The Spurs have been known to rest their top players when their head coach feels the timing is just right, but Thursday night in Oklahoma City there was good reason for Gregg Popovich to see what his team was capable of against the Thunder while playing at full strength.
San Antonio started the game with only Manu Ginobili out of the lineup due to legitimate injury, but finished it with Tony Parker on the bench thanks to what seemed to be a new ailment of his own. In between, the Spurs battled back multiple times after facing double digit deficits, only to ultimately fall to the Thunder 100-88.
With the loss, the Spurs’ lead over the Thunder for the best record in the Western Conference is down to just a half game, with both teams tied in the loss column.
Oklahoma City got out to a lead of 20 points in the second quarter, but the Spurs had it to a manageable eight by halftime. The Thunder ran it back up to 19 points in the third, before San Antonio came back once more to cut it to six by the end of three.
Parker was able to play just two fourth quarter minutes, thanks to what Popovich characterized as “something in his shins” which forced him to be sidelined the rest of the way. That left backup guard Nando de Colo to run the point in crunch time, and San Antonio actually had the lead down to just three with under five minutes remaining.
But a couple of free throws from Russell Westbrook, followed by a dagger of a three-pointer from Kevin Durant pushed the lead back to eight, and the Spurs couldn’t get within six the rest of the way.
Popovich likely wanted to see what he had against this Thunder team that beat his Spurs four straight times in the Western Conference finals a season ago. What he saw was a younger and faster team in Oklahoma City that San Antonio can force into tough shots at times, but that ultimately used that speed and athleticism to get out on the fast break for a 19-3 advantage in that category.
Westbrook and Durant finished with 27 and 25 points respectively, and while Kevin Martin was held to just two points, the Thunder got a rare boost from Derek Fisher, who chipped in 17 points in under 15 minutes, while knocking down five of his seven shots from three-point distance.
San Antonio can beat the Thunder, but only if they’re at or near full strength. They’ll need every bit of what a healthy Parker and Tim Duncan can give them in the postseason, and they’ll need to get at least a serviceable version of Ginobili back for the later rounds of the playoffs in order to have a fighting chance.
The Thunder might have been good enough to come out of the West even if all of their opponents along the way were at 100 percent from a health standpoint. With the Spurs struggling through injury, as well as the recent troubles in Denver, Oklahoma City may end up getting a return trip to the Finals by default instead.