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What Sunday’s Thunder-Lakers game meant to the Spurs

As a fan, it’s fun to overanalyze. Sunday’s double overtime thriller contained some interesting developments that could impact the Spurs.

1. Most importantly, the Lakers come-from-behind victory allows the Spurs to clinch the top seed in the West with only one win in their final three games. Depending on how Gregg Popovich handles his lineup over the next few days, San Antonio should have plenty of days to rest its already well-rested stars. As the Spurs and Popovich have told anyone that will listen; getting to the playoffs healthy was more important than positioning. Impressively, the Spurs were able to accomplish both, and credit for that belongs solely to G-Pop.

2. The Thunder proved on Sunday what some NBA observers have been saying for months; the Thunder relies too heavily on jump shots. For example, TNT’s Charles Barkley has stated all season that the Thunder can’t win the title because they’re a “jump-shooting” team. Down the stretch in a close game in the playoffs, Barkley believes it’s important to get easy baskets in the paint. Oklahoma City settles for jump shots and doesn’t have a reliable inside scorer. In the postseason, jump shots are contested more aggressively and attacking the rim comes with a hefty price.

Obviously, the Thunder is an immensely talented team. Kevin Durant is right with Carmelo Anthony as the NBA’s premiere scorer. Russell Westbrook attacks the basket more aggressively and powerfully than any guard not named Derrick Rose. James Harden is the NBA’s best 6th man and undoubtedly one of the game’s top 25 players. Still, like Barkley says, the Thunder can’t get easy baskets when needed. In Los Angeles on Sunday, both Westbrook (3-22) and Durant (11-34) struggled from the field. With Harden missing the 2nd half due to a concussion, the Oklahoma City scoring load fell entirely to Durant and Westbrook. The Lakers put Kobe Bryant on Westbrook and the lanky Devin Ebanks on Durant. While both Westbrook and Durant still found ways to score at times, neither could find an easy shot or a free pass to the rim as the final minutes of the 2nd overtime ticked away. The playoffs won’t be any different.

If the jump shots are falling, the Thunder will be just fine. Unfortunately, winning in the postseason often means winning ugly and finding a way to get easy baskets. We’ll see if the Thunder can do so, because on Sunday, they could not.

3. Just a few days after the Spurs pasted the Lakers for the second time in a week, I told my brother I wasn’t all that scared of the Lakers as a playoff opponent. Sure, the Lakers size is intimidating, and eliminating Kobe from the playoffs is like fighting off a pack of wolves, but the Spurs play better defense than the Lakers and have multiple scoring options to keep the Lakers off-balanced. Additionally, San Antonio has a transition game the Lakers can’t stop and a bench that significantly out-produces Los Angeles’.

However, in Sunday’s victory over the Thunder, the Lakers may have discovered some depth on their bench. Jordan Hill dominated the boards in the 2nd half and overtime, totaling 15 rebounds and 14 points, by far his largest output as a Laker. Ebanks also proved serviceable in harassing Durant. Does the possibility of some newfound Laker depth scare me as a Spurs fan? The answer: Ehh.

I think Hill’s rebounding and athleticism will be a nice addition for the Lakers in defending the Spurs when the Spurs play speed basketball. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum couldn’t keep up with the Spurs speed and athleticism and it cost the Lakers dearly on the defensive end. Hill, on the other hand, can keep pace when the tempo increases. Ebanks could prove to be a valuable defender against prolific scorers like Kevin Durant. However, I think Durant’s struggles on Sunday were more about Durant’s struggles than Ebanks’ defense. Durant missed countless open shots and still carried the Thunder. Plus, assuming Metta World Peace is available, it’s likely Ebanks won’t see many minutes, so the significance of his time on Sunday will probably be vastly exaggerated.

Furthermore, even if Hill develops into a solid contributor off the bench for the Lakers, Sunday’s events should still be reassuring to Spurs fans for one significant reason: Andrew Bynum is still the most immature and unstable All-Star center in the NBA. Considering all the drama Dwight Howard has created recently; that’s saying something. Bynum remained on the bench from the 3rd quarter until the final whistle in Sunday’s win. He pouted and looked displeased and frustrated. He’s lashed out as his coach publicly about shooting three pointers and he’s mentally checked out of games at various times throughout the season. Bynum, when focused and disciplined, can be the NBA’s most dominating center. He’s a fabulous rebounder and solid finisher around the rim. Though, the longer he fails to realize his potential on a nightly basis, the Lakers will remain a good team rather than a great team. Los Angeles may have discovered some depth on Sunday, but they were also reminded their most dominating player is still an immature and unpredictable head case that could pop-off at any time.

Overall, I still think the Spurs have just as good of a chance to win the West as anyone. While the Lakers and Thunder have superstar talent, the Spurs boast discipline, consistency, and depth. Plus, if the current standings hold up, the Spurs will only have to worry about either the Lakers or Thunder and not both. And that, Spurs fans, is the best news of all.

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