Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti famously learned his craft as an underling for the San Antonio Spurs. R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich, among others, taught Presti how to thoughtfully construct a team. When given his own team, Presti ingrained the Spurs Code, got lucky with a few ping-pong balls, and set about building his house from the foundation up.
Now, he gets to test his team against the prototype. Popovich and Buford, like Spider-Man in the upcoming movie, have to try to stop what they helped to create. The Team That Would Be San Antonio just cruelly dispatched the NBA’s signature franchise.
No fan would ever confuse these Thunder with the Popovich-Duncan-Parker Spurs – they are too erratic and occasionally sloppy for such an analogy to work – and yet there was something Spurs-like about the basketball surgery Durant, Westbrook and Co. performed over the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth.
The shooting was impressive, borderline unconscious at times, but the ability to draw fouls and limit turnovers truly marked them as a professional basketball team.
Oklahoma City began the fourth quarter with one of its vaunted small lineups: Nick Collison in the middle, Kevin Durant as the other big, and Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Derek Fisher flanking them.
A similar alignment had wiped the Lakers off the court in Game 1. Tonight, they scored the first eight points of the final period to stretch a six-point lead to 14, effectively choking off the Lakers’ last gasp.
OKC’s small-ball alignment was all the more impressive because it worked against a team with vastly more size and power on the front line. The Lakers’ true trump card since the 2008 Pau Gasol trade has been its multidimensional inside rotation, which was frequently so dominant as to relegate Kobe Bryant to a supporting role for minutes at a time.
The less-celebrated Thunder big men, though, neutralized the Gasol-Andrew Bynum duo as effectively as any playoff opponent over the past five years. For the second-round series, Bynum averaged 9.4 rebounds and shot 43.5% from the field, while Gasol posted 10.0 boards and 44.4% shooting.
Those numbers are reasonable, but far from dominant, which was what the Lakers needed in this series.
Durant did a far better job of shouldering his team’s inside burden, upping his rebounding to 8.6 per game against LA while blistering the nets with 51.6% shooting. He mixed his inside and outside games almost flawlessly over the course of the series and earned himself a lifetime pass on NBA Entertainment’s highlight reel with the shots that won Game 2 and Game 4.
He will face tougher defensive pressure in the next round, both from tenacious rookie Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs’ time-tested schemes. By seizing control of his team and prying several victories from the jaws of defeat, though, Durant has already grown up several times over in these playoffs. With apologies to LeBron James, everyone watching has been fortunate to be a witness.
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.