The Oklahoma City Thunder did something that no other NBA team had done in over seven weeks: they beat the San Antonio Spurs. And they didn't just beat the Spurs -- they thrashed them, maintaining a double-digit lead the entire second half, building the advantage as high as 27 and turning the fourth quarter into extended garbage time. The Thunder win snapped a 20-game San Antonio winning streak, handing the Spurs their first loss in the 2012 NBA Playoffs, and it left this Western Conference Final series at at a 2-1 San Antonio lead.
If you're thinking that this game represents a real and permanent change in the outlook for this series, it probably doesn't. The Spurs aren't likely to play this badly again, and it's a pretty good bet that they'll come out with a renewed sense of purpose in Game 4 and start a new winning streak. San Antonio was due for a bad game at some point, and this was it.
But there were some real adjustments made by Oklahoma City and their coach Scott Brooks, and those adjustments paid real dividends.
In the first two games of the series, the Thunder's defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha averaged just 23 minutes. Thursday night, he played 37 of the first 43 minutes (sitting out the final five minutes during garbage time). But more significant than just the big minutes he played, Sefolosha drew the defensive assignment of Spurs All-NBA point guard Tony Parker. In Game 2, while being defended primarily by Russell Westbrook, Parker scored 34 points on 16-21 shooting. In Game 3, Sefolosha held Parker to just 16 on 6-12 and harassed him into committing five turnovers.
The other significant adjustment, which the Thunder experimented with in the late stages of Game 2, was to switch ball screens rather than trying to hedge. In Games 1 and 2, Parker and Manu Ginobili continually picked apart the Thunder attempts to help-and-recover on the pick and roll. Whether they split the hedge or simply found the roll man with enough daylight to force the Thunder into a defensive rotation, the Spurs dissected the defensive coverage for wide open shots time and again.
The change in defensive approach necessitates a tweak to substitution patterns as well. It's tough to ask Kendrick Perkins to be switching onto Tony Parker all night. Brooks has always had a penchant for going small and playing Kevin Durant at the four, which he's done more and more as the series has progressed. On Thursday night, Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison (the Thunder big man rotation) combined to play just 63 minutes -- fewer than two thirds of the 96 minutes available at the big positions.
In addition, when Perkins was on the court, he seemed to relish the challenge of stepping out on Parker and Ginobili. He stayed in front of them when the switch occurred and even blocked a Ginobili stepback three-pointer late in the first half. Apparently, Perk was none too happy about his Game 2 performance and just as upset with the unsympathetic critiques of the TNT crew.
When the Thunder jumped to an 8-0 lead to open the game forcing an early Spurs timeout, Perkins glared at Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller and bellowed, "TALK ABOUT THAT!" Perkins took the team's defensive struggles in the first two games personally, and he came out in Game 3 determined to do something about it.
With Sefolosha on Parker fighting over screens whenever possible, and the Thunder ready to switch the screens that did occur, San Antonio was held to 12 points off of the pick-and-roll in Game 3 compared with 30 points in each of the first two games, according to ESPN Stats.
The downside of going small and switching screens is that it will produce mismatches in the post. But aside from Tim Duncan (who had an off night shooting just 5-15), Spurs big men like Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner don't exactly strike fear in the heart of post defenders. San Antonio will make an adjustment in Game 4, no doubt, but in Game 3 at least, they seemed out of sorts to have their screens strung out by switches and were unprepared to move quickly to post mismatches. In other words, the Thunder's strategy worked.
Brooks deserves credit for arriving at a workable game plan against the Spurs, but at the same time, one wonders why it took so long. In particular, putting Sefolosha on Parker isn't exactly Apple Genius Bar stuff. Assign the best perimeter defender to the opposition's best perimeter player? How ever did he come up with that? Westbrook is an above average NBA defender, but Sefolosha is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He's got the lateral quickness to stay in front of even Parker, he's impossibly long to bother shots and passes, he's smart, and he works his tail off. He had six steals, a blocked shot and countless deflections in Game 3. He single-handedly changed the series, which does make one wonder what might have happened had he been defending Parker in the first two games.
At any rate, we've now got a series on our hands. The Thunder have yet to lose at home in the playoffs and are flying high after proving that the Spurs are not, in fact, invincible. But San Antonio is too good to stay down long -- you can rest assured that they'll be much better in Game 4. It's now Gregg Popovich's move in the chess game of adjustments.