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Last night, the Oklahoma City Thunder handed the San Antonio Spurs their 29th loss of the season, winning the home game 104-94. For two teams who are middling far more than we expected coming into the season, this game says a lot about their trajectories.
On the Thunder’s side, Russell Westbrook had a typical Westbrook night. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, the reigning MVP scored 21 points in a triple-double. Despite grabbing seen boards, Carmelo Anthony had a dreadful shooting night, going 1-8 from the field, including 0-3 from three. Paul George also had poor shooting splits (4-16 including only one of eight attempts from three) but made up for it by the tune of 10 rebounds, five assists, a couple of blocks, and a steal.
Jerami Grant came up big from the bench, scoring 15 points to go with eight rebounds. This made up for Steven Adams, who had an uncharacteristically poor night on the glass, posting only one rebound in 17 minutes of action.
Ignoring a few glaring issues that will need to be addressed going forward, the Thunder had a good night, claiming their place at the fifth seed in the West. For a team that has been sagging toward the bottom of the playoff standings, this game made all the difference in momentum.
For the Spurs, things aren’t looking as bright. San Antonio is floundering its hardest since hitting rock bottom in the 1997 draft that landed them Tim Duncan. While there are certain parallels to twenty years ago (David Robinson’s injury versus Kawhi Leonard’s injury), the Spurs are too good to earn a high lottery pick. For the first time in twenty years of sustained success, however, they may be too bad to earn a playoff seed.
It’s not even the fact that the Spurs could have a losing record for the first time in twenty years — they’re still at a win percentage of over .500. The real significance lies in their shot at the playoffs. The Spurs are one game ahead of missing the playoffs. Yes, you read that right, one game. Every game going forward matters if they don’t want to break that twenty-year streak.
Though Gregg Popovich has always been able to get the best out of his bench unit, it was his starters who didn’t live up to their potential last night. In almost 26 minutes, LaMarcus Aldridge shot only 31 percent from the field. He posted seven rebounds but got five personal fouls with it. For a team that’s relying on him to fill in for Kawhi Leonard, he needs to get more looks in the post, go after every rebound, and avoid foul trouble if he wants to lead the Spurs.
But it’s not all up to Aldridge. Patrick Mills and Pau Gasol shot 33 and 38 percent from the field respectively. Manu Ginobili played nearly twenty minutes and didn’t attempt a single shot to go with his six assists. Rudy Gay and Tony Parker both shot a solid 50 percent off the bench, but they need to have more active roles in the team to make up for other players’ shortcomings.
The best players on that Spurs team last night were the role-playing bench players, an obvious product of Popovich’s skills as a coach, but a flaw when the rest of the team isn’t meshing. Sophomore Davis Bertans tied Rudy Gay for the team-high 14 points. Bryn Forbes scored 10 in five minutes.
Give credit where it is due to these players who stepped up, but this inconsistency between bench and starters should come as a shock to anyone who has followed the Spurs in the past two decades. The bench, while operating fluidly, should complement a competent starting unit, not a lackluster and inefficient one. Clearly, Popovich is going to need to make some adjustments if he wants to keep his playoff streak alive.
To take away from this game, the Thunder are rising and the Spurs are falling. There’s been talk that Leonard could return to the Spurs next week. If he doesn’t, they could be in trouble. For the Thunder, look for Carmelo Anthony to improve his shooting splits for the Thunder while Steven Adams remembers how to rebound. For the Spurs, look for Aldridge to attempt a comeback game against the Rockets tomorrow. Hopefully, their bench keeps up the good work, but if they can’t, their only hope will be a cornrowed miracle named Kawhi Leonard.