The San Antonio Spurs enter Friday, February 26 with an eight-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Want to know the essential difference between these teams, albeit one which might not matter much in a potential West semifinal series that should light up the NBA?
It was displayed Thursday night in New Orleans and Salt Lake City.
It’s true that the Utah Jazz haven’t been able to figure out the Spurs. The youthfulness of the Jazz has been no match for San Antonio’s defense, which admittedly took a bit of a holiday this past weekend but resurfaced over the past 48 hours in Sacramento and Salt Lake. Yet, despite being a naturally better team than the Jazz, the Spurs deserve notice because of a particular streak they kept intact on Thursday.
It’s the streak which has enabled them to outclass the Thunder to this point in the NBA campaign.
The Spurs’ 96-78 win over the Jazz is entirely unremarkable when viewed in isolation, but in a larger context, it speaks volumes about this team, with so many older players who have logged so many miles on the basketball odometer. Of all the teams in the NBA, the Spurs — viewed solely through the prism of age — should not be 12-0 in the second halves of back-to-backs. Yet, because Gregg Popovich is the league’s best coach, San Antonio has a rotation which is consistently ready to minimize deficiencies and provide a framework of rest in which the workload is evenly shared and distributed.
Beyond the reality of shared production, the Spurs — when they get to these back ends of B2Bs — also display more discipline and concentration on defense. Life in the NBA unavoidably requires the ability to pace oneself through a long season. Accordingly, back ends of back-to-backs will sometimes involve a decrease in defensive energy and an attempt to coast through most of a game, trying to steal it with a burst of full-out effort in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Spurs? They haven’t fallen victim to that inclination on back ends this season — not to a noticeable degree, at any rate. Instead of coasting through the second game of a back-to-back against the Jazz, they put the home team away well before the finish line. The Spurs had no interest in allowing a matter to remain unresolved any longer than it needed to be.
Clearly, Sunday’s sloppy defensive performance in Phoenix on the “Rodeo Road Trip” gave the Spurs the wake-up call they needed. Accordingly, they put the Jazz to sleep with symphonic fluidity at the defensive end.
While San Antonio is 12-0 in back ends, the Oklahoma City Thunder are now 5-5 after losing a back end to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday. The eight-game difference between these two team is almost entirely due to this one component of the two teams’ profiles.
Whereas San Antonio manages to continue to lock in on defense, Oklahoma City remains leaky at that end of the floor. Carved up by Cleveland this past Sunday, the Thunder couldn’t contain four New Orleans players in the Big Easy on Thursday. Anthony Davis did his usual thing in scoring 30 points, but he had plenty of help. Ryan Anderson tossed in 26, Jrue Holiday threw in 22, and Norris Cole stuffed OKC’s stockings with 21. Four players torched the Thunder for 99 points. As a result, a combined 76 points from Russell Westbrook (44) and Kevin Durant (32) were wasted.
Oklahoma City put the clamps on Golden State in the second half of the February 6 game between the two teams. That performance will become a talking point before the two OKC-GSW meetings in the coming week. However, for all the times when the Thunder show flashes of brilliance on defense, they just as often fail to sustain what they establish. Even on a number of nights when this team has won, it has survived on the strength of the Russ and KD Show on offense.
Oklahoma City has won three games this season when allowing (!) at least 122 points. The Thunder have won at least three other games when allowing a minimum of 112. A team’s habits — more precisely, the ability to display its best habits on a regular basis — is never tested more during the regular season than in second halves of back-to-backs. Those games show if a team has the depth and the discipline — in some combination — to maintain the requisite combination of effort, communication and execution needed to outclass the opposition.
Oklahoma City is .500 in those situations. San Antonio is unbeaten.
That’s your difference between second and third — homecourt and not — in the Western Conference’s likely 2-versus-3 second-round series.