Defense Holds Up, Thunder Wins a Grinder – OKC 90, SAS 87

It was an ugly, disjointed and mucked up game on Sunday night, the exact recipe that the skeleton crew San Antonio Spurs were looking for. The Thunder had to grind it out and work for everything to push through a lack of rhythm and flow in this one, and ultimately, that effort was rewarded with a 90-87 victory.

“We were generating good shots and missed a lot of shots, and our defense throughout the second half stayed true. Those guys didn’t buckle one bit,” Head Coach Billy Donovan said.

It was another quick burst to begin the game for the Thunder, completely fueled by a defensive effort that forced San Antonio into 1-for-8 shooting. Those stops led to easy offense the other direction, as 4 of the Thunder’s first 5 baskets were assisted and Oklahoma City led 10-2. Donovan’s club controlled the flow for most of the first half, with the bread-and-butter of the offense coming in pick and roll with Steven Adams. The burly center scored on passes from Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony as a roll man after screening actions, and racked up 17 of his 19 points in the first half alone.

“(Adams) has been great all year. He’s doing a good job of rolling down the paint,” Westbrook said.

That lead didn’t increase all that much, however, rising to just 14. The Spurs, playing without Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Rudy Gay, were scrappy and mucked up the game by playing small and with pace, and then at times throwing a 2-3 zone out there on defense. In the third quarter, the game really got stuck in the mud for the Thunder, as shots just continued to clang off the iron for the Thunder, and the Spurs got some cheap buckets on the other end. As a result, the Spurs ripped off a 19-6 run to take a one-point lead early in the fourth quarter.

The scoring all but stopped after that until Anthony checked back in at the 7:33 mark, and the game seemed to change a bit for the Thunder after that. Westbrook fed Anthony on the block against the smaller Brandon Paul and went right to the bucket. The Thunder never trailed after that.

“We just had to relax a little bit, calm down,” Anthony said. “We were playing a little bit too fast at that point in time. We settled the game, down, got into our sets, ran what we wanted to run. We were very effective at that point in time.”

Anthony finished with just 9 points on 4-for-10 shooting, but he grabbed six huge rebounds and dished out three assists, identifying how he can make an impact on every possession.

“For me personally, it’s about doing something different and seeing where the team needs me on a night to night basis,” Anthony explained. “Just being willing to do that and being willing to sacrifice.”

After Anthony’s bucket, a fellow veteran Raymond Felton then got in on the action. After a possession started to go awry, Felton corralled the ball and got into the lane and flicked in a little floater that pinged around the rim before dropping. In the midst of a night where the Thunder shot just 1-for-10 on corner threes, a little bit of basketball luck came back the Thunder’s direction on that bucket. Felton’s veteran savvy to get to one of his spots on the floor and make a play was crucial, and it helped kick off a 9-0 burst.

“That’s what he brings to this team,” Anthony said of Felton. “That’s what I’ve known. I’ve seen it ever since high school. He’s willing to take those shots.”

One possession later, Adams made a steal and Westbrook was off to the races, getting all the way to the rim for a rare transition layup. After forcing a Spurs mid-range miss, Westbrook attacked the lane and kicked back out to Paul George, who battled foul trouble all night long and didn’t score his first point until 10:29 left in the third quarter. The do-it-all forward had missed all but one shot he attempted all game long, but he was wide open from behind the arc when he caught Westbrook’s pass, took a rhythm dribble and then buried a three.

“It felt good, especially with how the game was going,” George said. “We missed a lot of opportunities at the rim and missed a lot of open threes, but sometimes you have to win games like this.”

Over the closing four minutes the Spurs managed to claw it back to a three-point deficit on a Dejounte Murray layup with 1:59 to go. Neither team scored the rest of the way, as the Thunder’s defense locked in to make four consecutive stops, a continuation of the effort on that end of the floor all night long. Despite the nature of the game’s lack of rhythm and shots not falling, the Thunder relied on its five-man defensive principles for the entire 48 minutes, and held San Antonio to 40.8 percent shooting, including just 8-for-28 (28.6 percent) from three-point range while forcing 17 turnovers.

“It’s a learning process for us. We’ve learned from the games that we’ve dropped,” Anthony said. “These past couple games we kept our composure, we stayed with it and kept on doing what we wanted to do.”

“There’s a lot more trust being built, which is what was going to come around. We’ve been in the battles, we’ve been on the losing end,” George said. “You just tinker stuff, you work off stuff, and you just figure out ways to win.”

Thunder Highlights

By the Numbers

8-for-13 – Shooting numbers for Steven Adams, who scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half

10 – Assists for Russell Westbrook as a part of his 22-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double

10-for-21 – Free throw shooting numbers for the Thunder in the game, despite taking 50 field goal attempts in the paint

The Last Word

“These guys have given themselves up to the team. It takes time (for) a group of guys to figure out how to play together… Everybody is trying to give up something to help the team, and that’s the most encouraging thing to me.” – Head Coach Billy Donovan