The Oklahoma City Thunder completed their regular-season sweep of the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, ending the Silver and Black's winning streak at 19 games and proving that a second seed can still be the favorite to win the Western Conference when it counts.
And perhaps even the NBA Finals.
The 106-94 victory was a reminder of all the things that make OKC a legitimate contender.
The Thunder's defense was active, aggressive and physical, disrupting San Antonio's vaunted system and holding the Spurs to 43 percent shooting from the field. Gregg Popovich's usually efficient offense looked out of sync and out of answers.
OKC, meanwhile, conducted business as usual. After a slow start from Kevin Durant, the league's leading scorer finished with 28—giving him 39 consecutive games with at least 25 points, one short of Jordan's 40.
But the real story was Russell Westbrook, who added 27 points and four steals to the Thunder's winning effort. He played passing lanes and made the Spurs pay for mistakes they aren't accustomed to making. In short, the Thunder put in a team effort—the kind of effort that could be unbeatable come playoff time.
OKC's Competitive Advantage
Tenacity. And lots of it.
We know all about the level of talent on this team. We've heard plenty about Durant's MVP season, and that's exactly how it should be. We are, however, much less aware of how determined this team is, how much they're willing to put it all on the line to get the wins that matter.
That kind of attitude is infectious—and in the best possible way. We've seen it rub off on Durant, who's seemingly gotten meaner by the year. We've even seen it influence backup point guard Reggie Jackson, who filled in beautifully when Westbrook went down earlier in the season.
The Thunder see a window of opportunity, and it looks like they're ready to seize it. Those intangibles have translated into exceptional defense. The Spurs game isn't the only case study in this respect. Earlier in March, OKC held the high-octane Rockets to 98 points, which is like holding most teams to 70 points.
They held the Heat to just 81 points in February.
This isn't an every night thing, but it doesn't have to be. OKC plays defense on an as-needed basis, and that should worry anyone who faces them in the postseason.
How Worried Are the Spurs?
On the one hand, San Antonio hasn't proven it can beat a healthy Thunder team. That's certainly problematic. OKC took down San Antonio two seasons ago in the postseason, and the two teams never had the opportunity to meet last season on account of Westbrook's injury.
On the other hand, the Spurs' most recent loss to the Thunder came on the second half of a back-to-back, and it was on the road. Moreover, after winning 19 games in a row, you could imagine San Antonio becoming a bit complacent. So while they should be worried, this isn't exactly a crisis. The Spurs will regroup, and they'll likely play with far more intensity come playoff time.
The problem facing San Antonio is that they simply don't have comparable size and athleticism at every position. Westbrook is bigger than Parker. Durant is longer than everyone put together. Ibaka jumps out of buildings. San Antonio's system is amazing and all, but there are certain laws of physics that are bound to pose problems.
And they have posed problems.
San Antonio turned the ball over 18 times Thursday night, a testament to OKC's length and physicality. While Popovich will certainly maintain that his team can and should play smarter, there's little doubt that the margin for error is much thinner against the Thunder—even as their propensity for errors seems to double.
The Spurs are capable of posing some problems of their own, though. When things are clicking, their passing and offensive efficiency is unmatched. They're a deadly three-point shooting team. And, they have one of the best wing defenders in the game in Kawhi Leonard—which should at least slow Durant down enough for San Antonio to have a chance.
But they'll need more than a chance. They need an advantage. Outside of their depth, it's hard to pinpoint one. While that depth will keep San Antonio fresh throughout the postseason, it won't be as instrumental once it actually arrives. Rotations will shorten and opportunities for San Antonio's second unit to shine will be limited.
The Spurs' ability to dominate may be limited in kind.
The Rest of the Field
No other team boasts a duo as dynamic as Durant and Westbrook. As good as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been for the Los Angeles Clippers, the Thunder's tandem is better when it comes to scoring in half-court isolation situations.
Though OKC has lost two of three games to the Clippers, it has the ability to take its defense to another level. Over the course of a seven-game series, you have to believe that increased intensity would be decisive. The Thunder will have an opportunity to even the season series against Los Angeles next week, so that is a discussion that can and should be revisited.
At the moment, though, it's hard to see how anyone on the Clippers' roster can even begin to contain Durant. Best of luck to Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley and Danny Granger.
The Thunder can also control the tempo of games, turn defense into offense and score from all over the floor. That should give them an advantage over other would-be contenders like the Houston Rockets. No other team in the West has the same kind of one-two punch when games slow down, as they're oft to do in the playoffs. Having those individual options will be decisive.
For the record, OKC is 3-0 against Houston at the moment, with the fourth contest between the two happening Friday, April 4. Even if the Rockets emerge victorious, it would be hard to argue they have an edge.
The one significant threat to OKC going all the way is a long second-round series. Even if the Clippers don't win, they could make it a seven-game series. That's certainly within the realm of possibility. Should they do so, there's no telling how much impact the wear-and-tear could have on a subsequent Western Conference Finals.
The good news for OKC, though, is that they still have a young core that's not supposed to be affected by that kind of stuff. Barring an actual injury, they'll proceed through the Western Conference as favorites to win it all.
And they won't need a No. 1 seed to prove it.