If Game 1 was any indication, it doesn’t matter how many points Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook score in the Western Conference Finals. No, if the Thunder defense doesn’t play better – or at least harder – then Oklahoma City has no chance of beating San Antonio and advancing to its second NBA Finals in three years.
“Yeah, this was a total defensive defeat,” Oklahoman sports columnist Berry Tramel said on Ferrall on the Bench, referencing the Thunder’s 122-105 loss on Monday. “You can take the Thunder offense a lot of ways, but they played good enough offense to win. They just got pulverized on defense. (They) just did not make the Spurs work hard enough for good shots (and) gave them far too many points in the paint.
The Spurs scored 66 points in the game – 13 points more than Durant and Westbrook scored from anywhere for the entire game.
“That’s going to get you beat every single night,” Tramel said. “The Thunder has got to shore up that defense. It’s not going to be easy. They don’t really know how to play without Serge Ibaka. They’ve done it four times in the last four years. But they’ve got to figure out a way – or this series will be over quickly.”
Indeed, Ibaka will miss the rest of the playoffs with a calf strain. His absence in Game 1 was, well, apparent.
“If most people watched or heard Kevin Durant’s MVP speech, which (was) quite memorable, he spent half his time talking about his teammates and how much they meant to him,” Tramel said. “Everyone he talked about, he talked about personality traits and feelings and inspiration. But when he got to Serge Ibaka, he was talking about basketball. He said, ‘Serge, thanks for cleaning up all of our mistakes.’ And everybody laughed. But now we know what he’s talking about.”
Yes, the Thunder are aggressive on the perimeter. They double team. They go for steals. They take chances. If your gamble pays off, great. If not, Ibaka can cover for you.
“For four years, every night, Serge Ibaka has been there to either block a shot or threaten to block a shot,” Tramel said. “He wasn’t there (Monday), and the Spurs just made hay with it.”
And yet, not all is lost. The Thunder actually played well defensively for the first eight minutes of the third quarter, during which they turned an 11-point deficit into a one-point lead.
But where was that effort the entire game?
“I think they’ve got something they can build on, but they’ve got to do it for more than eight minutes,” Tramel said. “They’ve got to do it for 48 minutes.”
Tramel expects the Thunder to come out more aggressively in Game 2, which is Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET. Why? Because the craziest stat from Game 1 – aside from the Spurs’ 66 points in the paint and the fact that they had 67 points by halftime – may have been the fouls: The Thunder did not commit a defensive foul in the first 10 minutes of the game.
“Think about that,” Tramel said. “(The Spurs are) scoring at will, you’re not playing any defense and you’re also not fouling. That’s a sign, to me, of just lack of aggression. The whole notion of physicality was lacking. So the Thunder has got to be more aggressive and turn up the physicality.”