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Thunder vs Spurs, final score: OKC closes January with a loss, 108-94

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It wasn’t much of a game, until it was...and then it wasn’t.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

box score | Pounding the Rock

The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the San Antonio Spurs on the road, 108-94. The game was a tough yet hopeful outing for the young Thunder, who were once again without Enes Kanter, and Alex Abrines was a late scratch due to back pain issues. Without Kanter’s low post offense and Abrines’ 3-point game, the Thunder struggled mightily to score in the 1st half, and it was a testament to their resolve that they managed to pull within 10 points at halftime. Russell Westbrook, who finished with 27-14-6 but with 6 turnovers, earned multiple trips to the free throw line to match the Spurs’ frequent trips, and it was enough to stay in the hunt.

Surprisingly, and hopefully, the Thunder defense was a critical part of this game actually turning into a competitive affair for about 5 minutes. The Thunder refused to quit, despite any sense of offensive flow or shooting from the perimeter. Even falling behind by 17 early into the 3rd quarter, OKC stayed the course, with Victor Oladipo playing a critical role in defending MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. Trailing 66-49, the Thunder went on a 22-2 run during the middle of the 3rd to take a 3 point lead. In the process, they finally found an offensive pace that suited them, in part fueled by stingy defense and better defensive rebounding, which ignited the fast break.

It was at this point, with just under 3 minutes to go in the 3rd and during a timeout, that I remarked to resident curmudgeon RK Anthony that OKC was about to enter a critical stretch in this game. It was time for Westbrook to rest, and all the momentum that they had gained would be turned over to Cameron Payne.

And here is what we learned.

I’m still not sure what the ceiling is for “There is no ceiling for Cameron Payne”, but I also learned there may be no floor either, as his damage to the team during this critical stretch appeared bottomless. How bad was it? His game low +/- of a -27 doesn’t even begin to tell the story on how poorly Payne played. In the past I have remarked that I have gone from passively and cautiously worried about Payne to actively worried to, as of late, him putting me in a bad mental place in how I think about him. Tonight, in this moment, where the team, sans Kanter and Abrines, rested fully in his hands, Payne played a major role in his team going from up 3 to trailing by 20. During the most critical stretch, the final two and a half minutes of the 3rd to 8:41 left in the 4th when Westbrook returned, OKC was outscored 16-4. Payne struggled to even make the most basic of entry passes into the post, missed open jumpers, and even air-balled his preferred runner in the lane. RK and I were begging Billy Donovan to put Semaj Christon into the game in place of Payne, and that’s something I never thought would happen 3 months ago.

Is it fair to put all of this on a 2nd year point guard who, to date, has yet to even play a full season of games? Against one of the top 3 teams in the NBA? With hardly any help around him? Is that fair?

It is fair. And it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair because of what I just wrote. The Spurs are a machine that hunts for weak links tirelessly and exploits them when discovered. Yet it is fair because Payne was touted coming into the league as a true PG:

He's an extremely unselfish player who passes with great creativity and loves to move the ball ahead in transition, either utilizing his excellent ball-handling skills or by finding the open man running the floor.

In the half-court, he changes speeds nicely and has a few different gears he can get to, which helps him in particular on the pick and roll, an area that made up nearly half of his overall offense. Payne sees the floor very well and utilizes all kinds of different types of passes, using both hands and sides of the court with outstanding timing and confidence.

And yet, there isn’t a trace of any of those things in his game. He looks completely lost, completely overwhelmed on the court, especially with a defensive predator like Kawhi Leonard lurking about. The one thing that has carried him up to this point - his inner confidence - even that looks to have disappeared into the ether. If a PG can’t make a simple pass into the post without repeatedly causing turnovers...he isn’t a true PG. And it’s time to send him back to the Blue to re-learn his craft before it is too late.

Random Notes

  • I thought Westbrook played perhaps one of his best games of the season tonight, despite the loss and the high turnovers. This is why - the Spurs had a specific game plan, and they have been using it literally since about 2011. They purposely allow Westbrook to get into the lane, but then seal off the rim and take away his passing lanes. In the past, Westbrook would either jack up low percentage shots or force passes into tight spots. Not tonight. He played one of the most controlled and conservative yet purposeful games I’ve ever seen. Even when OKC fell behind big, he never abandoned the game plan on what he needed to do. Even when his bigs couldn’t finish at the rim. Even when his 3-point shooters were firing bricks. That was a really well-played game by Russ.
  • Kawhi Leonard. Still awesome. OKC did enough to slow him down in the 1st half, but in the 4th, when it was go time, Kawhi delivered again and again.
  • This game revealed how important rebounding is for OKC. As in, it is not only essential, but critical, for their chances to win games. Defensive rebounds ignite the fast break, where Westbrook thrives. Offensive boards give them easy buckets, which are often lacking. And without Kanter, it made things all the more difficult. That said, did you notice that Westbrook wasn’t hunting for rebounds this game? He was far more content to let his bigs grab it and get out and run, a good sign for future playoff considerations.
  • Domantas Sabonis with a 13-10 (and 6 TO’s). This production is important, because Domas is going to be critical heading into next season. He can’t be afraid to shoot when he’s open.
  • I’m in a far less bad place after this game than I was after the loss to the Cavs. Yes, OKC finishes January with a losing record, but a few things crystalized for me. Westbrook played a great floor game, never feeling like had to go full throttle to give his team a shot. OKC can challenge the Spurs on both ends. Kawhi can’t defend Westbrook in the high PnR. They can still exploit the Spurs’ longstanding Achilles Heel - their defensive guard play against scoring point guards. And lastly, Payne is playing awful, it was on full display, and Donovan needs to make a change right now. I do believe we learned more about OKC’s ways of winning than their ways of losing, despite the double-digit loss.
  • Bakers 7, in case you were wondering.

Next game: Feb 1st vs Chicago Bulls at 8:30PM CST