Prior to last Thursday, the San Antonio Spurs had not lost three games in more than 10 weeks. But after Monday night's Game 5 in San Antonio, the Oklahoma City Thunder have now beaten them three times in a matter of five days to take a 3-2 lead in their Western Conference Finals battle. It's a stunning turn of events that pretty much no one saw coming.
As the Spurs were winning 20 straight games, including 10 straight to open the playoffs, they looked unbeatable. The offense was in such a good groove that it didn't much matter what the defense was doing -- the Spurs were too efficient, too precise to be stopped.
So how have the Thunder managed to turn the table on the mighty Spurs? There's really no single answer, other than the obvious observation that Oklahoma City is a very, very talented basketball team.
When the Thunder won Game 3 to snap the San Antonio winning streak, many writers (myself included) focused on the importance of Thabo Sefolosha as the key to turning things around. The defensive specialist played 37 of the game's first 43 minutes, defending All-NBA point guard Tony Parker whenever he was on the floor. Sefolosha's individual defensive effort on Parker, as well as a basic change in defensive coverage where the Thunder switched the pick and roll more often and played extended minutes with a smaller lineup to facilitate that approach, seemed to be the key adjustments that allowed the Thunder to break through.
So have those adjustments carried the team to wins in Games 4 and 5? Not exactly. Sefolosha, whose extended minutes seemed so crucial in Game 3, has played just 22 minutes in each of the subsequent victories. Meanwhile, rather than play small, if anything the Thunder have relied more than ever on their bigs in the last two games. The white hot shooting of Serge Ibaka (11-11), Kendrick Perkins (7-9) and Nick Collison (4-5) was a major factor in the Game 4 win and in fact the three bigs combined to play 93 of the available 96 minutes at center and power forward in that game. In other words, the small lineup that seemed so important in Game 3 was used for all of three minutes of Game 4.
So how are the Thunder winning? Well, they're making a lot of shots. Oklahoma City shot 56 percent in Game 4 and 50 percent in Game 5. Not only was Ibaka perfect in Game 4, but then Kevin Durant absolutely took over in the fourth quarter. The Thunder went to Durant on eight consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter of Game 4, and he delivered 16 points on 7-8 shooting. (He had a couple of and-1s in the mix.)
And let's face it -- sometimes talent trumps execution. During the most important possession of Game 5, with the Thunder clinging to a two-point lead with 45 seconds remaining and the Spurs on a 13-2 run, the Thunder had a terrible possession. James Harden received the inbound pass following a Tim Duncan basket -- he dribbled into the frontcourt, dribbled in isolation against Kawhi Leonard for awhile, the Spurs denied the Russell Westbrook down screen for Durant that OKC had used so effectively in Game 4, and nothing was happening on the possession. In the end, Harden jabbed forward on Leonard, and then stepped back for a contested three-pointer -- nothing but net. It was a terrible possession -- in the course of 21 seconds, only one Thunder player touched the ball. There was no screen for him, no misdirection, nothing. Harden dribbled and dribbled and then shot a tough shot as the 24-second clock was winding down -- but he's a really, really good basketball player, and he made a really, really tough shot.
Over on the other bench, suddenly it's the Spurs who seem to be panicking a bit. Gregg Popovich inserted Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup in place of Danny Green. Not only that, Green was relegated to four minutes of duty, the least amount of playing time he's had since the first weekend of the season. It's not like Popovich to suddenly make drastic changes to his rotation, but that's where the Spurs now find themselves. The San Antonio bench that seemed to continually overachieve suddenly looks like the collection of second-round picks, cast-offs and journeymen that they are. In each of their three straight wins, the Thunder have taken control of the game in the second quarter against the Spurs reserves that had been so effective all season until now.
Six days ago, it seemed that Oklahoma City was just the latest detour in San Antonio's inexorable march to the NBA championship. The Spurs had won 10 straight playoff games and had continued to play terrific in taking a 2-0 series lead in the Conference Finals. Thunder fans wouldn't admit it now, but they were probably hoping just to avoid being swept at that point -- expecting the Spurs to lose four out of five games when they'd only lost two in almost 11 weeks was unrealistic.
Instead, the Thunder have won three straight, and will have a chance to close out the series with a win at home on Wednesday night. Suddenly, all the momentum is with the Thunder -- and no one saw it coming.
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