Thunder display defensive mettle
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Reggie Jackson strapped on his trademark Sprayground backpack, a Game Boy-inspired design shaped like an ancient handheld game console. Across the body of the pack is a green screen that reads, "GAME OVER."
The accessory was apropos for a guy who was the most devastating gamer on the floor in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 94-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, snapping the San Antonio Spurs ' 11-game winning streak.
"Reggie Jackson just kicked our ass," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We couldn't guard him tonight. He really helped them. He was basically the difference in the game."
The Thunder's backup point guard scored 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field in 26 minutes. Jackson's only two buckets in the first half were entirely improvisational, bailing out his team from a couple of ragged offensive half-court possessions. It wasn't until the final frame that Jackson exploded.
In a two-minute span, he crossed over Patty Mills, got poor Boris Diaw on an island then devoured him off the dribble, deked Mills again (this time with a ball fake) and sliced through the paint, beating four Spurs defenders in the process.
"He was aggressive all night getting to the rim," Kevin Durant said. "He gets so low on his drives. He's so quick. He's so long for a point guard and he plays at a great pace. He had an unbelievable game tonight, something we expect from him."
Oklahoma City will never know what might have materialized in the 2013 postseason had Russell Westbrook not suffered a torn meniscus. With their starting point guard sidelined, the Thunder bowed out to Memphis in the second round, an unsatisfying mulligan for a team that put up one of the best point differentials in modern NBA history during the 2012-13 regular season.
But misfortune can yield opportunities that might not be fully realized in the moment, but produce positive consequences down the road. Jackson is no facsimile for Russell Westbrook -- one doesn't currently exist -- but on a night when the Thunder's starting point guard endured a 2-for-16 performance from the floor, Jackson was superb. He's now a piece the Thunder are more than comfortable placing on the floor during crunch time.
With about a minute left in the game with the Thunder leading by eight, Westbrook found himself in trouble on the right side, fumbling the ball against a trapping Spurs defense. Watching his flailing teammate swarmed on the opposite side of the court, Jackson cut behind Manu Ginobili to the basket, where Westbrook found him against pressure.
A matchup between the Spurs and the Thunder is supposed to be a showcase of appealing contrasts: The perfect system versus the unstoppable individual. The surgical versus the explosive. Savvy versus speed.
Wednesday night wasn't that exhibition. Neither Durant nor Westbrook found a rhythm, though Durant put together a closing flurry. The Spurs couldn't find the net. They shot an abysmal 19-for-42 in the basket area on shots they could generally hit in the dark. The Spurs missed nine 3-pointers in the first quarter alone and finished the night 7-for-27 from beyond the arc.
"I thought a pretty good percentage of our [3-point attempts] tonight were hurried or frantic at times," Popovich said. "I didn't like our selection."
It was a slog for both teams, the kind of game that traditionally has favored the Spurs. They feast on found money and opponents' miscues. The system will save.
That's precisely why the win was so gratifying for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook weren't accurate from midrange, and the pair combined for only seven free throw attempts.
The Thunder won the game on the strength of their team defense. In a game that featured 95 possession, they held the Spurs to an anemic 88 points -- San Antonio's least efficient output of the season.
"I told the team after the game I thought it was one of our best wins of the season since I've been here," veteran big man Kendrick Perkins said. "Usually when our offense isn't going right, we tend to give up a hundred points. But I thought everyone pretty much stuck with it."
Westbrook effectively pushed Tony Parker low on the Spurs' side pick-and-rolls. When the Spurs spread the floor and let Parker go to work up top with the aid of a screen, his defender sent him to Serge Ibaka lying in wait in the paint. Jackson's heroics aside, Ibaka might have been the most valuable player on the floor on Wednesday night. Over the past four seasons, Ibaka has evolved from a springy help defender more likely to swoop in from the weak side for a splashy block to an elite pick-and-roll defender with a sharp spatial understanding of the floor behind him. No big man in the league this season has defended more pick-and-rolls with greater success -- a trend that's continued from 2012-13.
"Serge was huge tonight," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He was really battling all their bigs and all their guards that were coming down the lane, contesting and altering shots."
Ibaka anchors the Thunder's rangy, aggressive fourth-ranked defense. Pair that with an offense that hasn't finished outside the top five in efficiency since the 2009-10 season and Oklahoma City has the feel of a sleeping giant out West.
The Spurs, naturally, took the loss in stride. By no means was their collective reaction blasé, but an off night in November is regarded as part of the life cycle of the season.
"You don't change the process because you didn't make shots," Popovich said. "That's something you can't control."
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