The potential implications are obvious: Kevin Durant’s expected flirtation with other teams in free agency is predicated on him wanting to be someplace where he contends for a title. If the Thunder off the Spurs and advance to the Western Conference Finals, how can you call them anything but a contender? And if so, why leave?
Thursday night’s Game 6 against San Antonio may not be the biggest game in Thunder franchise history — they have been to the Finals, remember — but it’s in the top handful. It’s not as simple as “win and Durant will stay as a free agent,” but it will impact his decision making.
Thursday night’s Game 6 in Oklahoma City is going to be the Thunder’s best chance to close out the series — they do not want to head back to San Antonio for a Game 7. During the past few games, the style of play has favored Oklahoma City — things the Spurs need to solve or their 67-win season will end in the second round.
At the top of the list is an improved Thunder defense under coach Billy Donovan. In the first game of this series a disinterested Thunder team was carved up by the Spurs passing and player movement, but in each successive game the Thunder defense has gotten better and better. The Thunder have limited the Spurs transition points, and in the half court are showing attention to detail and a focus we have not seen from them up to this point.
For an example, watch Russell Westbrook last game, as pointed out by the fantastic Mike Prada on Twitter.
“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 at his postgame press conference.
The Thunder’s focused defense (you can hear them call out Spurs plays), combined with their athleticism, has forced Kawhi Leonard into more and more isolation, has bothered LaMarcus Aldridge, has forced Tony Parker to become a scorer rather than a distributor, and has disrupted the ball movement of the Spurs. For OKC to move on, that must continue (and conversely, the Spurs need to get the ball movement back to win).
Second on the list, there is the Steven Adams/Enes Kanter front line. The Thunder have gone big with this combination for 34 minutes in the last two games and are +31 when they do. With those two on the court, the Thunder have dominated the glass, particularly the offensive glass, which has slowed the Spurs desire to get out in transition. This combination should kill the offensive spacing of the Thunder, but they have made it work, while on the other end it has clogged the lane on defense, disrupting the Spurs attack. San Antonio has not been able to exploit the pair’s lack of foot speed. The Adams/Kanter combination has been key in turning around the Thunder’s penchant for terrible fourth quarters — in Game 4 the Spurs scored just 16 fourth quarter points, in Game 5 they shot 6-of-21. That will not get it done.
Finally, don’t forget the Thunder have Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There are only a handful of players walking the face of the earth capable of just taking over any NBA game and changing the outcome — the Thunder have two of them. In the last four games of this series, Durant is averaging 29.5 points on 51.8 percent shooting. They combined for 58 points last game and the Thunder offense has understandably clicked when both have been on the court this season. With that improved defense forcing turnovers, the Thunder are getting transition looks and both of these men — particularly Westbrook — are nearly unstoppable in the open court.
The Spurs are too good and too proud to go quietly into that good night — they will rage, they will make plays, they will defend better, they are not going to let the light die on their season. The Thunder are going to have to put it out. They have figured out how, but closing out a quality veteran team is the final test, the final proof that the Thunder are contenders.
We will see Thursday night if they can pass that test.
We will see if the Thunder’s future is now.