Western Conference Finals: Game 1 Report

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Well, that went the way most of us thought it would. The Thunder hung in there for as long as they could, but the Spurs weren’t going to be held down by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook alone. Durant finished with 29, but the key figure in this game was the veteran, Mr Fundamentals himself, Tim Duncan. Without Ibaka, whom the Thunder will be without for the rest of the year, the paint was completely open for the Spurs tonight. Duncan raced out to lead all scorers at the half, and the Spurs shot 86.2% at the rim and 57% for all field goals for the game. Those incredible numbers came on the back of all the easy layups inside. The Spurs had 40 points in the paint in the first half alone. Parker was content to sparkle as a facilitator with 12 dimes on the night, and Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili put the Thunder to the sword at the end.

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The impact that the absence of Ibaka had cannot be overstated. Obviously, it was on the defensive end that they needed him the most, but even his 12 or so points a game was missed tonight. Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher were the only other Thunder players other than Westbrook and Durant to score in double figures (with 13 and 16 respectively). Collison and Sefolosha, who both started, were scoreless. The Spurs had 5 players who scored 15 or more, plus Diaw with 9, and had a host of bench players with a couple of buckets. Reggie Miller noted it during the telecast; if the Thunder can’t find someone to score consistently (particularly when one of Westbrook or Durant aren’t on the floor) then it puts so much pressure on their big two to carry the team offensively. Perkins effectively nullified Duncan for a spell during the third quarter, but he can’t play on Duncan the whole night. When Durant played at the 4, he was exposed defensively by the veteran, as was Collison when he was put on Duncan.

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The Spurs are the best team in the league for finding a way to create good shots; the Thunder already know that. The ball movement, the movement without the ball, the intelligence and anticipation, all of it was exemplary from the Spurs tonight. So, on top of that, they also had the gaping Ibaka-shaped hole in the paint to exploit, and they did that with relish.

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Another great sign for the Spurs was the performance of Kawhi Leonard. The young starlet made a number of eye-catching plays, including an emphatic steal-and-fast-break combo. The sublime spin-move he pulled on Durant was a highlight too, and only possible because of the absence of Ibaka. Leonard could be as important for the Spurs this post season as Danny Green was for them last year. The scary thing is that Danny Green looked good tonight as well, so if both of them heat up in this series, the Thunder have even more problems. Leonard is an exceptional two-way player, an elite defender and a physical, reliable finisher at the rim.

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Really, this game could have been out of the Thunder’s control a lot earlier than it was. The Spurs eventually broke away in the fourth to win convincingly, but if not for Derek Fisher’s 11 points in the first half, then the 8 point deficit that the Thunder rallied to could have been a lot worse. Fisher played well in the first half, shooting accurately from behind the arc, but cannot be relied upon to do that every night. The Collison experiment failed miserably (as Shaquille O’Neil repeatedly mentioned in the days leading up to the game, the Spurs are not a team you can beat while experimenting). They will need to find another answer to their Ibaka problem (Playing ultra-big? Starting Steven Adams? Risking playing Perkins for longer?), and quickly because the experience and ruthlessness of the Spurs will make them pay if they don’t.

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By winning tonight’s game, Ginobili, Parker and Duncan have tied the record for most post-season wins by a trio, equalling the record of 110 set by Magic, Kareem and Michael Cooper. The team is too experienced, too professional and helmed too expertly by Popovich to bottle this series. As it is, the scene is set for them to roll on into the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City might have to take some crazy risks to disrupt them. Or maybe Westbrook and Durant can score 40 points each every night from now on. Anything’s possible.

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