Playing as if they had nothing to lose because, well, they had nothing to lose, the Spurs on Saturday came away from their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 111-92 loss.
They dropped their second game in their last four and, for the first time this season, lost the second game of a set of back-to-back games after winning the first 14 of such games.
Circumstances rendered meaningless facts that might otherwise be concerning.
This was a game Gregg Popovich virtually ceded before tipoff. The Spurs coach left veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio to get some pre-playoff rest. Leading scorer Kawhi Leonard also stayed behind because of the deep right thigh bruise he sustained in Wednesday’s game against the Miami Heat.
That’s an average of 67.3 points per game that were unavailable against the No. 3 team in the Western Conference, a winner of its previous six games.
Leonard has the highest scoring average on the team, 21.0 points per game, but his absence was felt even more at the defensive end of the court. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year had limited Oklahoma City’s four-time NBA scoring champion, Kevin Durant, to 17-for-44 shooting (38.6 percent) in the first two games between the two teams.
Popovich’s decision to rest four key players while knowing Leonard would miss the game with injury was a clear signal the Spurs coach understands the final 10 games of the season are relatively meaningless for a team already locked into its playoff position.
Once any game begins Popovich plays to win – that includes calling angry time outs when his players miss a defensive rotation, as he did less than two minutes into the second half, when a defensive mistake left Oklahoma City’s unguarded at the 3-point line – but Saturday’s game was more an opportunity to see what players like Boban Marjanovic and Kyle Anderson could do against a team the Spurs likely will meet in the second round of the NBA playoffs. Both were starters against the Thunder. Neither did much to inspire confidence in their head coach.
Marjanovic scored 13 points and grabbed 6 rebounds but missed 7-of-12 shots and had difficulty keeping up with much quicker Oklahoma City athletes on defense.
Anderson had to defend Durant for significant stretches of the game. The Oklahoma City star made 13-of-20 shots this time, scoring 31 points.
Oklahoma City isn’t apt to lose its five-game lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in the battle for No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, either, but the Thunder can’t take any chances. They needed the win over the Spurs because they know dropping to fourth in the West puts them on the same side of the playoff bracket with the Golden State Warriors. Durant played nearly 32 minutes and All-Star guard Russell Westbrook logged more than 34 and scored 29 points.
The Thunder stars were needed after the Spurs reserves-turned-starters played a very competitive first half, trailing 48-44 at intermission.
The third quarter turned the game into an Oklahoma City runaway. The Thunder finished the period on a 22-7 run and Popovich pulled Danny Green – the only “regular” starter who suited up for the game – for the entire of the fourth quarter.
Regardless of Popovich’s motives for his personnel decisions, veteran forward Boris Diaw, who scored 10 points in nearly 27 minutes, had a hard time finding any positives.
“Of course we come out on the court and everybody is a competitor and we all wanted to win,” Diaw told reporters in a locker room interview televised live by FoxSports Southwest. “We fell short but we did pretty good for a half.
“We did some good things at some time, some plays, some positive things.”
There will be another challenge for the Spurs when they play the Memphis Grizzlies at the FedEx Forum in Memphis on Monday without Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. The “Big Three” will sit again, per Popovich’s mandate. If Leonard’s thigh is sufficiently healed, he likely will join the team in Memphis; Aldridge has not been ruled out for that game either.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.