The last time the San Antonio Spurs won 20 basketball games in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the ones to stop them.
It was fitting, then, that with a chance to win 20 straight once again, the Spurs would take a 19-game win streak into OKC on Thursday night.
The Thunder snapped this one, too with a resounding 106-94 victory.
Snapping that first streak, back in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, was obviously far more important in the grand scheme of things. It may still be having its effect nearly two years later. Since that series, where after trailing 0-2 the Thunder reeled off 4 wins in a row, OKC has a record of 10-2 against the veteran Spurs squad.
The Thunder clearly found the edge they needed in that Game 3 two years ago. What flipped the script in that series, and what continues to flip scripts in matchups like on Thursday, is the Thunder's defensive activity.
The Spurs are famous for their unselfish play and seemingly unparalleled ability to move the basketball. It catches teams out of position more often than not, and they are full of shooters that can hit open, or even slightly-contested, shots.
Where the Thunder has excelled is in simply being athletic enough to keep up with that ball movement. Their defense has reach, and when they keep their hands active and constantly keep up the intensity, the Spurs' open shots become fewer and farther between.
That's what happened in the second half of Thursday's victory, a victory which saw the Thunder sweep the season series 4-0.
The Spurs are still a top threat in the West, but it's hard not to look at that, and at tonight's result, and think the Thunder doesn't at least kind of have their number.
It's not just the active defensive rotations but the rest that goes into OKC's defense, too. From the opening tip, the Thunder clearly made a concerted effort to get back in transition and prevent the easy runouts that the Spurs are so capable of getting. There were still several defensive breakdowns, but the effort was noticeable, and a vast improvement over the oftentimes lazy defense we've seen for much of the second half on the season.
The effort was all the reassurance Thunder fans needed headed into the final two weeks of the season. It's still a longshot the Thunder gets a 1 seed. But at this point, with Memphis a possible 8-seed, it may not be the worst thing in the world.
What's more important is the fact that the Thunder showed they are more than capable of reaching that level when needed. The game had a playoff feel to it, and OKC responded with one of their best performances of the season. They may need to win one on the road against San Antonio in a possible Western Conference Finals rematch, but this time around, it will be the Spurs that have to flip the script to get past the Thunder.
via @ BenGolliver
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Once you get past the big things above, the game begins to drift to all the other smaller things that offer even greater promise for the future.
Like the fact that the Thunder is still without Thabo Sefolosha, whose length and defensive ability on the pick-and-roll is always key against the Spurs.
Or the fact that Westbrook is still on a minutes restriction, so when he goes on bursts like he did late in the third quarter, he may not need to come out in the middle of it come playoff time.
Or the fact that Caron Butler, regardless of how many dumb shots he takes (only a couple tonight!) was actually super good defensively tonight, picking up six steals and what seemed like 15 more tipped passes.
Or the fact that Serge Ibaka was an absolute beast defending the rim tonight, making it nearly impossible for the guards to finish layups, Duncan and Splitter to get off easy shots or anyone to have any semblance of success in the paint against him tonight.
Or, my favorite, the fact that Reggie Jackson may have been legitimately harmed by someone within the Spurs organization, given the way Jackson goes after San Antonio. The dude absolutely torches the Spurs every single time they meet, and it was no different tonight, as Jackson finished with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, 4 assists and 4 rebounds. He was getting whatever he wanted against them, including some nice pick and roll action with both Collison and Ibaka. He will undoubtedly be an X factor should these teams meet in the playoffs.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder won?
That defense. That terrifying, active, swarming, hands/arms/limbs-all-over-the-place defense. That's what has made the Thunder's recent lull so frustrating, because they are always capable of reaching this intensity of the defensive end. In fact, for pretty much the entire first half of the season, they were.
Then Thabo and Perk went down and it seemed like the intensity just wasn't there. Unlike tonight, they would give up early on a missed rotation, or just not even bother covering it at all at times. Was it complacency? Was it the fact that their two biggest defensive anchors weren't there to bark out orders? Who knows. All that's known is that the Thunder can absolutely be an elite defensive team when they're dialed in like they were tonight.
What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
Just 13 turnovers for the Thunder, compared to 18 for the Spurs. That, along with 49 percent shooting from the field, meant the Thunder used their possessions wisely.
49 percent isn't earth-shattering, but given how well the Spurs were defending for most of the game, particularly Durant, it's a respectable percentage. And it highlights how well the Thunder worked to get good shots and take care of the ball. The Spurs thrive on taking your mistakes and moving in transition to get open looks. So taking care of the ball, as well as getting back in transition when they did miss/turn it over (as mentioned above) put the Thunder is a much easier position to defend.
One other stat that is interesting and shows both how hard the Thunder D had to work, and how difficult it is to guard the Spurs, is in the raw passing numbers. According to the NBA Stats player tracking, the Spurs passed the ball 351 times tonight. The Thunder? Just 210. Was this the Thunder forcing more passes, or the Spurs passing more to make the Thunder have to defend more? It's probably a little bit of both.
Either way, it's no easy task to guard the Spurs, but all of that passing meant least looks at the hoop, and more opportunity for turnovers, both of which worked in the Thunder's favor.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
It's basically all been covered already, but just to reiterate: The Thunder should have all the confidence in the world that they can beat the Spurs in a playoff series.
Problem is, the West is loaded. I mean, LOADED. It's going to be (most likely, barring a collapse that would drop them to the 3 seed) two series against difficult teams that can absolute beat the Thunder if they don't play with the same energy and focus that they played with tonight.
It's a cliche, and you could say it about a lot of teams, but it really is hard to imagine any team knocking off Westbrook and Durant in a 7-game series if they play at their peak. For that matter, Durant wasn't even close to his best self tonight. You can give a lot of the credit to the Spurs D for that, but the point is that the Thunder's ceiling is seemingly nonexistent.
It will take this kind of effort though. The Spurs may be the best team in the West, record-wise, but teams like the Clippers, Rockets, Warriors, Grizzlies, all have given in the past - and are more than capable of giving in the playoffs - absolute fits to the Thunder in the playoffs.
Feel good about it, Thunder, because it means you can beat anybody, but don't get too confident and think that it's two-dog race in the West. Because this is just the beginning of the hard part.
-I went the entire recap without mentioning KD's 25+ point streak. He extended it to 39 straight scoring 25 or more, finishing with 28. One away from Michael Jordan's modern-era record!
-As he made his way to the free throw line for his 25th point, KD cracked a smile. And when he made it, he smiled a little bigger. He knows what's up.
-You know what? That moment when KD's smile cracked, and it combined with the loudest "M-V-P" chants of the year, that may be my favorite moment of the season. It really does seem like this has been the year of Durant, as far as the regular season is concerned. He deserves big moments like this. He always says the right thing, always does the right thing. It's nice to see the human side once in a while instead of the devastating basketball cyborg sent to lay ruin to the entire earth. He's a 25 year old that's a game away from tying a milestone that only the greatest basketball player ever achieved. Good for KD to take a step back and enjoy all he's done right there.
-That KD drive at the end of the first, when he juked Duncan and finished with the two-handed slam? That was niceeeee.
-I'm fine-tuning my "are you serious, Patty Mills?" face for the playoffs.
-Zach Lowe had a bit in his Tuesday column about how Westbrook's D sometimes borders on reckless. You saw that tonight a few times. The one that stands out was in the second quarter, when he collapsed on Diaw and knocked it loose. Problem was, Westbrook fell down in the process and the loose ball rolled right to a wide-open Parker who buried the open jumper. It's a great play and you love the energy, but you have to be sure you can finish it off if you're going to take that chance.
-Of course, two minutes later he did the thing where he lets the dribbler by and stripped the heck out of him, which led to a foul in transition on the other end. Good Russ, Bad Russ.
-Speaking of, I don't have an actual number on this, but my guess is Russ is a 30 percent 3-point shooter when he has a clean look, and 100 percent when he rushes it like he did to go 2-for-1 at the end of the first half.
-Andre Roberson made a corner three. I saw it with my own eyes. Did you see it?! OK, good, I didn't imagine it.
-If he was on any other team, I would really hate the way Westbrook draws fouls on his jumpshots.
-It's to the point where we need someone to investigate if something happened between the Spurs and Reggie Jackson in his personal life. He is next-level against these guys.
-Just in case you were worried about Westbrook's knee, that reverse tomahawk dagger slam? Methinks he's feeling fine.
Thunder Wonder: Serge Ibaka: 11 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks
I sort of touched on it in the recap, but you can't overstate how much Ibaka did for the Thunder defensively tonight. Great quote from Westbrook via Anthony Slater: "He may have had two or three blocks, but he probably altered 25." Couldn't have said it better myself, Russ. He completely changed what the Spurs wanted to do on offense. One of the best defensive games I can remember from any Thunder player.
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook: 27 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds.
His energy really sparked the Thunder in that second half. The guy really is relentless.
Thunder Blunder: No one.
Maybe I'm just overly excited about the fact that this team just swept a season series against the Spurs, but I really don't think anyone that played tonight for OKC played poorly. Butler didn't shoot well, but his defense was huge. Fisher didn't do too much in 15 minutes, but he did have one of his patented momentum-changing three pointers. Basically, no one was bad enough to the point where they put the team at risk.
Thunder Plunderer: Patty Mills, 21 points, 5-7 from 3 point range.
at Houston Rockets. Friday, April 4, 8:30 P.M. CST