Kevin Durant finished with 26 points against the defensive duo of Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson. The lanky swingmen consistently hounded the NBA's defending three-time scoring champion, forcing him into the least efficient areas of the court — particularly in spots where Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter could alter the 6-foot-9 forward's shot.
It was a victory, nonetheless.
Much of Durant's points resulted from the foul line, a place he reached 11 times in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 93-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Durant, the league's most proficient foul shooter, connecting on 90.8 percent of his freebies prior to the game, didn't miss once. The rest of his buckets were hard earned — Leonard and Jackson collapsed effectively, allowing only one 3-point attempt.
Gregg Popovich, having witnessed the Spurs' third-ranked defense allow 136 points to the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night, is happy with the defensive effort. Durant didn't reach his normal scoring average and Russell Westbrook jacked up 27 shots — the Spurs goaded him into many inefficient mid-range shots — to just score 25 points. The Thunder supporting cast accounted for the remaining 42 points while shooting 40.5 percent from the field.
"Kevin's a great player and you got it exactly right, you just try to make it difficult for him," Popovich said.
"I thought both Jack (Stephen Jackson) and Kawhi (Leonard) worked very hard and did a good a job as I've seen anybody do, but he's still going to score," continued Popovich after the Spurs won over the Thunder. "It's just the way it is, but you can't let it bother you. You've just got to keep making him work and hope that all the shots don't fall."
In three meetings against the Spurs this season, the Thunder are averaging 94.7 points per game — a precipitous drop from their season-average of 106.7 points.
Leonard and Jackson are tenacious, intelligent defenders but they cannot realistically impede Durant every game. Nor will Westbrook miss 16 shots on most nights, even if his affinity for the mid-range shot will never wane. Oklahoma City is too talented, too athletic and leveraging their prodigious gifts into offensive production isn't usually difficult. Plus, three games is a small sample size.
But it is an encouraging sign. And Popovich will take it.