Walker and Johnson lead Spurs in tough victory over Thunder

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The Spurs held on for a rough and tumble 112-102 victory over a Oklahoma City Thunder squad on Tuesday night. Without DeMar DeRozan, who missed his 2nd straight game for personal reasons, the Spurs once again turned the reins over to their youth movement, with Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson leading the way.

Matched up, as they were, against a team squarely in the middle of its own transition to a crop of exciting young players, the game was just as choppy as you’d imagine a game with five starters 22 years old or younger would be. It never lacked for competitiveness, but the Spurs especially suffered from several shambolic sequences that should have led to quick deficits, but led, instead, to what Sean Elliott referred to multiple times on the broadcast as ‘good timeouts.’ That the Thunder were unable to take full advantage of those opportunities has more to do with the growth that is still ahead of them than any talent or tactic on the Spurs’ part.

Still, though, the performances of Lonnie and Keldon were just what the Spurs needed on the last night of a five game road trip. Games like this are easy to lose, for obvious reasons, which makes it that much sweeter when the young fellas come through.

Lonnie’s 24 points and 36 minutes were both game highs, and he spent the majority of his time on the defensive end picking up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is easily the Thunder’s most potent offensive threat. Keldon added in 18 of his own, on his usual diet of tough finishes at the rim, and more importantly, a series of tough rebounds in the last couple of minutes that prevented the Thunder from closing the gap. Missing their usual closer, the pair of defensive possessions Keldon finished and the extra chance he created were critical to the final result.

  • The Spurs started both halves flat, struggling to score and giving the Thunder a chance to take an early lead in the 1st and tie up the game in the 3rd. It wasn’t just missed shots, the team looked disorganized and uncomfortable on the floor. The decision to start Trey Lyles in place of DeMar for the 2nd straight game may well have had something to do with it. Trey fits in that lineup next to Dejounte Murray, Lonnie, Keldon, and LaMarcus Aldridge, but what he brings is so much different from DeMar that it completely changes the dynamic. They may figure it out if given enough time, but it would probably be better if they didn’t have to.
  • Speaking of missing DeMar, if you just zero in on the offensive possessions Lonnie uses, he is remarkably adept at running the offense and given his tendency to hunt his own shot, not all that different from a young DeMar, though obviously with more range. He lacks the versatility and deadly one-on-one game, especially in the post, that DeMar has, but it’s not difficult to imagine Lonnie taking on a larger role in the offense as the team moves forward.
  • As mentioned in the preview for this game, the Spurs needed to limit the Thunder’s three point attempts. Having entered the game averaging a little over 40 three point attempts per game, the Thunder managed just 26 against the Spurs. Early in the game, though, it seemed like the Spurs’ dedication to running Thunder shooters off the line was going to be a problem as poor rotations on the backline allowed a seemingly endless string of attempts at the rim. The Thunder took just 1 midrange shot in the 1st quarter, with the rest coming from behind the arc or within 4 feet of the basket. The Spurs managed to straighten that out as the game moved along and the strategy paid off with an added bonus, as the Thunder made just 7 of their 26 three pointers.
  • For his part, Gilgeous-Alexander nearly carried the home team to victory, with 20 points on an array of slick and slithery drives to the basket to go with his 9 rebounds. All five Thunder starters scored in double digits, and had their threes been falling, it could have been a different game entirely.
  • For such a young team, the Thunder do an incredible job of defending aggressively without fouling. For most players new to the NBA, the line between being physical and committing a foul is extremely difficult to find, and they typically struggle, especially when asked to defend with the intensity the Thunder play with. But the Thunder have several players who could easily still be in college that already seem to have the knack, which probably explains at least part of why they’re already in the NBA.
  • As recently as last season, this game would likely have turned into an array of post ups. With no DeMar and no especially foreboding interior defender on the other team, the Spurs would probably have chucked it down to LaMarcus 30 times and Rudy Gay another 10. It might have worked, who knows, but it certainly wouldn’t have been any more fun to watch. Entertainment value aside, it’s a testament to just how much this team has evolved in such a short time that even down the stretch the Spurs maintained their perimeter oriented offense.
  • The Spurs have taken their borderline obsession with reducing turnovers to the extreme. Already leading the league at a measly 10.63 turnovers per 100 possessions before this game, the Spurs gave it away just 4 times against the Thunder. They didn’t turn the ball over for the last 12:33 of game time against the Timberwolves on Sunday night, and then made it 7:31 into the second quarter of this game before committing another one. That’s over 32 straight minutes of NBA basketball without a turnover.

The Spurs will host a struggling Rockets team in their first game back home. Until DeMar returns, every game will likely be a tough one, but the Spurs should be looking for a victory against a squad that has seen significant turmoil this season.

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