Coming into Tuesday’s matchup, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault knew his squad would be tested against a low-error Spurs team who wouldn’t beat themselves.
It would take a scrappy, disciplined fight on both ends of the floor for 48 minutes to compete. The Thunder managed spurts of that effort throughout the game, but was unable to string together enough of those possession to pull ahead over the machine-like offense of San Antonio.
“That’s why they’re a good team and have been for so long,” Daigneault said after San Antonio’s 112-102 win. “They had really low amount of turnovers; they got a shot every time down.”
Oklahoma City led by as many as 8 points in the first quarter as the Spurs worked to jump-start its offensive rhythm. Lu Dort, who finished the game with 12 points, opened up the game with a 3-pointer in the corner after a beautifully executed play by the Thunder with loads of ball movement. Al Horford added to the initial energy with a demonstration of his versatility as he attacked LaMarcus Aldridge from the perimeter and jammed home a one-handed slam on his way to 10 points for the night.
However, that pop and verve for the Thunder fizzled as the game went on. San Antonio eventually found its stride offensively behind the initial contributions of Patty Mills who stepped in and dropped seven points in six minutes. Then it was Spurs secondyear guard Keldon Johnson who barreled down the floor, aggressively splicing his way to the rim before the Thunder could get set defensively. All 18 of his points in the contest would come from inside the 3-point line. This coupled with the Thunder’s low-efficiency, 31-percent shooting on offense gave the Spurs its first and permanent lead of the game after holding the Thunder to only 17 points in the second.
“When you play a team like that you have to be clicking on all cylinders,” Thunder guard George Hill said. “So when you’re playing a team that’s as good of a systemized team like San Antonio, you have to really be dialed in together.”
The Thunder, whose identity is rooted in competitiveness and fight, didn’t let go of the rope despite San Antonio’s mounting lead. Dort once again opened up the half with a 3-pointer which helped to wedge the Thunder out of its offensive rut. The next three minutes consisted of Thunder players aggressively driving to the basket and either finishing at the rim or picking up fouls which would ultimately tie the game at 54 and set the table for a neck-and-neck battle for the rest of the game.
Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer in his 20-point night, the Thunder’s effort to generate looks at the rim and play downhill resulted in 50 points in the paint compared to the Spurs’ 36.
“We’re at our best when we get into paint and generate good looks for each other. Easy layup attempts and stuff like that,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’ve still got to play to our identity and that’s touching the pain, whether it be making shots in the paint or moving the ball. That’s our identity, we’re gonna play with every night.”
“That’s just what the game gave us tonight,” Daigneault said. “Tonight we’re obviously able to get to the line a little more and get to the front of the rim. But every night is different, you’ve just got to take what the defense gives and try to find the best shot.