, the dynamic duo accounted for just thirty points on 11-of-34 shooting from the field (32.4%), including 0-of-5 from three (zero percent, folks). Even their ability to get the Free-Throw Line betrayed them, as each player only attempted four freebies apiece. Durant and Westbrook shot 498 and 573 free-throws respectively throughout the season, with Oklahoma City ranking seventh in free-throw attempts as a team (25.2). These guys need to get more aggressive, and it starts with their stars; both players averaged 27.0 points apiece against San Antonio in their quartet of Regular Season meetings. Ironically, the former’s struggles occurred despite going largely unnoticed by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, who only matched wits with the former MVP on three possessions. San Antonio is an excellent help defensive team, but outside of Leonard there are few players on their roster equipped to defending the four-time Scoring Champion. He just can’t make it easier for them by taking ill-advised shots and playing void of aggression.
Meanwhile, there’s leaving a first impression on your opponent, and then there is taking them to the woodshed, which is precisely what the Spurs (67-15, 1st in Southwest Division) did to the Thunder on Saturday Night. At no point was the game ever close, as the hosts steamrolled the visitors in the First Quarter, outscoring them 43-20 over the first twelve minutes of play, which matched a franchise record for most points in a quarter. Gregg Popovich received huge performances from the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, who at one point outscored Oklahoma City 45-40 in the First Half alone, marking the first time that Popovich had a pair of players drop twenty points in the First Half of a contest. By the end of the night, Aldridge had scored a game-high thirty-eight points on a robust 18-0f-23 shooting from the field (78.2%), while Leonard added another twenty-five points on a stellar 10-of-13 shooting himself (76.9%). It was a welcome sign from the former, who struggled throughout the First Round sweep of Memphis, who held him to just 14.5 points per game. Heavy expectations had been heaped upon the broad shoulders of the 6′-11″ Power Forward who was viewed by many as the grand prize of Free Agency; Aldridge averaged 18.0 points on 51.3% shooting from the field, along with 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 1.1 blocks in his first season in San Antonio. Game One seemed like an official changing of the guard for the franchise, as Aldridge, Leonard, and Danny Green (18 points, 5-of-6 3FG) carried the offense, while the ageless triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili accounted for sixteen points, though Parker had twelve assists, so let’s not sell him short. As we covered at length earlier, the reigning Southwestern Champions’ shooting was otherworldly, but their defense was just as impressive as they completely confounded one of the highest-scoring tandems in the league. With Durant and Westbrook stumbling on their way to thirty points on 34.2% shooting from the field, the Thunder looked all but lost on that end of the court, shooting a mere 41.2%, including a dismal 6-of-23 from beyond the arc (26.1%). The poor shooting from the perimeter was due to Popovich’s charges completely warding off the Paint, where they accumulated ten blocks, while limiting their opponent to thirty-four points in that area. The Aforementioned Aldridge and Duncan played a large role (no pun intended) in their interior defense, inducing a sense of deja vu from the days that the immortal big fella partnered with Hall of Famer David Robinson earlier in his career. San Antonio relinquished a league-low 92.9 points per game this season, including just 47.0% shooting from within the three-point arc (2nd Overall), while ranking sixth in the league in blocks (5.9). And speaking of Duncan, with his 156th postseason victory, the newly-minted 40-year old passed Robert Horry for second place on the all-time Playoff Wins List, trailing Derek Fisher by just five games. Given the turn of events last week regarding Steph Curry’s injured knee, the Big Fundamental very well may eclipse that number soon.