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The Cost Of Doing Business

By Jeff Koch on January 23, 2014.

Oklahoma City 111, San Antonio 105

The Spurs lost to the Thunder for the third straight time this season. The Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard to a broken shooting hand.

Thus headlines a less-than-stellar night in the Spurs universe. Clearly the loss of Leonard is more critical long-term, but watching this team fall to Oklahoma City yet again is a nice little gut punch reminder of how difficult this match-up is for the Spurs.

It doesn’t help that about half of the Thunder roster has career nights every time we play them. Reggie Jackson would be an All-Star and First Team NBA player if all he did was face Parker and the Spurs. He set his career and season-high last night…besting his career high set agains the Spurs earlier in the season. Derek Fisher is still in the league strictly to hit 3-pointers against the Spurs and get under fans’ skin. Ibaka doesn’t miss shots against us.

None of which takes into consideration Kevin Durant, arguably the scariest scorer to face in the league.

Which leads us back to the loss of Leonard. Kawhi’s best skill in the NBA is defense, particularly in defense of the great SFs in the league, of which there are plenty. However, Leonard also happens to be the Spurs only SF on the roster, and when you lose him, you see just how extreme the roster is. In many ways, the guard rotation and the big rotation is near-perfect. We have the All-Star PG, the star 6th man 2-guard, a couple of dead eye shooters off the bench, a couple of really good lock down perimeter defenders, and a few creative scorers/dribblers/playmakers. On the big side, we have the All-Everything PF, the big anchor of the D, the stretch 4, the even bigger banger, the quick and pesky defender who functions well in the pick and roll, and the crafty playmaker who can slide between 3 positions. Talent disparities aside, the team is well-equipped to handle any line-up permutations opposing teams might throw at us.

Except with the loss of Kawhi. Leonard, in his own way, makes the whole thing work. Without him, suddenly we see Manu and Cory and Marco and even poor Tony guarding Kevin Durant. (I’m surprised Pop didn’t try Boris.) Anybody on Durant is a mismatch, but give him 6-7 inches, and it’s just silly. Manu competed his ass off and played about as solid of defense as a 2-guard can play against Durant.

As for the game itself, the team lost this one on defense. For the first 6 minutes of the 4th quarter, the Spurs failed to get one defensive stop, as Reggie Jackson and Tony Parker played one-on-one. Sure, it was fun to watch. But you don’t win big games without getting stops. Jackson is a nightmare for the Spurs. In big games, it’s often the 3rd and 4th options you fear the most. Durant will be Durant; honestly, you can live with the game he had tonight. But what Jackson did in those 6 minutes is what lost the game for the Spurs. In a perfect world, we’d have Green or Joseph guarding him (Cory did a very good job guarding him to start the 3rd quarter, moving Parker on to Thabo; not coincidentally, this was the Spurs’ best run of the night, when they momentarily seized control of the game).

The defense in general just needs to play better. It’s difficult when 3 of the team’s 4 best individual defenders are out. But every game against OKC kind of goes the same way: the Thunder jump out to an early but manageable lead, then extend it, usually from freakish play off the bench from Fisher and Jackson. The Spurs spend the rest of the game playing catch-up, usually getting close but never over the hump. It usually starts with poor defense (the Thunder had 17 points in the first 6 minutes of the game), and ends with poor defense (those first 6 minutes of the 4th quarter).

There’s also a familiarity between the two teams having played so much over the last few seasons. No other team gives the Spurs offense fits quite like the Thunder, in large part because of how familiar they are with us. This familiarity helps to negate the built-in advantage the Spurs have against most teams with their execution and system and corporate knowledge. When the game becomes more about individual talent, the Thunder have a clear advantage.

3 losses to OKC. 2 losses to Portland. 2 losses to Houston. This means nothing and is absolutely terrifying.

Up next: against the Hawks in Atlanta on Friday. I have no idea what to expect from this game, with both teams ailing a bit and running the exact same system. Remember when they played in San Antonio and it was a complete slog because players on both sides knew every play call? Yeah, expect that again.

Then the first Finals rematch on Sunday afternoon. Both the Heat and the Spurs could sure use a big win.

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