Commentary

Present tense: Thunder in trouble

Future bright for Oklahoma City, but team it's modeled after a step better so far

Originally Published: May 30, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Kevin DurantRonald Martinez/Getty ImageIn two games in San Antonio, Kevin Durant and the Thunder have doubled their postseason losses.

SAN ANTONIO -- They have Kevin Durant under contract for four more years, Russell Westbrook not even launching into his contract extension until next season and Sam Presti's vision and ingenuity to make all the big decisions.

Which is why the Oklahoma City Thunder are on the short list of small-market teams that actually have a shot at following the San Antonio Spurs' (way) harder-than-it-looks blueprint.

Which is also why the Thunder -- who happen to be the only team on that list at the minute -- will be getting no sympathy after what happened here Tuesday night.

If the Thunder's short-term outlook is indeed as bleak as it suddenly looks, needing four wins in five tries against a team that hasn't lost a single basketball game for almost 50 days, their rising exasperation in trying to keep up with these Spurs will eventually fade.

[+] EnlargeRussell Westbrook
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesRussell Westbrook got loose for 27 points, but the Thunder couldn't keep up with the Spurs' offense.

If the Thunder can't win the next two games at home to make this a series -- after a combined 88 points from Durant, Westbrook and James Harden weren't nearly enough in this 120-111 Game 2 defeat -- they'll eventually realize that there's no shame in getting schooled and at times shredded by the masters of team basketball.

Not when you have players as good as Durant and Westbrook, like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili before them, who've already proven they want to stay in their small market.

"They have a bright, bright future ahead of them," Ginobili said this week, looking across the way and sounding well aware of what's being assembled.

"So hopefully we make it the future and not the present."

So far? The Spurs aren't just holding the young bucks back but making them wonder what on Earth they have to do to break through. Durant needed only 17 shots for an ultra-efficient 31 points, Harden atoned for his Game 1 dud with a smooth 30 points and Westbrook offset the inevitable outrage that his 24 shot attempts will generate in some corners by battling through the procession of picks and bumps that the Spurs dragged him through to rack up 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds against zero turnovers at the other end.

None of that, though, stopped the Thunder from spiraling into an 80-58 deficit, helpless against the Spurs' peerless around-the-horn passing that has quickly made everyone forget just how well the Dallas Mavericks moved the ball throughout their 2011 championship run.

As the Thunder see it, San Antonio has better shooters and operates with even more discipline than Dallas did in last spring's conference finals. With the sort of shotmaking Parker specifically is capable of as a thirtysomething, now that he's moved into the same age bracket as Duncan and Ginobili, no team in the league is harder to guard.

So dazzling were the Spurs for three quarters -- highlighted by one of Duncan's best-ever dunks (windmilling over Serge Ibaka) and then a Ginobili behind-the-back feed to tee up Parker for a wide-open corner 3 -- that this might have been the night that America finally fell in love with them. Or at least Twitter America.

Thunder coach Scotty Brooks was struggling to stifle his admiration before the ball was even thrown up. At his pre-game press briefing, Brooks detailed it all, starting with Duncan's interior presence, moving on to the various 3-point threats around Duncan who hover in the 40-percent range from deep and then lauding the penetration prowess of Parker (34 points on 16-for-21 shooting) and Ginobili (10 of his 20 points crucially coming in the final 6:38).

"It's not a good team," Brooks said. "It's a great team."

Only a stubborn spell of intentionally fouling Tiago Splitter in the third quarter -- Brooks' tactic that has no catchy name because pretty much nothing relevant rhymes with Tiago or Splitter -- enabled the Thunder to finally disrupt the Spurs' rhythm sufficiently to mount a credible fourth-quarter rally. OKC briefly got as close as six points, but Manu's and Tony's closing hiked the lead back to 12 and ultimately sealed the Spurs' 20th -- 20th! -- consecutive win.

For all the increasingly standard second-guessing of Westbrook and his shot count to come, OKC lost this one D. Yet it doesn't help that the Thunder also lack the interior scoring needed to, for starters, force Boris Diaw to the bench. With Diaw starting next to Duncan and Parker, San Antonio has three playmakers on the floor. Which goes up to four when Ginobili checks in.

And not even the Thunder, with their supreme length and athleticism, have been able to catch up yet. Not until they find someone to throw it to in the post on occasion and develop a more versatile bench.

Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, meanwhile, insisted that Westbrook should be spared some of heat he's sure to take for getting caught up in trying to match Parker's eruption, saying that OKC's big men aren't supplying Westbrook with enough defensive help to counter to the Spurs' Steve Nash-ian flood of pick-and-rolls.

So the Thunder trudged out of the AT&T Center in the early hours of Wednesday morning, bound for a short flight back home but surely wondering if a 2-0 series hole could ever feel so deep. Suddenly no one remembers how they mowed through the Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers -- winners of the NBA's last three championships -- with only one loss.

The Thunder have to live with the knowledge that a glorious opportunity to steal Game 1 was wasted. And that, in response, OKC had to settle for becoming the first Spurs opponent in the playoffs to crack triple digits ... and for causing just enough angst with its short-lived rally to get Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Parker jawing at each other in full view.

"You can't make a statement with a loss," Perkins said. "We were just playing catch-up. That was not making a statement.

"We just have to make sure we stick together."

And if that doesn't work?

If Derek Fisher's stubborn claim that "I think we can beat this team" is extinguished early next week?

The Thunder's best route to comfort will be pulling out the long-term contracts or the birth certificates belonging to their two biggest names, neither of whom turns 24 until next season.

You suspect that Presti, having been swiped from the Spurs to run the Thunder, hasn't forgotten that there was plenty of grumbling about Parker's shoot-first ways when he was Westbrook's age.

"There were guys," confides one local insider who remembers, "who didn't like playing with Tony back then."

Hard to imagine today, huh? Something for the anti-Westbrook lobby to ponder.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics