Monday night’s Thunder game was a breath of fresh air to fans throughout OKC, as their hometown team was able to even up its Western Conference Semifinal series with the Spurs. It was a fantastic game from start to finish, highlighted by 29 points and 10 assists from Russell Westbrook along with 28 points from Kevin Durant.
Despite the controversial finish—which saw five missed calls according to a statement by the league—the Thunder did enough to pull out a much-needed road win and steal home court advantage in the series.
In order to pull off the victory and forget all about Game 1, there was one key difference for the Thunder on both offense and defense:
Defense- Usage of Andre Roberson
LaMarcus Aldridge has been the Spurs’ star so far in the series, combining for 79 points in the first two games alone. But despite Aldridge’s 41 points in Game 2, the Thunder was able to pull out the win by neutralizing his partner in crime: Kawhi Leonard.
Instead of having Durant guard Leonard out on the wing—much like he did in the Game 1 massacre—Thunder head coach Billy Donovan opted to switch Andre Roberson over as Leonard’s primary defender, and the plan was definitely successful as Leonard only managed to score 14 points on 7-for-18 shooting. Clearly he wasn’t shut down completely, but considering Leonard finished with 25 points in Game 1, it’s safe to say Roberson did his job in making Leonard uncomfortable throughout the game.
Roberson's defense on Kawhi tonight has been sensational.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 3, 2016
Roberson's defense on Kawhi tonight has been sensational.
Roberson was effective from the jump, as the San Antonio native instantly attempted to get under Leonard’s skin by poking and grabbing at the 2014 Finals MVP as the Spurs would set up their offense or when the two would jostle for positioning. Even when Leonard beat Roberson to the basket on a drive in the second quarter, the Thunder shooting guard made him pay for the aggressiveness with a hard foul, which clearly affected Leonard as he proceeded to miss his only two free throw attempts of the game.
When Leonard wasn’t in the game and Roberson was still on the floor, Donovan elected to have his defensive stopper cover backup point guard Patty Mills, who leads the second unit with his constant motor and sharpshooter capabilities. Roberson’s length was helpful in slowing down Mills in the game, as he scored only five points while missing five of his six shots from behind the arc.
Roberson didn’t score in his 24 minutes on the floor as he missed his only shot and both his free throws, but his defensive presence was monumental in the final outcome.
Offense- OKC controlled the tempo
With extremely dynamic and athletic playmakers such as Durant and Westbrook on your team, it’s always beneficial to turn and run in the open court when playing against a slightly slower group from San Antonio, and that’s exactly what OKC did in Game 2.
Led by Westbrook, the Thunder pushed the ball in transition 10 times in the first quarter alone as OKC set the tempo of the game very early on. With the Thunder running the floor, the Spurs were unable to matchup up the way they wanted defensively, which led to multiple mismatches for the Thunder.
“They were in attack mode, which one would expect, but I thought our organization offensively was really poor and it fueled their transition offense,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after the game.
Whether it was a Westbrook euro step, a Durant 3-pointer, or an emphatic slam in transition, the Thunder looked comfortable playing the type of pace it’s accustomed to, even though there were a few turnovers in the mix as well. The Thunder finished with 21 fast break points compared to only 12 in Game 1, while OKC also had 24 points off the 10 Spurs’ turnovers in Game 2.
Oklahoma City will need to cut back on its turnovers moving forward in the series, and the last of the Thunder’s 18 turnovers could’ve been the nail in the coffin for the series if OKC wouldn’t have been able to hold on for the win. Every possession is crucial in the playoffs, especially when playing a historically good team like the Spurs.
It’ll be interesting to see what kind of tweaks both Donovan and Gregg Popovich will make throughout the rest of this amusing series.