Anticipation is growing for the Thunder and Spurs to become Western Conference rivals again. Tuesday night in Oklahoma City showed us that the Spurs have work to do.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder and Spurs, a rivalry filled with mutual respect akin to OU/Nebraska, are primed to become fixtures atop the Western Conference again soon. And if Oklahoma fans can’t get their traditional Sooners vs Huskers fix, rekindling old Thunder vs Spurs flames is not a bad fallback.
Granted, nothing is guaranteed in this world. Many promising scenarios in sports and elsewhere have failed to materialize for myriad reasons. But if this were Hollywood, executives would take a chance on this reboot and would immediately place a multiseason order. And we all know Hollywood loves a good reboot.
The two Next Generation teams met up on Tuesday night. The matchup pitted Chet Holmgren versus Victor Wembanyama against each other for the first time in the regular season.
The game ended in a Thunder rout by 36 points and the title card was a dud. The two main protagonists combined to shoot a combined 7-25 from the field. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dropped a cool 28 points on 16 shots and reminded everyone that he’s much more than the third-billed star on the marquee. TNT knows drama so well that they created drama by cutting away to the Pacers versus 76ers game early in the fourth quarter.
Well, not every TV series has a great pilot episode. This series still has lots of future potential anyway, and a minor scuffle amid the blowout is a welcome sign for things to come. If this thing takes off, the original series did a lot to lay the foundation for this reimagined soap opera.
The Thunder and Spurs met in the playoffs three times since 2008. Each matchup was epic. Both fan bases would be fortunate to get just one series at the level of quality the original series provided.
The first battle happened in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, a series that the young Thunder were not expected to win. Certainly not after falling into a 2-0 deficit. But OKC won Games 3 and 4 at home. The squad stunned the Spurs in San Antonio in game 5 largely thanks to James Harden (I’m not making this up folks, Harden once had big playoff games when the stakes were huge). Kevin Durant played all 48 minutes in a game 6 victory where OKC trailed by 18 at one point. Durant hit Kendrick Perkins with a bounce pass late in the game for a series-sealing dunk. The then-Chesapeake Energy Arena nearly lost its roof.
The two teams would meet again two years later in the 2014 Western Conference Finals. This time OKC came into the series without Serge Ibaka, who strained a calf muscle in the Thunder’s previous series against the Clippers and was initially expected to miss the rest of the season. And just like in 2012, the Thunder fell behind 2-0 before bringing the series back home. Thanks to God and Ice, Ibaka was able to return and OKC evened the series. But there would be no road upset in game 5 this time. The Spurs took care of business at home, won Game 6 in OKC in overtime thanks to 26 points from Boris Diaw, and rode the momentum into the NBA Finals where they hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a fifth time.
The playoff rubber match between the two came in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals. The Spurs and Warriors dominated the league that season, and San Antonio won 12 more regular season games than Oklahoma City. The series opened with the Thunder taking a 32-point spanking. LaMarcus Aldridge played out of his mind. Billy Donovan trusted his defensive game plan. OKC fell behind 2-1 in the series. Aldridge came back to Earth. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook steered the Thunder to three straight wins to close the series. The final game of Tim Duncan’s legendary career happened in our fine city.
Both teams eventually had to step away to heal. The time away from the spotlight allowed OKC to piece together its new core of SGA, Holmgren, Jalen Williams, and Josh Giddey. The Spurs played with a stiff upper lip for years before giving in to the allure of a full teardown last season. The team’s fortunes did a complete 180 when the NBA lottery system rewarded them with Wembanyama.
The Spurs’ challenge will be adding high-quality talent around him like the Thunder have done with Gilgeous-Alexander. The Spurs missed on a few draft picks over the years but still have Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, and Jeremy Sochan to surround its Eiffel Towering basketball prodigy. But as evidenced Tuesday night, the Spurs need more than just their latest generational talent.
Another trip to the lottery will help restock the talent. A subsequent visit would be massive. The problem is that a player like Wemby can almost instantly make a lot of good players look really good. Once he finds his NBA groove it will be difficult for the Spurs to be putrid with him on the floor. Oklahoma City learned that during the rebuilding years with SGA.
Time will tell whether the rebooted rivalry is a ratings hit like “Hawaii Five-O” or a flop like “Knight Rider” but given the A-list talent and history, this project has a shot.