Led by a 40-point, 10-assist, five-rebound, five-steal performance from Russell Westbrook, the Thunder tied their Western Conference Finals series with the Spurs at two games apiece.
Oklahoma City Thunder RECAP
92 - 105 Series tied 2-2
5 things to know
The Westbrook Show
There is nothing in the sport quite like a Russell Westbrook game in which the mercurial guard plays with an all-out ferocity for 45 minutes. When Westbrook takes the Let Russell be Russell mantra to its zenith, you get something like the 40-5-10 line he put on the Spurs in Game 4; a postseason line that had last been achieved by Michael Jordan in 1989.
When Westbrook goes off like that, he threatens to devour the universe all by his lonesome, obliterating everything in his path. And yet, he wasn’t alone because Kevin Durant was right there with him, scoring 31 while taking only two fewer shots. Once again, we have demonstrative proof against the lie that these two aren’t good for each other or that they can’t play together. It would be nice if we could finally move beyond that point.
The reality of the Thunder’s game is that they need both of them to be as great as they are at the same time. Sure, either of them is capable of winning without the other or carrying the other through a fallow period. But together and when both are at the top of their game, OKC is practically unbeatable. It will take winning a championship together before this endless philosophical argument is finally laid to rest. Until then, this game will have to serve as the latest counter. -Paul Flannery
A familiar feeling
A team as collected and even-tempered as the Spurs won't want to admit it, but Gregg Popovich knows his guys have seen this movie before. It was back in 2012, when the Spurs blasted the upstart Thunder in the first two games of the Western Conference finals before Oklahoma City roared back to win four in a row.
Most of the faces are the same on both sides, save for James Harden. Everyone is a little older now. Westbrook and Durant aren't 23-year-olds anymore. Reggie Jackson isn't a rookie and Steven Adams isn't off learning the sprinkles of the game in New Zealand. Oklahoma City looked like the team with more dynamic athletes back then, and they do now once again after Serge Ibaka helped run the Spurs off the floor in Game 4. The Thunder had 12 steals on Tuesday, more than they've had in any game during these playoffs. They played in transition and above the rim in a way San Antonio isn't capable of doing on its best nights.
No one is writing the Spurs off after everything they've accomplished, but a rematch of last year's NBA Finals no longer looks like a formality. The Thunder didn't get a fair shot last year because of a knee injury to Westbrook, and they're here to remind you 2012 really wasn't that long ago. -Ricky O'Donnell
The importance of rim protection
That picture to the right shows Serge Ibaka swatting away Tiago Splitter's weak stuff in the first few minuts of Game 4. NBA players may be significantly more fearless than normal human beings, but even they get intimidated by that kind of athleticism.
There's a reason why Ibaka's return to health took this series from a San Antonio romp into an Oklahoma City one. The area underneath the basket is the most valuable real estate on the court, and Ibaka -- combined with blossoming protege Steven Adams -- takes it away. The Spurs shot 25-29 in the restricted area in Game 1 and 20-29 in Game 2 with Ibaka sitting; they hit 15-30 in Game 3 and an unbelievably horrid 13-32 in Game 4, per NBA.com's media-only stats page. Those numbers don't even account for the many times the Spurs passed out of potential layups or saw their offense discombobulate because they were unwilling to go the extra mile to even challenge the Thunder's rim protection.
San Antonio tried to pull Ibaka and Adams out of the paint, but none of its tricks worked. Stationing Boris Diaw at the three-point line did nothing because Ibaka and Adams didn't bother to challenge him. Any misdirection failed because the Thunder wings were helping the helper so beautifully, preventing the Spurs from moving the ball from side to side. The Spurs are historically reluctant to use Kawhi Leonard at power forward because it hurts their defense, but perhaps that's something they must try in Game 5.
The last two games not only provide evidence of Ibaka's value, but also the importance of having big tall dudes that guard the basket. Rim protection turned the Spurs' beautiful symphony into your friend fiddling around with different sound options on iMovie. It changes everything. -Mike Prada
One of the identifying aspects of the Spurs offense is that a majority of makes are assisted. During the regular season, 62 percent of San Antonio's buckets were assisted. But we saw a much lower rate in Game 4: just 51 percent of the Spurs' buckets came from assists. Oklahoma City's defense is forcing the Spurs to create more off the dribble instead of through the familiar ball movement San Antonio usually kills opponents with.
In the first two games of the series -- both Spurs wins -- San Antonio had a combined 55 assists on 91 made field goals. Unsurprisingly, those high rates correlated with efficient shooting from long-range as the Spurs rarely take an unassisted three (and when they do, it's usually Manu Ginobili). In Game 4, San Antonio shot worse from long-range as OKC upset the team's offensive flow.
Can the Thunder continue that in San Antonio for Game 5, or will the Spurs get back to basics? -Tom Ziller
Popovich's latest trick
Matt Bonner is supposed to be a white towel, both proverbial and literal. Coach Gregg Popovich has put him in only during the most dire of situations this season, usually due to injury or with the Spurs down big. He's not supposed to anchor a San Antonio comeback from a drubbing against the Oklahoma City Thunder or balance out a red-hot Russell Westbrook in a conference playoff game. But he did.
Popovich put in Bonner, Jeff Ayres, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw for the entirety of the fourth quarter, resting his starters. Bonner played the role of King Moonracer, somehow keeping the Spurs close in the third quarter despite Westbrook's second half explosion. San Antonio even outscored the Thunder by a margin of three points in the fourth as they avoided an embarrassing loss that ended up just being a bad one.
This was ridiculous on its face. Only the Spurs, and only Popovich, could do such a thing. San Antonio may not have won, but they certainly put the Thunder on their toes having Bonner play tough defense as Joseph slammed down viscous dunks on Serge Ibaka on the other end. Now, with the series tied and the teams headed back to San Antonio, Popovich has an opportunity to pull some strings to surprise Scott Brooks once again. I can't wait to see what crazy thing he comes up with next. -Dane Carbaugh
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