At this time two days ago, the Thunder were tied with the Trail Blazers for the top spot in the Northwest Division, and both teams were tied for second in the Western Conference, each a full game back from the Spurs for the top spot. Since the Blazers had taken the first two games of the series against the Thunder, they technically held the tie-breaker edge for second in the Western Conference, rendering the Thunder third by default. Coincidentally, the Thunder were staring at a back-to-back stretch against both teams, with a chance to claim the top spot from the Spurs if they could win both games.
The Thunder had to work for nearly every second of the game, but they were able to finish the first part of the back-to-back with a 105-97 victory over the Blazers that put the Thunder a full game ahead for sole possession of the Northwest Division’s top spot. Although Kevin Durant’s 46-point outing was the talk of the NBA world the next day, the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge went ice-cold for the last half of the 4th quarter, missing his final six shots from the field, weighed even heavier into the Thunder’s amazing comeback victory.
At this time yesterday, the Thunder were a mere half-game behind the Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference, and were, if not on the plane, likely already in San Antonio prepping for their showdown for “Best in the West”. Unlike the night prior, where it was the Blazers who enjoyed a 2-0 season series lead over the Thunder and the Thunder hoping for a series split at best, the shoe was on the other foot.
A Nov. 27th contest saw the Thunder snap an 11-game Spurs winning streak, winning 94-88. In a Dec. 21st showdown, it was the Thunder who were enjoying an impressive run. A 113-100 victory gave the Thunder their 17th win over an 18 game span, and a 2-0 season series lead over the Spurs.
At that point, the Thunder looked nearly unstoppable. Even getting caught by the “Raptor Trapdoor” and losing Russell Westbrook following the 29-point victory over the Knicks on Christmas Day, the Thunder were still able to win two more: A 4-point win over the Bobcats, and an impressive 31-point victory over the Rockets saw the Thunder stretch their run to 20 wins over 22 games.
It was exactly one week after Westbrook’s Christmas Day triple-double against the Knicks that his absence became severely felt. The Thunder would squander two 16-point leads in a row: One which resulted in their first New Year’s Eve loss of the OKC era, 98-95 to the Blazers, and a Jan 2nd heartbreaker when Joe Johnson sunk the buzzer-beater to steal a 95-93 Nets victory. This was the beginning of a stretch where the Thunder dropped 5 of 8 games, culminating in a gut-wrenching 90-87 loss to the Grizzlies that saw Marc Gasol return to action for the first time since spraining his left MCL.
Luckily for the Thunder, they seem to have stepped up their game, going into AT&T Center on a 4-game winning streak. This may have been the first game of the series where they had to deal with Westbrook’s absence, but the Spurs were dealing with the absence of two of their better defenders. Tiago Splitter was out with a sprained right shoulder, and Danny Green was out with a non-displaced fracture of his second left metacarpal. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I lost everybody but the med students and the anatomy buffs. In layman’s terms, a non-displaced fracture in when you’ve broken a bone, but the broken pieces are still properly aligned. The second left metacarpal is the bone in your left hand/palm under the index finger. Unfortunately, the show had to go on for the Spurs, because a win would move them one step closer to the season series split. A loss not only meant the next game would be to avoid series sweep by the Thunder, but a loss also meant that they would fall a half-game behind the Thunder for the Western Conference’s top spot.
The absence of Green and Splitter were immediately felt, as the Thunder opened the game on a 6-0 run. The Spurs battled valiantly, closing the lead to 3 (10-7) with 8:07 to play in the 1st, but a 9-2 Thunder run opened up a 10-point Thunder lead (19-9) with 5:21 remaining. The score was still 23-13 in the Thunder’s favor with 3:30 left in the quarter, when a 9-2 Spurs run cut the lead to 3 (25-22) with 53.6 seconds to play in the period. The Thunder were able to beat the Spurs back slightly to claim a 6-point lead (30-24) going into the 2nd.
The 2nd quarter started with two Boris Diaw free throws that were immediately answered with a Derek Fisher 3-ball to give the Thunder a 7-point advantage (33-26). With the score 36-30 for the Thunder at the 9:32 mark, a 5-0 Spurs run pulls them to within sniffing distance of the lead, 36-35. It remained a one-possession game for a few minutes, until a Diaw 3-pointer tied the game at 43-all with 5:50 to play in the half. Durant answered with a driving lay-up at the other end, but another Diaw 3-ball brought the Spurs their first lead of the night (46-45) with 4:35 left in the half. Then the Spurs suffer yet another “devastating-for-their-defense injury”, as Kawhi Leonard is forced to leave the game at the 3:36 mark due to a non-displaced (still aligned) fracture (break) of the right fourth metacarpal (of the bone in the right hand/palm under the ring finger). The back-end of Tim Duncan’s free throw gave the Spurs a 49-47 advantage, their largest of the game. This was immediately met with a 5-0 run to give a 3-point advantage back to the Thunder (52-49) with 2:17 left until the break. The buzzer sounded with the Thunder taking a 55-53 lead into halftime.
The 3rd quarter started with the a 10-2 Spurs run that gave them a 63-57 lead. With 8:26 left in the 3rd, the Thunder responded with a 6-0 run of their own to tie the game 63-all with 7:17 remaining in the quarter. The Thunder hung closely, even establishing their first lead since the 11:37 mark of the 3rd, a 69-67 lead with 4:17 left in the period. There were six total ties in the 3rd, the last one being 73-all at the 1:29 mark. The 3rd would end with a Jeremy Lamb 3-pointer giving the Thunder a 76-75 lead, which would be their first since losing the last one at the 3:54 mark to a Tony Parker jump shot that made the score 69-all.
The bad news for the Spurs is that the Lamb 3-ball would give the Thunder the lead for good. Sure the Spurs were able to tie it two more times, with the last one being 80-all with 10:33 to play, but a 5-0 run kept the Spurs at bay 85-80 with 9:37 remaining in the 4th. It stayed a one-to-two-possession game all the way to the 2:00 mark. With the score 100-96, the Thunder sparked an 8-2 run that established a 10-point lead (108-98) with 1:08 until the final buzzer, which put the dagger in the heart of the Spurs. Once the final buzzer sounded, the Thunder had taken the top spot in the Western Conference by a score of 111-105. This win puts the now 33-10 Thunder one-half game up on the Spurs, who fall to 32-10. This win also gives the Thunder a 3-0 season series advantage over the Spurs, who can only hope to avoid the series sweep at this point.
Durant’s 36 points led the Thunder, and not only marks his ninth straight with 30+, but according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is also one of only five players in NBA history to score 30+ and dish 4+ assists in nine straight games. Reggie Jackson hit an impressive 27 points, and Serge Ibaka added 14.
Duncan had the game’s only double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Parker’s 37 led all scorers to take the floor, and Marco Belinelli chipped in 13 points. Diaw and Manu Ginobili combined for 24 off the Spurs bench (Diaw: 14, Ginobili: 10).
The Thunder get one day of rest before embarking on their seventh back-to-back of the season. At least they look to be getting the hang of them. Of the last four back-to backs, they’ve swept three, with the “Raptor Trapdoor” being the only loss in all eight contests. They will also be looking for their sixth consecutive victory when they hit TD Garden in Boston, MA to face the Celtics. This will be the final time they face each other this season. The Jan. 5th contest ended in a 119-96 rout. I don’t see this being as easy this time around, as the Celtics will have Rajon Rondo in the starting lineup for this game. Tip off is scheduled for 6:30pm CST and will be broadcast via Fox Sports Oklahoma, WWLS The Sports Animal, and NBA League Pass.