There were a million different storylines from the first real night of the NBA season, which featured 14 different games and all but two of the league’s 30 teams in action, but the most intriguing game was easily the showdown between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. The two Western Conference powers both came into the game with huge questions, as the Thunder are changing coaches for the first time in the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook era while the Spurs are bringing in the first ball-dominant star since the Big Three began to take a step back on offense.
And while you never want to take too much away from a regular season game in October, the Thunder’s 112-106 victory in a thrilling back and forth game in Oklahoma City was a great window into the key early-season storylines for both teams as well as how two of the best teams in the league matchup with each other in what could be a preview of a playoff series that could go a long way towards determining this year’s NBA champions.
1. Kawhi Leonard’s offense: Even though San Antonio lost the game, the biggest storyline of the game was the offensive explosion of their fifth-year forward, who looks ready to take the next step forward after signing a max contract in the offseason. Leonard had 32 points on 12-for-22 shooting and he scored from all over the floor, whether it was spotting up off the ball, running off screens, getting out in transition, taking smaller players into the post or using his broad shoulders to clear space on the drive and get all the way to the rim. Oklahoma City tried to use their designated defensive stopper (Andre Roberson) on him but he was just too big for the spindly wing player and they ended up having to go with Durant’s extra-long arms. Leonard got the better of the Thunder’s superstar on both sides of the ball and if he can just play Durant even it changes a lot of the dynamic of this match-up.
2. Leonard on Durant: There may not be a better defensive match-up for Durant in the NBA, as Leonard was able to use his long arms and quick feet to get right into his shot pocket and not give him any room off the dribble. He blocked Durant’s shot twice, which almost never happens, and perhaps more impressively, he was able to mostly keep him off the free-throw line. Of Durant’s eight free throw attempts, two came in transition, two came on an off-ball play when the Spurs were in the penalty and two came at the end of the game when San Antonio was sending guys to the line. Durant was clearly a little rusty in his first regular season game back from a long layoff and Leonard held him down about as well as can be expected - he finished with 22 points on 19 shots and had 0 assists.
3. Russell Westbrook: Of course, what makes Oklahoma City so difficult is that you have to pick your poison with their two perimeter superstars. With Leonard shadowing Durant all over the court and mirroring his minutes, the task of guarding Westbrook went to the San Antonio PG’s as well as Danny Green and they weren’t up to it. Westbrook finished the game with 33 points and 10 assists on 22 shots and he went wherever he wanted on the court all night long. He was particularly effective coming off the high ball screen, exploding as if he were shot out of a cannon and getting around the Spurs big men fairly easily. Two things to watch with him this season - he was able to leverage his size advantage in the post and he went 3-for-6 from 3. He’s so explosive on the ball that defenders will give him open looks from 3 and there’s not much that can be done if he’s knocking them down.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge: The Spurs' new acquisition had a rough night in his first regular season game with the team, finishing with 11 points and five rebounds on 12 shots. He never really got into the flow on offense and he wasn’t particularly effective in the post against the long-armed defense of Serge Ibaka. With Kawhi playing at such a high level and the Spurs' ball movement creating so many open shots, there was no reason to feature Aldridge too heavily in the offense and he became just another cog in their attack. Since he’s not a great playmaker, he doesn’t need the ball too much when they are just flowing in the half-court. What will be key for him is learning to take advantage of some of the extra rest he gets on offense by committing himself to the defensive end of the floor, in much the same way that Chris Bosh transitioned from a first option in Toronto to a more all-around player in Miami.
5. The Spurs depth: San Antonio having to sacrifice their depth in order to clear space for Aldridge may have been slightly overplayed this offseason. Just look at the first five guys off their bench on Wednesday - Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson and David West. That’s five guys who seamlessly fit into their offense that can spread the floor and move the ball. The Spurs got 41 points on 30 shots from their 2nd unit and they were able to attack the Thunder for all 48 minutes.
The questions will come on the other side of the ball, as Ginobili, Diaw and West are getting up their age, Mills is slightly undersized and Anderson doesn’t have a lot of foot-speed for a perimeter defender. They may have to rely heavily on Green, Leonard and Aldridge just to keep up with faster teams in the playoffs but they should have more than enough firepower on their second and third units to keep everyone rested during the regular season.
6. No 4-out basketball: Both the Spurs (with Leonard) and the Thunder (with Durant) have the capability of going small but neither coach elected to go with those line-ups on Wednesday, as they both played two traditional big men for all 48 minutes. Neither team needs to go small to score, as San Antonio has such talented big men and Oklahoma City has such dynamic playmakers that they can both put up points in more restricted spacing. Both teams also have surplus big men and questions about their wing depth so it makes sense that both coaches stayed big. Where it gets interesting is what would happen in a series against a team like the Golden State Warriors and whether or not these two teams could afford to stay big against line-ups with Draymond Green at the 4, much less the Warriors money line-ups with Green at the 5.
7. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson: For all the talk about the more dynamic offensive sets that Billy Donovan would employ, he was still not able to crack the code when it came to integrating his other two starters into the offense. Most of Adams' best work came in the second unit with DJ Augustin and Roberson was a non-factor who would be game-planned against much more effectively in a seven-game series. The key question for Donovan all season is whether he will be able to find the right mix between his offensively-minded role players and his defensively-minded ones because the Thunder are a little lacking in two-way players in their supporting cast, which could end up being their Achilles heel.
8. Tony Parker: If there’s a question for San Antonio when it comes to matching up with the top teams in the NBA, it comes from whether they will have enough firepower from the point guard spot to match guys like Westbrook, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving. Parker, who finished with 10 points and 3 assists on 11 shots, has clearly lost a step and he was really only able to create much offense in the two-man game and coming off screens. More worrisome is that he really has no chance to stay with Westbrook anymore and Oklahoma City was able to take advantage of his defense late in games even when he was switched on Dion Waiters. There may not be a place to hide Parker on defense against some of the best teams in the West.
9. Enes Kanter: The Thunder got the full Enes Kanter experience on Wednesday, as he finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds on 11 shots, yet had a plus/minus of 0 in his 24 minutes on the floor because the Spurs repeatedly attacked him in the two-man game, in the post and off the ball. If Oklahoma City can somehow find a way to minimize his defensive issues when playing next to their Big Three, they will score so many points it may not matter what anyone else does. Against San Antonio, this is where Tim Duncan’s ability to beat Father Time is huge - the Thunder have to keep Ibaka on Aldridge which means forcing the weaker of their two interior defenders on Duncan. If he can force Nick Collison into the game and keep the younger, spryer and more offensively gifted Oklahoma City big men on the bench, it would be a huge win for the Spurs.
10. The Thunder’s backup guards: Oklahoma City got good minutes from the trio of DJ Augustin, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow on Wednesday, which will absolutely crucial for them over the course of the season. Each brings something different to the table - Augustin is the best playmaker, Waiters is the best shot-creator and Morrow is the best shooter - so it will give Donovan a lot of options with his line-ups late in the game as long as they can at least hold up on defense. That’s where Westbrook and Durant’s ability to man up and defend the best perimeter players on the other team will be huge because that would allow Donovan to hide an offensive specialist on defense and not have to play a more limited player like Roberson late in games.