Think back to the night of April 11th. The Cavaliers, Kings, and Raptors (remember them?) were all still playing NBA basketball, and the San Antonio Spurs fell to the Los Angeles Lakers, off the back of a 30-rebound performance from Andrew Bynum (remember him?).
Before last night, the Spurs hadn’t tasted defeat since that Lakers game. Heading into Oklahoma City for Game 3, Popovich’s men had won 20 straight, 31 of their last 33, and were 10-0 in this years playoffs. Positively insane numbers.
But thanks to Kevin Durant, and some valuable contributions from his teammates, you can make that 10-1, and 31 of their last 34.
Last night the Thunder throttled those seemingly unbeatable Spurs, 102-82, cutting the series deficit to 2-1.
Now It’s a Series
In an absolute must-win Game 3, the Thunder rose to the occasion—receiving timely scoring from stars and role players alike, while feeding off the energy and passion of a riled-up home crowd.
The Thunder began the game on a furious 8-0 run, and after the Spurs rallied late in the 1st quarter, OKC stepped up a couple gears to break the game open in the second and third.
Scott Brooks’ team outscored San Antonio 56-36 in those middle two quarters, utilizing a running game that wasn’t on show during Games 1 and 2, while severely disrupting San Antonio’s offense with their length, quickness and athleticism.
The game was effectively over with 10 minutes left. Popovich pulled his starters, no doubt already scheming a plan for Saturday night’s Game 4. Duncan, Parker and Ginobli sat stone-faced on the bench, while the OKC players soaked up the adoration of the home crowd.
Gone were the head-pats from a paternal Tim Duncan to his young teammates. Gone was the Stephen Jackson sideline cheerleading. Gone was the scowl on Kendrick Perkins’ face (well, not quite). Most importantly, gone was the potent Spurs offense—for one game, at least.
After the first two games in San Antonio, in which the Spurs averaged over 110 points, and were essentially able to get whatever they wanted on offense, it was absolutely crucial that the Thunder found a way to disrupt the Spurs’ fluid offensive rhythm.
And disrupt it they did.
Great Defense and Balanced Scoring
Tony Parker ran riot in Game 2. He put up 34 points, scoring from everywhere on the floor, while never appearing rushed, and always having the luxury of picking his spot.
Russell Westbrook was put through the wringer attempting to guard the mercurial Frenchman. Even when Westbrook succeeded in fighting his way around multiple screens, just to reach Parker, he didn’t have the energy left to effectively contest the shot.
Last night, Scott Brooks made a critical adjustment. Westbrook wasn’t going to be worn down chasing Parker around all night. Instead, the bigger, longer Thabo Sefolosha was thrown on the Spurs point guard.
Sefolosha played a massive role in OKC’s win. Defensively he was stellar, holding Parker and Manu Ginobili, whom he also guarded at times, to just 16 and 8 points respectively. Sefolosha was able to stay in front of San Antonio’s guards for the majority of the game, stifling their deadly dribble penetration, while causing them fits with his length—picking up 6 steals in the process.
That Sefolosha was able to slow down the likes of Parker and Ginobli was less of a surprise than what he was able to do offensively. The Swiss Sensation (yeah, I know, no one calls him that) put up 19 points, a career playoff high. Sefolosha’s unexpected offensive explosion was one of many pleasant surprises for the Thunder, on a night where their offense was more balanced than it’s been in some time.
Predictably, Durant led all scorers with 22, but the Thunder’s other two superstars, Westbrook and Harden, had just 25 points between them. Normally that spells doom for OKC. They’re a team that relies on its Big Three to shoulder nearly all the scoring load. In Game 2, Durant, Harden and Westbrook combined to score 88 points out of the Thunder’s total of 111—about 80% of the team’s offense.
Last night, however, the Thunder’s offensively challenged role players were able to contribute. Aside from Sefolosha’s big game, Serge Ibaka had 14 points, while the bench also chipped in with some scoring. It’s hard to remember a time when two OKC players, not named Harden or Durant, outscored Russell Westbrook. It happened last night and the Thunder were the better for it.
Not that Westbrook had a bad game. He didn’t shoot well; only going 5 of 15 from the field, but his decision-making was solid all night.
Westbrook is a prodigious talent, but he can hurt his team at times with poor shot selection. In Game 2, he seemed rattled—trying to match Parker’s scoring, playing way too much iso-ball, and jacking up low-percentage shots. Last night he made that extra pass, surveyed the situation a little longer, and found teammates better positioned than he was. It was a mature performance.
Of course, like the rest of his team, Westbrook still displayed his explosive qualities throughout the game. The Thunder were able to make the most of their major advantage in this series—their speed and athleticism. They did an excellent job of pushing the ball up the floor in transition, giving the Spurs little time to get back into their defensive sets.
It helped, of course, that San Antonio turned the ball over 21 times, and that the Thunder’s improved defense meant they weren’t starting with the ball out of bounds on every possession. It’s a lot easier to run a fast break when you get steals and long rebounds, as opposed to waiting for the ball to swish through your own net.
But setting aside the Spurs’ sub-standard play on offense, the Thunder stepped up big. Whether because of their crowd, or simply the direness of their situation, OKC had that extra energy and effort in their play last night. The Spurs just couldn’t live with it.
Just One Game
As good a performance as this was from the Thunder, (and it was very good) don’t expect the Spurs to be as flat in Game 4. Sure, OKC made effective adjustments, switching things up on defense and playing a smaller, quicker lineup throughout, but San Antonio didn’t play to their abilities. They turned the ball over, missed a whole load of 3s, and lacked their usual fluid ball movement.
Popovich has claimed for weeks, that a loss would be good for his team—a ‘punch in the mouth’ to keep them motivated and focused. He got his wish last night. The Spurs, given their elite level basketball I.Q., will undoubtedly come into Game 4 with a retooled game plan to neutralize OKC’s adjustments. But more simply than that, they will surely have better energy then they showed in Game 3.
If they don’t, they might have to wait a little longer to start another 20-game winning streak. As OKC underlined last night, they certainly aren’t the Jazz or the Clippers.