Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
As the 3rd quarter wound down, the Thunder were hanging tough. Then this happened.
The Spurs defeated the Thunder in their 3rd matchup of the season, 105-93. From the 1st quarter on, the Spurs were the superior team and deserved the big win, even while missing Tony Parker who was out with an injury. However, even after a horrid 2nd quarter where OKC saw their 10 point lead get flipped upside down to a 7 point halftime deficit, they were still managing to hold things together.
Russell Westbrook, who is still feeling the effects of an injured ankle, was struggling from the floor (11-27 on the night) but near the end of the 3rd, he began to put some offense together and was attacking the smaller Spurs guards. He scored 6 straight points to cut the Spurs lead to 1 point. Following a Boris Diaw jumper, but trailing only 73-70, the Thunder still had plenty of opportunities to keep the pressure on and make it a 4th quarter game.
And then this happened.
While this errant and kind of embarrassing attempt at drawing 3 free throws was not the end, it could be seen as the beginning of the end. The Spurs outscored the Thunder 10-4 to close out the 3rd, and then went on a 9-0 run to start the 4th, and at that point the game was done.
To be sure, there are excuses. The Thunder were tired, having played 4 games in 5 nights. Russell Westbrook was working back from an ankle injury. The Thunder were fatigued trying to come back from a big deficit. All of these things come into play when players have to make decisions under duress. However, plays like this cannot happen, not against a potential playoff foe. That was a Gilbert Arenas "I'm just messing around" kind of play, not the play of a team who understands that possessions matter, especially against the Spurs (and Heat). Of course we're going to hear the usual array of naysayers who like to criticize Westbrook and his decision-making, but that isn't what this is about, either. We've seen Kevin Durant force the issue, maybe not at 45 feet out, but certainly in plays that make you wonder if he understands game situation his team is in.
Perhaps that is the biggest chasm that separates the Thunder from the Spurs and Heat right now. It is not the bench, it is not the coaching, and it is certainly not the absence of James Harden. Rather, it is the understanding that when the games really matter, possessions are the most precious thing a team can have. When you give them away, especially in a poor attempt to earn cheap free throws, those teams know better than OKC how to make the pain run deep.
There are a number of lessons to be gleaned from tonight's loss to the Spurs. Hopefully this lesson here goes a little bit deeper than simply, "Don't shoot a contested 45 foot jump shot unless you really, really have to."