Oklahoma City Thunder: Can they beat the Spurs when it counts?


Regular season wins are definitely nice, and can sure round out a résumé, but can the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Spurs when it counts?

More from Oklahoma City Thunder

It was such an Oklahoma City Thunder-ish play, when you think about it.

Ish Smith charged up court and into the San Antonio Spurs’ key, where he was greeted by the typically towering and intimidating silver and black defenders. Smith stopped, turned, and tossed the ball to a trailing Serge Ibaka, who awkwardly nailed a leaning three-pointer.

Commentator Hubie Brown called it “good basketball,” but like so much Thunder ball, it was really more opportunistic than anything else. To the keen observer, Oklahoma City finds chances that aren’t really there, and more often than not, it’s up the middle of the court.

The Thunder tend to run from free throw line to free throw line, you see, as if the court was divided by football-style hash marks. Ask the team’s quarterback Russell Westbrook to throw a corner route down the sideline, and I’m not sure he could do it. Anything up the middle over the line of scrimmage though, well, that’s perhaps more his bread and butter.

The other routine Westbrook play is his coast-to-coast dribble and layup. I don’t think another player, perhaps with the exception of Allen Iverson, has traveled this course to the basket more frequently over the last 20 years. One imagines that the middle floor boards are treated to an extra coat of lacquer in the offseason.

Westbrook sure has an eye for quick scores. It’s his chief mode of operation – scrambling toward the goal as if there are just seconds left on the clock. It’s not his only move though: He also likes to get all herky-jerky around the free throw line, before tossing up off balance jumpers and runners, which generally fall because he gets such tremendous elevation.

Again, this is all pretty opportunistic to me, because it doesn’t seem to come from much planning. Nonetheless, when it works, as it did against the Spurs in their most recent meeting, it’s impressive. So it’s very hard to question the approach.

Listen, to be honest, freelancing probably suits the Thunder’s versatile mob. They seem to like dribble-driving like they’re on the playground, chucking up spinning Spaldings as if doing Air Jordan impressions.

This isn’t a slight against OKC, it’s just the way it is. They’re fast, athletic, scrappy, and I’d imagine really annoying to play on the defensive end, because they’re relentless. In a sense, it’s their offensive bounce that helps them tire opposing attackers. Westbrook is the embodiment of this, a player who can shoot 1-of-8, as he did against the Spurs early on, and yet can finish with more than 30 points on about 50 percent shooting all told.

Sometimes it’s ugly, as much as it’s furious, but it can win games. Even in the face of such beautiful teamwork from the Spurs, who with their throwback ball movement must bring smiles to the faces of yesteryear passers like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. It’s pure basketball, and most nights will trump the centrifugal force of the Thunder, or any other spinning top of a ball club.

Take the assists tallies, for example, in which the Spurs had 33 team assists to the Thunder’s 25. And a good portion of those passes were exquisitely delivered. Of course, on this occasion, San Antonio’s Globetrottering was nullified by the Thunder’s hustle, rebounding, and Westbrook’s drives. Oh, and red hot three-point shooting (60 percent as a team).

The drives and shots especially – like Ibaka’s top of the key three – must fall for OKC to succeed, however.

And they won’t every night, especially when the heat is turned up in June. This is why the club might be hopeful of quick return from their scoring virtuoso, Kevin Durant, a player who hits from all spots, both inside and outside of the hash marks.

Next: Where do the Celtics stand after the Rajon Rondo trade?