SAN ANTONIO -- Steven Adams writhed in pain on the floor. As he stood up, it was clear he could put little pressure on his left foot. Still, minutes later, he was back on the floor playing through gritted teeth for his Thunder teammates.
Jerami Grant took all the punishment he could take. With Adams and Nerlens Noel sidelined, it was up to Grant to sustain the repeated body blows from San Antonio Spurs center LaMarcus Aldridge.
Terrance Ferguson saw Spurs players rain in their first 14 three-pointers. In a matchup between the league’s best three-point shooting team and the Thunder who are at the bottom of the pack, Ferguson confidently gave it right back to the Spurs with a career-best seven three-point makes of his own.
Then there was Paul George and Russell Westbrook, the engine and everlasting battery of the Thunder’s hard-driving vehicle. George gave it his all on the defensive end, snatching up a crucial steal that helped force the first of two overtimes. Westbrook was absolutely sensational, the sustaining force that consistently attacked the rim, created offense for teammates and was the personification of the type of heart and competitiveness that has defined this Thunder team for the entirety of its time in Oklahoma City.
It was a magical night for the Thunder players and coaching staff. They lost the game.
“It was fun, especially to play extra minutes,” said George. “There’s a lot to take away for us, for how we played.”
Despite that final number in the box score, a 154-147 defeat, the Thunder gained so much more than an easy-does-it win would have provided. There was togetherness on the floor and brotherhood after the game in the locker room as the Thunder recognized the resilience, toughness and commitment required to hang in there long enough not only to force overtime but a second one.
Aldridge, operating out of the left block, relentlessly went to work in knocking down nearly impossible, highly contested jump shots over both Adams and Grant. The defense couldn’t have been tighter. The shooting was better, as Aldridge finished with a career-high 56 points and also leading a 26-29 Spurs effort at the free throw line by making all 16 of his attempts.
“LaMarcus stepped up, made some big plays. He really carried them down the stretch,” George noted. “It was just tough at that point. Steve-O going down, (Grant) did the best he could. It’s a team effort at that point. You lose a guy like Steve-O, it put us in a bind a little bit.”
Sure, the Spurs are the best three-point team in the league, but coming into the game their average was just under 40 percent. Tonight’s 16-for-19 effort is likely going to alter that number significantly. Surviving that kind of three-point shooting, not just from the sheer volume of points but the emotional and mental weight they can carry was a burden the Thunder shouldered masterfully.
“Obviously we wanted to win but we stayed with it, stayed to our principles and did the things we were supposed to do,” said Westbrook.
“We knew at some point, the changes that we had to make and needed to make were going to get us back into the game, which it did,” George added.
The credit goes to the Thunder’s offense, which hadn’t quite found its extra gear yet this season. Tonight was a super encouraging sign and the most explosive performance of the season. The team as a whole shot 50.9 percent, including 15-for-35 (42.9 percent) from three in addition to a plus-12 edge in points in the paint, plus-11 advantage in second chance points and 25 fast break points.
Westbrook was the literal driving force behind it all, attacking the deep paint, taking almost entirely high percentage shots and not just finding but carving out openings for his teammates to score. After starting the night shooting 9-for-11 on two-point field goal attempts, Westbrook shifted his focus more to creation as the game wore on. Westbrook became the first person besides, well, himself, to record a 20-point, 20-assist triple-double by putting up 24 points, 13 rebounds and a career-best 24 assists compared to just 3 turnovers in 47 minutes of action.
“(Westbrook) is one of those dudes, mate, who attracts so much attention,” Adams said. “He does a good job of finding players and whatnot. You have to respect him because he’s a really good player.”
“I was just trying to find the open guy, make plays, do what I usually do,” Westbrook deflected.
The Thunder started this one on a 10-2 burst right out of the gate, but the Spurs countered with 10 straight of its own and then hit hard again when a second unit three-point barrage charged a 17-1 run late in the first quarter. Besides a burst heading into halftime to cut the lead to 6, the Thunder basically played from behind the entire game until the start of the fourth quarter.
While the Spurs kept knocking down three-pointers, free throws and baseline jumpers, the Thunder hung in there and then pounced with a 19-6 spurt in the opening minutes of the final frame in regulation. Getting 6 crucial points at the rim from reserve Abdel Nader (9 points on 4-for-4 shooting), a pair of three-pointers by Dennis Schröder (14 points, 4 assists) and a driving dunk from Grant (career-high 25 points) helped set up an Adams putback that tied the game at 114.
Just moments later, everything changed and that momentum was stunned. Adams rolled his ankle while defending Aldridge on that left wing. The spot on the floor must have been sanded smooth from all the rubber-soled wear and tear it got in the game, and there Adams lay, trying to pick himself up off the court to limp to the locker room.
The Spurs took advantage of Adams’ absence and repeatedly went to Aldridge on the block for a 10-3 run. The Thunder didn’t buckle, getting a pair of three-pointers from Ferguson (21 points on 7-for-10 three-point shooting) before George surprise-trapped Marco Belinelli on the sideline to force a pivotal steal that allowed the Thunder to tie the game on a Westbrook to Grant lob layup and force overtime.
“I saw my guy was out of the play and Belinelli had his back to me, not knowing what was going on and I was able to make a play on it,” George recalled.
The opening frame in overtime was a back-and-forth affair, but the Thunder rallied again from a late deficit with back-to-back buckets from Westbrook to Grant on a post-up and Adams, who barely lifted off his sore ankle enough for a dunk to send the game to a second five-minute period.
In the extra, extra overtime, the Thunder’s juice ran out. The Spurs closed the game on an 11-4 run while the Thunder failed to make a field goal after the game was tied at 143. The Spurs made 6 of their 26 total free throws in the closing minutes, and now both teams will reset for the next 40 or so hours. Then it’ll be time to do it all over again, this time in Oklahoma City.
“It just shows everybody wants to win, that everybody will do whatever it takes to win a basketball game,” said Westbrook. “It’s a tough place to play, a tough night, but we’ll see them again on Saturday, so we’ll be ready to go.”
Highlights: Thunder at Spurs - 1/10/19