The Thunder knew they would have to adjust without their defensive anchor in Serge Ibaka, but this may have been a little more than they expected. The Spurs, because they're the Spurs, took it right to the Thunder early and often, finding easy looks at the rim, particularly in the first half.
The Thunder started simply with Nick Collison taking Ibaka's place in the starting five, but just that simple switch gave the Spurs all the edge they needed in finding easy shots in the paint. A starting five of Westbrook/Sefolosha/Durant/Collison/Perkins left absolutely zero shot-blocking at the rim, and the Spurs attacked the basket relentlessly with that in mind.
That's really all this one boiled down to, just how easily the Spurs scored at the rim. There were moments, like in the 3rd quarter, when the Thunder actually worked its way back to take a lead, that should provide a glimmer of hope for OKC. The other moment came at the end of the first quarter, when the Thunder went small and closed on a 20-12 run to trim the early 11-point lead to three. That led to Scott Brooks trusting the small ball lineup more than he ever has, but that also gave the Spurs even more opportunity to exploit size advantages and find easy shots inside.
That interior scoring, along with consistent 3-point shooting, put the Thunder in a tough spot where they simply couldn't get enough stops to keep up.
Interestingly enough, it was when the Thunder stayed bigger to start the second half that they made their biggest run. The defense rotated much more cleanly, clogged the paint more effectively, and forced tougher shots and more difficult passes. It amounted to the Thunder's only lead in the second half, but it was quickly erased by the need for subs and, once again, a turn back to smallball.
That's not to criticize Brooks for any of it. Game 1 was going to be an experiment, and those two runs will certainly be good filmroom material to build off of going forward. It's about finding the combinations that work. Unfortunately for the Thunder, that experimentation is coming in the Western Conference Finals.
The team has adjusted after two ugly Game 1 losses in the first two series, and they infamously adjusted in the 2012 Conference Finals against these same Spurs. Still, Ibaka is out, and it looks like it's going to take an entirely new approach for the Thunder to turn this one around.
For tonight, it's just down 1-0, with a chance to split on the road still possible. They've got a day to come up with a way to make it happen.
What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
Scott Brooks said after the game, "we're a no excuse team," but that's really an excuse in itself, and that's sort of all anyone trying to defend the Thunder will have at this point. So excuse or no excuse, the Thunder brand of basketball was largely shaped with how it defended the Spurs. They learned in that 2012 series that they could defend the perimeter like crazy and have that security blanket down low. Now, without that there, you saw the result. Whether it was a drive off of a pass, a pump fake into a drive, or sometimes just simply blowing by the initial defender, the Spurs had their way with the Thunder defense knowing that once they got into the paint, they could get past the Thunder "big" and get off a shot or get fouled.
It also gave the Spurs an opportunity to feed their own big men in the post. Tim Duncan was unstoppable in the first half, going 9-for-12 for 21 points. And when it wasn't Duncan, it was Diaw or Splitter, all of whom simply exploited the weaker defender and finished with polished post moves.
It was basic basketball execution by the Spurs, but that's obviously what they've done so well for the past decade. They simply outexecute unless you force them to make mistakes, which the Thunder couldn't do.
For the Thunder, the offense wasn't bad by any means, though the 16 turnovers were a little higher than you'd like (just not by their standards). Durant had 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists, Westbrook had 25/5/7, Jackson had 13/2/2, so the guys that needed to produce points did just that. But it was coming largely in halfcourt sets because the Spurs were making everything on the other end.
Where the Thunder has excelled against the Spurs in the past is not just in forcing turnovers and getting out in transition, but using the tough shots to create misses and create runout opportunities off of those as well. Without those misses, which result in long rebounds, the Thunder didn't have that luxury to create easy looks in transition. Even the misses came at the rim, once again giving the Spurs defense a chance to set.
So while the Thunder stars played just fine, it came from them simply being really good, and not anything beyond that.
Again, just as it always has for the Thunder, it comes back to the defense, and unless the Thunder finds it, 53 points from Durant and Westbrook will continue to be mere footnotes.
What was, overall, the main reason why the Thunder lost? What was a key statistic to understanding the game?
I'll combine these two sections because they're the same answer. The points in the paint are obviously the most telling, with San Antonio winning that battle 66-32. The Spurs went 33-for-49 inside the paint, knocking down easy layup after easy layup, after easy postup shot. I've already covered that ad nauseum, and it will obviously be the key to OKC turning this series around.
But don't overlook how well the Spurs did in every other area, either. They finished shooting 57 percent from the field, 52 percent from 3-point range, and turned it over just eight times. Sure, that stems from poor defense from the Thunder, but it's also a reflection of how well they executed all game. They had easy looks in the paint, and that also led to easier passes to the perimeter, resulting in more open 3-pointers, but the on-ball defense by the Thunder didn't force any real struggle for the Spurs ball handlers. That gave them plenty of opportunities to control the ball and get points. They even made up for those eight lost possessions by adding eight offensive rebounds, which once again led to easy shots off of the out-of-sorts defense.
Anyway you look at this game, the numbers, the highlights, it all points to a Thunder team that just didn't play as well as the Spurs.
What does this game mean to the Thunder tonight and going forward?
The good thing for the Thunder, if there is one, is that they've been here before. Not just against the Spurs, but in this postseason at large. It seems like every time they've found themselves in a hole, they've bounced back and played exactly the way they needed to in order to get a win.
That's really what the Thunder will be relying on now. They have what it takes to adjust and squeeze out four wins, but it's going to be harder than ever against the Spurs, and without Serge Ibaka as the security blanket to cover up their mistakes. Still, championship teams adjust, and they find ways to win when they need it most. Whether it was Reggie Jackson taking over Game 4 against Memphis, Westbrook's triple-double in Game 7, the ridiculous comeback in Game 5 against the Clippers, it's just been a collection of moments that sort of defy reason. Good teams find ways to win, and the Thunder will need to find a new combination of players to somehow slow down the Spurs attack.
That's a discussion for the off day, but those questions as far as who can fill that void will certainly be asked from the coaches, players and media. Is Hasheem Thabeet really an option? Will Steven Adams get more minutes after his 40-minute showing in Game 6 against the Clippers? What about that lineup that closed out the Clippers' series?
The questions you're asking are the same ones Scott Brooks and his staff are asking right now. Down 0-1 in the Western Conference Finals, they'll need an answer soon.
- RUSSELL WESTBROOK POSTGAME OUTFIT WATCH, GAME 1:
- Grade B: Not sure whether he looks more like a philosophical farmer or Cory Matthews, but he's done worse.
- I think it's cool that Steve Kerr gave TNT a proper two weeks' notice and is finishing out the season in the booth. He's the best.
- Nick Collison's first-ever postseason start in 77 games. His first shot? Missed jumper. Second? A brick off the backboard on a left-corner three. I didn't know Nick Collison was human.
- The starting five was a mess to start. But Brooks adjusted relatively quickly, going small about six minutes in. The good thing about the Ibaka injury - if there is one - is Brooks won't have to be married to his starting lineup, so we could see a ton of adjusting all series.
- The Spurs basically employed the same defensive tactic OKC has been so successful using against them. That is, closing out like crazy on the 3-point shooters - especially Butler and Sefolosha - and basically giving them the midrange twos. It's not a bad strategy. especially given Sefolosha's continues struggles shooting.
- The starting lineup spotted San Antonio an 18-7 lead, but Brooks countered with a small lineup, sparking a 20-12 run to end the first quarter and trim the deficit to three. Credit to Brooks. Watching him adjust all series is going to be fantastic.
- Derek Fisher was awful all postseason shooting, so of course he was red-hot against the Spurs tonight
- Steven Adams floaters are becoming a thing. A good thing.
- OH MY GOD JEREMY LAMB IS PLAYING!!
- Danny Green did a "Why Not" pose after he hit a ridiculous, in-transition three. This guy must be furious.
- Brooks did a lot of good things in the first half. Sticking with a Westbrook and Durant-less lineup for a stretch in the second quarter was not one of them.
- Points in the paint after the first half: Spurs 40, Thunder 18
- "Hey Lebron, go ahead and pound your chest twice if you love this app..." THE WORST.
- Kendrick Perkins' defense on Tim Duncan was absolutely terrific, and has the potential to be series-changingly good.
- Enjoyed the clip they showed of Brooks in the huddle during the third quarter: "Keep the toughness on the defensive end. Use your speed and athleticism on the offensive end." That's pretty much exactly what got them back in the game. And exactly why I think OKC can still win this series.
- Nick Collison just keeps bleeding.
- The same starting five that struggled to start got OKC a lead midway through the 3rd. But as the subs rolled in, the Spurs closed on a 14-6 run to take a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter. Big shift there.
- Then a 6-0 run to start the fourth all but sealed the Thunder's fate. KD looked tired to start the fourth, too.
- This game down the stretch went a lot like Game 1 against the Clippers down the stretch. The offense made its boneheaded plays, but more than anything, it was the inability to get stops that never let them get back in it.
- Speaking of Serge, can you play on crutches? A stationary Serge in the paint with crutches would probably be better than what OKC had tonight.
- Don't worry, OKC is undefeated this postseason after losing Game 1.
- I'm sure everyone will have an opinion on Jeremy Lamb seeing minutes, but I'll save mine for another time. Too complicated.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant: 28 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists.
Thunder Down Under: Derek Fisher: 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting.
Thunder Blunder: Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison can share it.
May be harsh on Nick, but the two of them, along with Perk, are supposed to be defensive-minded while Russ and KD handle the offense. Neither did much of anything to slow the Spurs initial attack, though Collison did much better in that third quarter. Then he didn't play in the fourth...
Thunder Plunderer: Tim Duncan: 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting, 7 rebounds
Next game: @ San Antonio Spurs for Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday, May 21 at 8:00 PM CDT