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Apparently, Thunder only strikes twice

By Jeff Koch on April 8, 2009.

Tonight’s game was a must win. Not for playoff seeding or for vengeance (ok, a little bit for vengeance); but for confidence, belief, and trust. And for healing.

I never thought I would be this excited for a game against the Thunder. Admittedly, I’ve only seen the first halves of each of our previous three games against the Thunder. Imagine my surprise after the last two games, coming home to check the box score and seeing that we had lost both. Really, we could only score 76 points on OKC? Really, we got out-executed and lost our poise down the stretch to one of the worst teams in the league? I began to suspect I was somehow responsible for jinxing the team by missing second halves. So I cleared my calendar for tonight, knowing that we needed all of the mojoxie (mojo and moxie–apparently we need it all against this team) I could muster.

I was particularly interested to see how we would start the game. Would we be flat? Would we be overhyped and overcompensating? Would we be lost? I was disappointed with how we started, giving up an unconscionable 32 points in the first quarter, thanks to some stellar 3-point shooting and lax defense. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was thinking, “here we go again….” But we tightened up from there, and came away with a great win, all things considered. That a win against a lowly opponent this late in the season can be a great win is another topic entirely.

Things I Didn’t Like:

–Finley guarding young, athletic swingman. Durant was going off to start the game. And not just scoring, but getting assists and just controlling the game on the offensive end. LeBron James did the same thing Sunday afternoon. And Pop stubbornly continues to go with him single coverage on elite scorers. It’s frightening.

–32. When a team shoots 5 for 6 in threes in a quarter, it’s going to be bad. But these weren’t contested shots we were giving up. The Thunder shooters had time to set their feet, check their watch, find the seams, and recite the alphabet backwards before they got their shots off.

–Roger Mason, Jr. at the point. I love Roger, but he’s in a big time slump. And I don’t think it’s coincidence that it coincides with his promotion to back-up point guard. He needs to be shooting spot up threes, based upon defenses collapsing around one of the big three and crisp ball movement. He needs to be doing the big balls dance to spite Kobe. He occasionally needs to be spotting up off of screens and driving into the paint. But I can’t watch him dribble at the top of the key for 18 seconds, then either just jack up a long 2 with his foot on the line, or pass it off to someone in a position to do nothing, causing us to throw up a contested prayer as the shot clock goes off. The offense stagnates when he is running the show. And worst, it’s killing his confidence for when he’s jacking up those wide open threes that we brought him here to jack up.

–I swear to God, if Roger keeps taking those long 2s where he deliberately steps just inside the 3 point line, I might poke my eyes out.

–Our 3-point shooting. The official box score will tell you that we shot 40%, but I’m suspicious. Maybe I’m just traumatized from March.

Things I Liked:

–18, 22, 17. After giving up 32 in the first quarter, we held them to less than 60 the rest of the way. That’s Spur’s defense.

–Drew Gooden. He’s looking more and more like a great pick up. Yes, he can be a ball stopper. Yes, his defense can be suspect. But he’s a big body, so his defense can’t be any worse that Bonner’s or Oberto’s. Plus, he had a nasty block on Nick Collison tonight. And he can score. And score. And score. And rebound. He was our third leading scorer tonight, and helped to cover up our characteristic dry spells when Tim and Tony go to the bench. And he finished a nifty +11, tied for second best on the team.

–Our rotation. Though far from set, it seemed to resemble a normal NBA team’s rotation, with reasonable substitution patterns and appropriate players playing appropriate minutes. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s moving in the right direction.

–Michael Finley, closer. After going up by 9, and then having the Thunder cut the lead to 4 or 5, we called timeout. Out of timeouts, Pop loves to run Finley off of a curl for a catch and shoot, which he did here. Finley hit the shot, got the And-1, and then came down and hit a back-breaking 3 on the next possession. For all of the complaining Spurs fans do about Finley, the man can still shoot, and I still trust him taking big shots down the stretch of close games.

–Closing the game. We played close for three quarters, and then won going away in the 4th. After playing so many tight games (and losing so many these last few weeks), it was nice to see that we could still do what everyone thinks we always do, which is execute our way to victory down the stretch, and not beat ourselves.

–Tim Duncan. Though he still looks hobbled, he had a traditional 25 and 15. And looked better than he has in a while.

Looking Ahead:

We have a big game tonight against Portland at home. Portland is coming off a closer-than-it-should-have-been victory against Memphis. With all the Western Conference teams winning Tuesday night, the standings are as tight as ever. A win tonight will give us a lot of breathing room to help hold on to that 3 seed, and possibly regain the 2 seed. Portland is a young, disciplined team in the vein of the Spurs. We beat them at home on the back of one of Tony’s incredible performances when Duncan and Ginobili were both out. They returned the favor by beating us silly in Portland a few weeks later (I was at that game…it was ugly). Can we protect our home court?

Keep an eye on the rotation, and if Gooden continues to steal Bonner’s minutes, and if Udoka and Bowen continue to see significant court time. Keep an eye on Duncan, and if he even plays. Pop has been keeping him out of the second games of back to backs, but this one seems too important to do that again. Keep an eye on who Finley guards to start the game. Will it be Roy? If so, that could be dangerous in the first quarter. Keep an eye on rebounding. Portland is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league, and giving up offensive rebounds kills us.

This will be a tough game, but a great test. With the loss of Ginobili, most pundits seem to think we’ve slipped all the way to the back of the Western Conference. This game can serve as a call to the rest of the league that reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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