The Oklahoman

Thunder beats Spurs on court and in rebuilding


The Thunder is in a four-way tie for ninth place in the Western Conference. You could look it up.

The Thunder is 33-35, the exact record of the Jazz, Lakers and Pelicans. Using NBA tiebreaker­s, Utah is in the ninth position in the playoff race, followed by OKC, Los Angeles and New Orleans. The play-in tournament (seeds 7-10) is quite attainable for the Thunder.

The Thunder is one game out of seventh (Timberwolv­es and Mavericks), two games out of sixth (Warriors) and just 21⁄ games out of fifth (Clippers).


Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs are 17-50, 131⁄ games out of 13th place.


The Thunder beat the Spurs 102-90 Sunday night in San Antonio in a renewal of a great Western Conference rivalry from the ‘10s. The Thunder and Spurs showdowned in three fantastic playoff series – 2012, 2014, 2016. San Antonio won in 2012 in six games to reach the NBA Finals; the Thunder reciprocat­ed in 2014 in six games to do the same; the Thunder won in 2016 in six games to eliminate the 67-win Spurs and reach the West finals.

None of those stakes and little of that talent was on display Sunday night.

The Thunder played without its superstar, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Spurs played without their leading scorer, Keldon Johnson; starting point guard Tre Jones; and their best prospect, rookie Jeremy Sochan.

But it's hard to tell how much San Antonio missed that trio. The Spurs all seem to run together in ability and likeness.

Johnson is averaging 21.6 points a game but with a true-shooting percentage of .551. Devin Vassell is second on the Spurs in scoring, 18.6. His trueshooti­ng percentage is .550. The Thunder has 10 current players with a trueshooti­ng percentage better than .551.

For years, the Spurs resisted a rebuild in the wake of departing cornerston­es Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

Duncan and Ginobili retired. Parker might as well have. Leonard did the Spurs the favor of forcing a trade; San Antonio sent him to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and the draft pick that became Johnson. DeRozan played three San Antonio seasons and was traded to Chicago for Al-Farouq Aminu, Thaddeus Young, a second-round draft pick that became Kennedy Chandler and a 2025 conditiona­l first-round pick. Poeltl was traded in February to Toronto for Khem Birch, two second-round picks and a 2024 first-round pick.

In other words, the Thunder traded Paul George in 2019 and begat GilgeousAl­exander. The Spurs traded Kawhi a year earlier and still is looking for its SGA.

Get this. The Thunder has been in the playoffs more recently than has San Antonio. The Spurs last made the postseason in 2019. OKC made it in the bubble year of 2020.

The Spurs' drought has been longer and is still descending. San Antonio has gone all-in on the Victor Wembanyama sweepstake­s. The Spurs figure to have a 14 percent at landing Wembanyama in the draft lottery.

Tanking to get a high pick is good strategy. Tanking to get one certain player is fool's gold.

But San Antonio finally made the right decision to tear it down. Just a few years late.

Sochan was picked ninth in the 2022 NBA Draft. He's San Antonio's only top-10 pick of the 21st century. I'm not making that up.

Which explains the talent void Sunday night. SGA sat out the game, and the Thunder still had all the good players on the floor.

The Ringer's Bill Simmons produces an annual trade-value rankings. It's not a ranking of the best players, but it's something similar. It is something akin to future-value rankings.

I wrote about Simmons' rankings a few weeks ago. I thought of them Sunday night.

Simmons had five Thunder players among his top 91. He ranked 70 players, then had 21 notable omissions. Luguentz Dort was a notable omission.

The other Thunders were No. 51 Santa Clara Williams (who would be even higher, just a month later); No. 35 Chet Holmgren (the prized 2022 draft pick who hasn't even played for the Thunder); No. 34 Josh Giddey; No. 11 SGA.

Simmons had Vassell and Johnson among his notable omissions.

That's a crazy difference between the potential of these franchises. The Thunder started its teardown after the Spurs started, and already has that kind of head start. What in the name of Gregg Popovich happened?

Well, some stubbornne­ss, of course, but it's not all dumb luck. The Spurs at least got to trade Kawhi for something. The Thunder got nothing for Kevin Durant and still came out way ahead of San Antonio.

Sunday night, the Thunder played a frankly mediocre game. Its defense was OK, mainly because the Spurs had so little offensive threat. But the Thunder shot horribly – 37.9% overall, 25.6% from 3-point range on high-volume attempts (39).

“Not a great offensive show by either team except they got to the rim a lot more than we did, especially at the start of the game,” said Popovich, still (ostensibly) coaching.

Mark Daigneault, absolutely coaching, agreed: “No one had their A game. I don't think anybody played their best game, especially from a shooting standpoint. We had a really hard time at different times offensively. Didn't shoot the three-ball well, and to that point, I thought we played really hard. And then in the second half, especially on offense, we got connected and were generating really good shots for each other.

“Some went in, some didn't, but we played really on brand there in the second half.”

The Thunder was playing the second night of a back-to-back, with a laterthan-usual start time in New Orleans (7:30 p.m. Saturday), then an early start time (6 p.m. Sunday), on Daylight Savings Day to boot. So that's 21⁄ hours less


rest than the normal back-to-back.

No matter. The Thunder won with ease and finds itself not only with a bright future, but an interestin­g present, in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalist­s by purchasing a digital subscripti­on today.

 ?? ?? Thunder rookie Ousmane Dieng (13) dunks during the first half of a 102-90 win against the Spurs on Sunday night in San Antonio. AP PHOTO/DARREN ABATE
Thunder rookie Ousmane Dieng (13) dunks during the first half of a 102-90 win against the Spurs on Sunday night in San Antonio. AP PHOTO/DARREN ABATE
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