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SAN ANTONIO — The Oklahoma City Thunder have never pinned their success to precision. Their best basketball is overwhelming—fast and physical in a way that even some of the best teams in the league cannot counter. Their worst is unbalanced and disorganized, creating points of vulnerability where there should be none.
Three wins over the San Antonio Spurs in this second-round series have not changed this. They have, however, showcased a Thunder team increasingly aware of its own powers of disruption. If Oklahoma City cannot execute to the same rigor as San Antonio, its players have dedicated themselves to the task of making sure the Spurs fail to meet their own usual standards.
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“Really, it was a game for us where I think both teams had a hard time consistently getting into any kind of offensive rhythm because I felt both teams’ defenses were playing at a pretty high level,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said.
Oklahoma City broke the gridlock by dominating the game at its margins. A defense that can sometimes drift off focus made its most concerted efforts yet to finish possessions with a hard closeout. Russell Westbrook swooped in on both ends to steal away rebounds from unsuspecting Spurs. Fast-break points didn’t come often, though the Thunder pushed the ball upcourt quickly whenever the circumstances allowed. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams turned OKC’s failed initial scoring attempts into redeemable second chances. In reading the ledger of a 95–91 win on Tuesday, every one of those energy plays registers as a critical development.
“We came into tonight’s game saying we wanted to get all the 50–50 balls,” Westbrook said. “I thought we did a great job of that for 48 minutes. We don’t want another team saying they played harder than us. I thought we did a good job of getting loose balls, getting rebounds, getting tips, and getting extra possessions to help us win the game.”
Committed, well-applied hustle goes a long way. The Thunder can be guilty, in some cases, of exerting themselves to self-destructive ends: furious gambles at the expense of sound defense, fruitless drives into traffic when a kickout would do, and desperate attempts to rebound that sacrifice the team’s floor balance. Oklahoma City worked smart on Tuesday night, which swung just enough in the final balance to tilt the series, three games to two, in its favor.
The Thunder’s fuller defensive possessions have nudged the Spurs well out of their comfort zone. Kawhi Leonard has been forced to act as an engine out of isolation. LaMarcus Aldrige, who has cooled considerably since the opening games of the series, is now giving up open mid-range looks to drive into shorter, contested ones. Tony Parker has little choice but to attempt to play more of a scoring role—a development which the Thunder, in their defensive execution, almost seem to encourage. Their success in defending the motion of the Spurs’ offense is as much about creating the illusion of difficulty as actual difficulty.
“We like to make it seem like it’s hard for them to score on our half-court defense,” Thunder guard Andre Roberson said. “So we try to get back and limit their transition points as much as possible and make them score it. I felt we did a great job overall getting into our coverage and kind of being the aggressors tonight.”
Once San Antonio becomes convinced that the progressive options in its offense have been snuffed out, its attack devolves into straight lines against solid individual defenders. Leonard can jab step and shot fake all he wants against Durant, his primary defender down the stretch. Some of those moves will work. Most, however, will be met with a lanky, committed defender who knows how he can pare down the efficiency of an already difficult shot by staying down and squaring up.
The Thunder don’t have to play perfect defense in this series to win. They simply have to do enough to knock the Spurs off balance and then commit to keeping them there. Every possession they’re able to confine to an isolation on one side of the court works in their favor. Create a pattern of those plays, and the occasional bits of imprecision fall away in a winning margin.
“When we’ve locked up and played good defense, then you can offset and overcome a rough shooting night, maybe a turnover here, a missed shot,” Donovan said. “You can overcome.”
The Thunder survived eight turnovers from Westbrook and five from Durant; a few late-game openings for Danny Green; the spacing sacrificed by playing Adams and Kanter together for significant minutes; the precedent of their previous late-game struggles; and a generally poor shooting night overall. Stops made it possible for OKC to chip away gradually before taking a lead of its own in the game’s final minute. The work, made to extend the Thunder and strain the Spurs, proved enough.