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Thunder end the Spurs' streak at 19, proving to be a problem again

By Royce Young | NBA writer

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook had just done one of those very Russell Westbrook things. With 35 seconds in the first half Thursday against the Spurs, he pulled from from 28 feet for a two-for-one, but did it without a single one of his teammates underneath the 3-point line.

Naturally, he drilled it. And then turned and looked at the San Antonio bench.

"I don't stop," he said, shaking his head. "I ain't gonna stop."

It was part of a volcanic five-point burst from Westbrook that took an eight-point Spurs lead to three right before halftime, setting a tone and building momentum for what would be a disruptive, dominant third quarter in Oklahoma City. The Thunder held the Spurs to 7-of-23 shooting, outscoring them 32-20 en route to ending San Antonio's remarkable 19-game winning streak.

"I'm not gonna stop regardless if I started 0-20, turn the ball over 10 times," Westbrook said postgame. "I'm gonna keep comin'. That's my motto and that's what I'm going to stick by."

That's one part of what makes Westbrook such an explosive, elite player. And that's also a part of what makes him such a polarizing figure, someone that finds fingers pointing at him as much as any other player. But the Thunder have to have him, as illustrated in the first quarter Thursday night. The Spurs were scheming Kevin Durant, holding him to an unusual 2-of-8 shooting. Westbrook's relentless, unconscious nature though was what kept things close, preventing the Spurs from building an early lead, a trademark of this streak. Instead, it was a two-point game heading to the second frame, and the Thunder survived an early hole.

And once that momentum was built for the third, Durant wasn't going to be held down much longer. He scored 16 of his 28 after halftime, extending his streak of games with at least 25 points to 39 games, one shy of Michael Jordan. The Thunder cranked their defensive to fever pitch levels, ratcheting the intensity and physicality, giving the free-flowing Spurs problems all over. The rhythm was interrupted, and the Thunder were on their way.

"That's a big thing," Westbrook said. "When you have team, a good basketball team, they're the No. 1 team in the West, if you want to be the best team you have to beat the best."

Which is something the Thunder have done a lot of. The Spurs beat everyone, except for the Thunder, it seems. They're now 0-4 against the Thunder this season, and have lost 10 of 12 to OKC dating back to the 2012 Western Conference finals. For a team that has ruled the West, solving almost every team around, the Spurs just can't seem to work out the mystery that is the Thunder.

The Spurs' make their living off crisp, pin-point ball movement, running meticulous offense out of a tried-and-true system that seemingly always produces a good shot. The high screen-and-roll, the dribble hand-offs, the drive-and-kick to corner shooters -- it's exhausting both mentally and physically to defend.

But the Thunder combat it unlike any other team. OKC's had its issues the last few weeks defending the perimeter, falling suspect to shooters and scorers. Tonight against the Spurs though, both the defensive pressure and intensity ratcheted up, but it was also just about the personnel the Thunder have. Particularly Serge Ibaka, who almost single-handedly closed the open door in the paint, blocking shots without actually blocking shots, just by virtue of completely ruining every Spurs drive. Forcing travels, hesitation, awkward shots, kickouts, bad passes -- Ibaka absolutely owned the defensive interior.

The past three years, the Thunder have ended Spurs streaks of 20, 19 and 11. This latest run of 19 straight has placed the Spurs back on top of the West, still holding a three-game lead over the Thunder. But as Popovich has noted, the No. 1 seed isn't a focus, nor was maintaining the streak.

"We never thought about the streak in the first place," he said. "To us, it was just another game and we just watched film about turnovers, playing in a crowd and that kind of thing. So we learn from every game and rather we win it or lose it, but it's got nothing to do with the streak."

Either way, it's another one over at the hands of the Thunder. The teams are done playing each other for now, with the next meeting likely to come in the Western Conference finals. This one had caveats, one being that Manu Ginobili rested and the Spurs playing on a back-to-back and their fifth game in seven nights.

Still: This result doesn't feel coincidental.

The Thunder play with a certainly recklessness, while the Spurs are the antithesis, relying more on sturdy, systematic offense. The Spurs play a gentleman's game. The Thunder play with unfiltered chaos. And those contrasting styles seem to tip in the Thunder's favor, particularly because of their speed, athleticism and length. It's just a problem for the Spurs.

Gregg Popovich, though, explained it in a simpler way: "They're a hell of a basketball team."

That works, too.

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