On the Brink

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It was a dagger in the heart of the San Antonio Spurs. With 28 seconds remaining on the clock, and the Spurs on a 13-2 run, James Harden iced the game.

Ginobli thought about moving over to help on Harden, but changed his mind—probably a mistake. The rookie Kawhi Leonard tried to close on the shooting-guard, but it was too late. With no time left on the shot clock, Harden elevated and swished through his 3rd, and most important, 3-pointer of the game. A 2-point game turned into a 5-point game, and you could practically hear the wind being knocked out of the AT&T Center.

After the game Harden would say that it was a broken play—the ball was suppose to have gone to Durant. All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare once said.

And the game ended well for OKC. They survived a missed Ginobli 3-point attempt that would’ve tied it up, to win a monumental Game 5, 108-103.

It seems that OKC are becoming accustomed to halting San Antonio’s winning streaks. The Thunder’s win broke San Antonio’s run of 16 straight victories in theirhome arena, while at the same time snapping their own ignominious run of 6-straight loses in the Alamo City. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Scott Brook’s team.

After two hugely impressive wins in Oklahoma City, the young Thunder absorbed every blow, weathered every storm—coming back swinging each time in Game 5. OKC has impressed before—finishing the Mavericks on the road and winning Game 4 in the Staples Center—but this was their true coming-of-age moment.

Winning on the road against this Spurs team, a team that we’d practically all crowned NBA champions a week ago, showed true championship mettle.

An Up and Down 1st Half

At the start of the Game 5, the Thunder looked anything but a championship team. OKC missed their first 7 shots and got in foul trouble early. In fact, the Spurs found themselves in the bonus with over half the 1st quarter still left. But OKC, as they’ve done time and time again in these playoffs, found their rhythm and went on an 18-5 run to end the quarter up by 5.

The 2nd quarter would belong to the Thunder. The Spurs’ offense dried up, largely thanks to the intensity of the Thunder’s defense—something they’ve maintained brilliantly since Game 3. OKC harassed and harried the Spurs on every possession—forcing turnovers, protecting the rim, and contesting every shot.

No single Thunder player dominated in the first half. Instead, it was balanced scoring that had OKC up big in the 2nd quarter (by 14 points at one stage). Nick Collison, whose pick-n-roll defense and screen setting have been huge all playoffs, did a great job rolling to the rim and finishing, while Daequan Cook made the most of his limited minutes to rack up 8 points.

By half time the Thunder led by 8, in spite of their superstars. Durant was only 1 of 6 shooting, and Westbrook, despite once again facilitating beautifully, was struggling with his shot.

For the Spurs, the story of their 1st half was once again turnovers. For a team that, just a few days ago, were being compared to transcendent passing teams of old (the ’73 Knicks, ’77 Blazers, and ’86 Celtics), their ability to take care of the basketball has taken an alarming dip. Last night the Spurs had 21 turnovers—far too many against a deadly transition team like the Thunder. OKC would make them pay, converting those turnovers into 28 points.

Absorbing the Blows

At the start of the 2nd half, perhaps as a result of an epic Popovich tongue-lashing, the Spurs came out swinging. Manu Ginobli, who Popovich inserted into the starting line-up last night, came out on fire. The dynamic Argentinean was knocking down 3s, and driving into the lane with impunity. He finished with 34 points and single-handily kept the Spurs in the game. After missing 11 consecutive shots in the 1st half, San Antonio went on a furious 23-9 run in the 3rd, going up 6, and threatening to pull away.

But the Thunder again exhibited their frightening ability to roll with the punches and strike back with deadly force. No team, other than maybe the Miami Heat, can hit the ‘on-switch’ and score with such ferocious speed. OKC never got flustered, never got down on themselves, and instead went on a massive run of their own to finish the quarter. Once again Durant took over, hitting shots that would be impossible for mere mortals, with ridiculous ease.

After a quiet first half with only 1 made field goal to his name, Durant went 9-13 in the 2nd, finishing the game with 27 points—the highlight of which was an unreal up-and-under basket with Stephen Jackson denying him air space. If we weren’t already sure, Durant has reminded us during these playoffs that he’s practically un-guardable. It’s futile to compare anyone to the great Michael Jordan, but over the last few games, with his Game 4 18-point 4th quarter being the starkest example, no one’s done a better MJ impression.

The Spurs would make another run late in the 4th quarter, but after two massive 3s from Harden—one a 4-point play, and the other, the aforementioned dagger, the Thunder would put the game to bed.

Has the series been put to bed however?

Staying Level-Headed

It’s been quite a turnaround in this Western Conference Finals. After Games 1 and 2, the Thunder looked dead-to-rights. But Brook’s side has found a way to win against this previously unbeatable Spurs team. They’ve made the most of their explosive speed and athleticism on offense, while limiting their turnovers, and playing the sort of high-intensity defense that San Antonio hasn’t faced all year.

OKC’s firepower is overwhelming at times. If it isn’t Kevin Durant going off, then it’s Russell Westbrook killing you. If those two guys are having a bad night, then James Harden can step up and drop 30. In Game 4, the Big 3 were quiet through 3 quarters, but Serge Ibaka decided that he wasn’t going to miss. Pick your poison.

In all honesty, the Spurs have looked a little shell-shocked over these past 3 games. Duncan sat on the bench at the end of last night’s game, staring into space with a perplexed look on his face. I’m no mind reader, but he did seem to be wondering: How do we beat these guys?!

This was the team that was suppose to win their 5th NBA championship, but they’ve run into a supremely confident, supremely talented and supremely driven young group that’s found a way to beat them.

Game 6 goes back to Oklahoma City on Wednesday, and we’ll get to see how the Spurs play with their backs against the wall, and their season on the brink. Popovich has enough veteran championship experience on his roster to know that his team won’t go down without a fight. As Kenny Smith said on TNT last night, no team can expect to win a championship without being down at some point in the playoffs—without going through some adversity.

And for OKC, they’ll know that they can’t afford to take San Antonio lightly. It may be cliché, but the close out game in a series is the hardest one to win. OKC will be facing a wounded beast in Game 6, and they need to go for the jugular. Going back to San Antonio, tied 3-3, isn’t an attractive prospect.

The way the Thunder are playing, however, don’t bet against them closing out this series on Wednesday night. Over the last few weeks, we’ve crowned enough NBA champions prematurely to know that it’s a foolish endeavour.

It may not be wise to crown OKC yet, or to even predict that they’re going to win this series, but it’s hard to deny that they’re playing legitimate championship-level basketball.

 

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