OKLAHOMA CITY — A few signs the Thunder are reaching the next level?
Well, one, Oklahoma City’s fans are beginning to arrive fashionably late. Surely not as many that arrive fashionably late elsewhere, but there were empty seats throughout the first quarter in the lower level at Chesapeake Energy Arena Monday night. And don’t tell anybody, but some never got filled. Many left early, too.
Two, even for San Antonio, Western Conference royalty to be sure, fan involvement came in the form of eruption rather than the constant roar that accompanied last year’s trip to the NBA finals.
Three, and most important, the Thunder made the Spurs look old and slow and something akin to yesterday’s news in Tuesday night’s 107-93 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Even on a night Russell Westbrook made only 6 of 18 shots and Kevin Durant finished with 19 points, more than eight short of his average.
Indeed, the Thunder may be threatening to make all their chasers look like yesterday’s news.
It’s true, the schedule is only now entering its difficult phase, and the Spurs were without Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard and the season is long and Memphis did take a game from the Thunder, even in Oklahoma City, in November and if the Clippers are ever going to make people forget they’re the Clippers this may be the season.
Yet Oklahoma City moved to 20-4, more wins and fewer losses than the rest of the league, and two things about how the Thunder did it scream for everybody to take notice.
One, this was just the latest example of Serge Ibaka raising his ceiling as he went for 25 points, 17 rebounds and three blocked shots.
On a floor that included Durant, Westbrook, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, Ibaka was best, making 20-footers on one end of the floor and blocking shots on the other.
It’s not like the Thunder have two terrific offensive options among their starting five and Kevin Martin coming off the bench to make 3s. They do, of course, but they really have three options among that starting five and against the Spurs you better believe they were looking for No. 3. Of Ibaka’s six first-quarter field goals, two were assisted by Durant, two by Westbrook and one each by Eric Maynor and Thabo Sefolosha.
"It gives them another aspect of their game," Duncan said. "I thought we did a pretty good job of containing guys, but he got off early."
He did, but it took his teammates looking for him and they were happy to do it.
Then there was the third quarter, when the Thunder broke it open, going from 53-48 at the half to 82-64 entering the fourth. In the middle of it were these amazing sequences that had you wondering if the nation was watching and taking notice.
First, Duncan was trying to back down in the lane only to have Westbrook come from the weakside and take the ball from him. Going the other way, Sefolosha spotted up for a 3 and missed it, but Ibaka grabbed the board, got fouled by Duncan going back up and made both free throws.
Next, Duncan was backing down again, turned for a two-foot shot only to be stuffed by Ibaka.
Less than a minute later, another Westbrook steal led to foul shots for Durant on the other end.
Less than a minute after that, Durant missed a 3, but Collison won the rebound and put it back.
The Thunder weren’t shooting the lights out, but were winning every play.
The Spurs (19-7) entered with the second best record in the NBA and beat the Thunder opening night in San Antonio by a bucket, but here they were outclassed, outgunned and outmanned. They looked beat and a quarter later they were.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks isn’t one to make statements about games being statements.
"We don’t look at it that way," he said. "We just know that the Spurs are a good team. They’re going to give you their best shot."
But if that’s true, even shorthanded, it was a statement all right. Despite being unspoken.
“It’s just another game on the list for us,” Durant said.
Come to think of it, maybe the fans are taking their cues from the players, playing it so very cool.
Clay HorningFollow me @firstname.lastname@example.org