For three quarters in Sunday night's Game 1 of the Western Conference Final between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder had things going their way. Their length and athleticism seemed to be bothering the Spurs offense in ways that the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers had not been able to as San Antonio was sweeping its way through the first two rounds of the postseason. They were forcing turnovers and rotating to shooters, and amazingly they were making the Spurs offense look ordinary.
So despite the fact that Russell Westbrook and James Harden were a combined 7-28 through three quarters, the Thunder still found themselves up by nine, 71-62. The Spurs offense, which had been a juggernaut for almost two months as the team was winning 29 of its last 31 games, had made just 39 percent of its field goals and 30 percent of its three-pointers to that point.
And then it happened. The gears of the San Antonio offense began spinning in greased grooves in the fourth quarter, and suddenly the Thunder, long and athletic though they may be, had no answer. San Antonio opened the quarter on a 20-5 run to turn a nine-point deficit into a six-point lead and never trailed again. In the end, the Spurs scored 39 points in the final quarter, after scoring just 38 in the two middle periods combined.
The Spurs have an uncanny mix of stars and role players on the team, and coach Gregg Popovich seems to have equal confidence in all of them. Yes, Manu Ginobili (11 points without a miss) and Tony Parker (7 points on 3-5 shooting) were brilliant in the fourth, but so too were Gary Neal (7 points) and Tiago Splitter (5 points). It was Splitter finishing back-to-back pick and rolls to start the quarter who set the tone for the comeback. Later, when the Spurs came out of a timeout in the final three minutes, they ran a play to get Neal a three-pointer. He happened to miss a clean look, but it tells you something about San Antonio that with Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan on the floor, Popovich called Neal's number in the Western Conference Finals.
The defensive hero for the Spurs was Stephen Jackson, who defended Kevin Durant during the fourth. Jackson got up into Durant the entire quarter, taking his space, crowding him all over the court, with or without the ball. As a result, Durant only had two field goal attempts in the quarter, both of them contested three-pointers that he missed. Sure, he got to the line for six free throws, but Jackson made him work just to catch the ball, and it paid off for the Spurs. With Durant bottled up, the Thunder offense was reduced to desperate forays to the basket by Westbrook and Harden, most of which ended with out of control misses or offensive fouls.
During their unbeaten postseason that has now reached nine straight wins, the Spurs have consistently impressed. But in a way, it's when they have faced adversity that they've seemed most invincible. When the Clippers put them in a 24-point hole in the second quarter of Game 3 of that series, San Antonio methodically, and in the end rather easily, wiped away the deficit and won the game. Likewise Sunday night against the Thunder, the Spurs made it look easy in the fourth quarter. With the game on the line, despite trailing by nine, San Antonio calmly ran their sets and put the game away, against a supremely talented opponent.
The Spurs look great when they win wire-to-wire -- they look even better when they take over the game when it matters most.