By Randy Renner
All evening long on Opening Night the Thunder and the Spurs, the NBA’s two winningest teams since the 2009-10 season, exchanged body blows.
The two Western Conference heavyweights traded the lead back and forth a dozen times and were tied 11 times. Neither team led by as many as double digits.
It was pretty much exactly what the 207th straight sellout crowd inside Chesapeake Energy Arena figured they would see when they walked into the building. The guy coaching the Thunder for the first time in a real NBA game was pretty much thinking the same thing.
“I think everybody kinda knew it was gonna come down that way,” Billy Donovan said a few minutes after watching the Thunder finish off a thrilling 112-106 win over the 5-time NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.
It took a big run over the game’s last few minutes by the home team to finally dispatch the Spurs.
The Thunder trailed 97-90 with 6:35 to play before leaping out on a 9-0 run capped by a Kevin Durant 3-ball with 4:17 to play giving the good guys a 99-97 lead. And from there the Thunder kept up the pressure on both ends of the floor, finishing with a 13-9 spurt which included four free throws from KD and two more from Russell Westbrook to seal up the win.
“I was really pleased with the way our guys kept their composure, kept battling and kept fighting,” Donovan said.
No one did that better than Durant, who suffered through an off night shooting going 6-for-19 mostly because Kawhi Leonard was in his face all night long, but he was clutch when it counted most.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Westbrook said of his teammate, “and we have 81 more games to go.”
In other words plenty more opportunities for KD to once again assume the role of “Slim Reaper.”
Westbrook finished as the game’s leading scorer with 33 points on 12-for-23 shooting while handing out 10 assists to his mates.
“He played extremely well tonight, led us, was aggressive all night and got us open looks,” Durant said of his point guard.
Two other guys who came up big for the Thunder were the two guys who’ve probably been criticized the most over the summer.
Enes Kanter, because of his lack of defense and a new $70 million contract and Dion Waiters because of his apparent love for the ill-timed, step-back jumper.
Kanter dominated the glass scooping up 16 rebounds, twice as many as anyone else on either team.
“Enes was a bull down low on the boards all night,” Durant said.
“That is not anything new to us,” Westbrook said. “That is what he does.”
He also dropped in 15 points, mostly on putbacks coming off one of those rebounds. And Waiters hit two massive step-back, fadeaways one from 14-feet and the other from just inside the 3-point arc, to give the Thunder a 4-point lead late, just the cushion they needed to keep the Spurs at arm’s length.
Donovan is not normally a fan of those kinds of shots, “I think you need to attack the paint and take advantage of the 3-point line.”
But if Waiters can keep picking the right spots and the right time in the shot clock to do it, then Billy’s on board.
“Sometimes you need guys, late clock, who can make those shots,” he said.
Last night Waiters did and he and the Thunder gave their new coach his first win in the NBA and over future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich and his 5-time champs no less.
As someone once said, ‘you can’t go undefeated unless you win the first one.”