OKLAHOMA CITY -- The moment Gregg Popovich decided to sit one third of his team, including his five best players, a showdown between two Western Conference contenders and likely second-round playoff opponents became just 48 minutes of necessity.
By NBA rules, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs were required to play Saturday night's game, despite the feeling of inevitably. And it went mostly according to script, outside of Spurs B taking a nine-point lead in the second quarter, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook being too much for Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson. The Thunder won 111-92, taking a 2-1 season series lead over the Spurs, though with an obvious asterisk.
Westbrook was tremendous, turning the game in the third quarter and finishing with 29 points, six rebounds and eight assists. There could be issues with focus and intensity in playing a game like this, but for Westbrook, it was no problem.
"No, it doesn't bother me," Westbrook said when asked if the Spurs' resting players bugged him. "For a guy like me, honestly, if you play the same way every night, it doesn't matter who you are playing."
Qualifiers aside, that is still seven straight wins for the Thunder, the same team that appeared to have its season teetering on the edge of falling entirely apart just a few weeks ago. The team never felt that way, of course, but coming out of the All-Star break just 4-8, which included a number of backbreaking blown leads against good teams, there was legitimate worry about the validity of the Thunder as a contender. Saturday's game goes no further in proving that, but what has been established is the Thunder are going to be the West's third playoff seed, and they still look very threat-ish to the Spurs and Warriors.
It's cliche to talk about peaking at the right time, about playing your best basketball when it matters, but as the playoffs approach, that has been the Thunder's plan all along. There have been rough spots in coach Billy Donovan's first season, with different issues popping up to torment the Thunder. For a while, it was their defense. In the past seven games, they've been noticeably better. At other times, it was turnovers. They've trimmed those during the winning streak. Then it was about discipline, as Durant said following a blown lead against the Clippers, but during this run they've not only maintained leads, but extended them.
"For us it's always about improvement and getting better and playing more consistently all the way through," Donovan said. "You always want to play your best basketball and you want a level of consistency. For our team, I've seen steady growth on a regular basis here and I'd like to hopefully continue to see that."
In the regular season's closing weeks, the Thunder are going to be faced with the same rest dilemma. Durant said following shootaround on Saturday he already did his resting last season when he missed 55 games due to injury. Donovan has suggested that there are discussions about that, but there's nothing concrete yet.
What the Thunder have to accomplish is to make sure there's no setback. They're clearly building, but as Donovan likes to say, that can be fleeting. One night you think you've solved turnovers, the next you're giving it away 22 times. That was the Thunder's focus against the Spurs: not to let the quality of the opponent detract from what they're trying to do and where they're trying to get.
"Another opportunity to keep growing and improve on our habits," Durant said. "It wasn't on us that they didn't play their starters, so we just have to continue to play our game and stick to what we do."
Two weeks ago, the Thunder and Spurs played a nail-biter in San Antonio with the home team coming away with an eight-point win. It was physical. It was intense. It felt like the playoffs. This one, though, had the opposite atmosphere. There was little to learn -- which is probably the way Popovich wanted it -- and the takeaway here is that Patty Mills can't really guard Russell Westbrook.
The two teams match up once more -- in San Antonio on April 13 in the Thunder's last regular-season game. So, the next time we get to learn something about this matchup might have to be Game 1 of the Western semifinals.