Last Tuesday night, the Houston Rockets exposed all the warts of Oklahoma City in a win that didn’t feel as close as the 122-112 score. The Rocket bench dominated the Thunder, and Houston got pretty much any shot it wanted by attacking Carmelo Anthony as a defender all night. Without Andre Roberson, the Thunder looked overmatched.
Saturday night the Thunder reminded everyone why they are a playoff threat.
And they showed everyone why the Spurs need Kawhi Leonard to come back next week to keep them in the playoffs.
The up-and-down this season Thunder looked like the team that has beaten the Warriors twice this season (and the Rockets and Raptors once each) in a 104-94 win at home.
The loss drops the Spurs to the seven seed in the West, just one game from the nine seed and being out of the playoffs all together. With the win the Thunder move up to the five seed.
The Thunder have struggled against other playoff teams the past month, but in this game they came out attacking like they need to nightly — it showed in the free throws, the Thunder were 16-of-24 from the stripe while the Spurs were 4-of-7. What’s more Westbrook was leading with intensity on both ends — this was as good a defensive game as he probably has had all season (he’s not been consistent on that end at all). The Thunder also were much more aggressive doubling LaMarcus Aldridge from the start, which threw his game off.
Combine that defense with a Spurs offense that is leaning on Aldridge – who is banged up and went 5-of-16 from the field — and Pau Gasol to get most of their buckets, and an older Tony Parker to do the shot creation, and you get a stumped and slowed Spurs team. To a man they seemed to own it.
Leonard is expected to return to the Spurs next Thursday. It’s unknown how much rust is on Leonard, how healthy his knees really feel, and what kind of form the All-NBA level player can achieve, but the Spurs need whatever he can give. He’s not going to cover all the holes on a flawed team, but he can help. For much of the season Gregg Popovich found a way — mostly through defense — to get this team wins and keep it in the playoff chase. That defense isn’t the same right now and if not for Leonard’s return the Spurs might be the pick to fall out of the postseason all together.
OKC’s big game does not have Houston or Golden State nervous, but it’s the kind of confidence-boosting with they need in the final stretch of the season. The Thunder have been inconsistent, they need some building block wins like this to build their confidence, to get them executing good habits, before the intensity of the playoffs hit.