Few people anticipated the Spurs would be sitting at the seventh seed in the West by Christmas. No one thought the Thunder would be out of the playoffs after a third of the season. Injuries to key players for both teams have turned that far-fetched possibility into reality, which only enhanced the importance of this game. Russell Westbrook made sure Oklahoma City didn't slip up again with a monster game to ensure the Thunder came away with a 114-106 victory.
With Kevin Durant missing his fourth game in a row, the most aggressive version of Westbrook made an appearance. Westbrook was everywhere early, for good and bad, creating turnovers, getting offensive rebounds and yes, missing some rushed shots. He finished the first half with a stat line that perfectly illustrated his chaotic influence in the game: 15 points on 15 shots, four rebounds, four assists, four steals and three turnovers. His energy rubbed off on his teammates, as the Thunder often out-hustled the Spurs to offensive boards. The 13 second-chance points and the +11 differential on free-thow attempts were the main reason why the Thunder finished the half up three points, 50-47.
Westbrook continued to be on attack mode to start the second half, posting up Tony Parker and commanding extra defensive help every time down the court. Not only were the Spurs unable to stop him but all the attention they had to direct Westbrook's way opened up offensive rebounding opportunities and open looks for his teammates. His nine points and five assists in the frame helped the Thunder get a a double-digit lead with a little over four minutes to go. But the team couldn't keep up that blistering pace without its leader. As soon as Westbrook sat, the Spurs went on a 15-3 run to take the lead going into the final quarter.
The Thunder's two point guard lineup failed to make up for Westbrook's absence and Tiago Splitter, who looked tentative and mistake-prone in the first half, came alive to provide an inside presence. The Spurs surge, however, proved to be a mirage. Westbrook came back in and picked up where he had left off, attacking on the secondary break and wreaking havoc on dribble drives in the half court. Whatever momentum the Spurs had going for them evaporated quickly as the Thunder regained control en route to a very valuable road win.
Considering both Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard were out, it's hard to call it a rematch of the Western Conference finals. Long gone are Derek Fisher and Caron Butler, replaced in the rotation by Anthony Morrow and Perry Jones. Patty Mills is not ready to go yet, which means Cory Joseph was backing up Tony Parker. Aron Baynes has claimed the back-up center spot for San Antonio while Steven Adams has relegated Kendrick Perkins to the bench. Yet no matter who suits up, Thunder-Spurs is always played with a playoff intensity.
3 other things we learned
The Thunder are the Spurs' nightmare. There's something about the Oklahoma City Thunder's physicality and athleticism that presents a problem for the Spurs that other similar teams don't. The elite scorers OKC has gives everyone fits, but the trapping, help-and-recover style of defense really hurts the Spurs' offensive rhythm. San Antonio beat the Thunder last season in a seven-game series and they can do it again. But they would love to avoid Oklahoma City in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City will be the best eighth-seeded team ever. The Thunder are too far back to realistically claim a higher seed, unless they go on a huge win streak. But unless injuries continue to plague them, they will make the playoffs. The Golden State Warriors could finish with the best record in the super competitive Western Conference and still be underdogs in the first round. That's how high the Thunder's talent level is.
The Spurs need Kawhi Leonard back. The 2013/14 Finals MVP is out indefinitely with a hand injury. Before the game against the Thunder, the Spurs' defense was over 11 points better when Leonard was on the court as opposed to sitting. And his absence forces other players into bigger roles they are not ready for. If Kawhi doesn't return soon, home court advantage in the first round could be hard to get for the Spurs.