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Billy Donovan is winning his matchup against the NBA's greatest coach

Rookie Thunder coach Billy Donovan has shown poise while consistently making the correct decisions that has Oklahoma City up 3-2. He's more than holding his own against a legend.

SAN ANTONIO -- Tony Parker had just scored when Billy Donovan signaled his first timeout of the second half. The game was balancing precariously -- the Spurs had hit consecutive shots, their lead was nine and the AT&T Center was roaring. The message repeated in the huddle was calming:

"They made their run. It's time to make ours."

In the middle of everything was Donovan, as poised as a man with his years of experience can be, a rookie head coach in name only. San Antonio's lead grew as large as 13 points, but Oklahoma City made its run. The Spurs led by six points with four minutes to go, but once again, the Thunder made another run. When the buzzer sounded on Tuesday, Donovan's team was the one up 3-2, a home win away from the Western Conference Finals.

"A lot goes to (Donovan)," Andre Roberson said. "He stays on us. You guys might not see it, but you talk about all the time, practice, shootarounds, and we just pride ourselves on that. He stays on us and we believe and trust in him."

The coaching matchup between Donovan and Gregg Popovich wasn't expected to be much of one. Popovich runs the NBA's longest lasting modern dynasty with a quick tongue, a sharp mind and everyone's respect. After 20 years in college coaching, Donovan has adjusted to the pros, but it wasn't clear if he was a sure upgrade over the departed Scott Brooks.

But for the two leaders on the sidelines, this series has at least been a draw. Donovan's pushing the right buttons, experimenting with adjustments game-to-game and even half-to-half, but sticking with strategies he believes the team needs to win. The most obvious adjustment has been the Thunder's defense on LaMarcus Aldridge, who eviscerated Oklahoma City's defense in the first two games.

"We're still doing the same stuff and he's just missing shots," Steven Adams said. "We haven't changed anything. That's obviously really good for us."

That's not completely true. After Aldridge's 38-point outburst in Game 1, the Thunder's big men started recovering slightly quicker back to their man, and Donovan has mixed in baseline double teams against Aldridge in the post. But the Thunder still aren't leaving three-point shooters -- Danny Green's six threes on Tuesday mostly came in transition -- and they certainly aren't overreacting to open 20-footers.

"It's a tough task, mate -- he's a big boy," said Adams, who has frequently been responsible for Aldridge. "What really helps us out is just trying to stay down on his pump fake. We keep biting on his pump fakes, we have been, and he makes all his points at the free throw line."

It would have been easy to change the defense dramatically after Game 2, where Aldridge dropped 41 points. Instead, the Thunder stayed the same and Aldridge has just 64 points on 37 percent shooting in the past three games. Increasingly, Oklahoma City is limiting him and the Spurs offense while pairing Enes Kanter with Adams in the front court. Kanter's defense wasn't supposed to be good enough to survive, and the Thunder's lack of spacing with that duo was supposed to to be their undoing. Instead, those two have been involved in Oklahoma City's best lineups.

"Enes and Steven around the basket, I thought were able to generate some offensive rebounds and some points for us," Donovan said. "Those points help when you're fighting your way back."

Donovan tried Cameron Payne early in the series before pivoting Randy Foye in the second half of Game 4 when it became clear Payne was overwhelmed by the moment. Dion Waiters' role off the bench is slowly taking up more of Andre Roberson's minutes, as Waiters' effectiveness and Roberson's offensive clumsiness become clear. Donovan is still finding ways to rest his two MVP candidates: Kevin Durant played 43 on Tuesday while Russell Westbrook sat at 39 minutes.

Most significantly, Donovan has helped Oklahoma City solve its biggest problem. Durant and Westbrook scoffed when asked about the team's "fourth-quarter curse," but the Thunder still lost 14 times when leading entering the fourth quarter this season. In fourth quarters of this series' five games, Oklahoma City has outscored the Spurs by 31 points. "The one thing that hasn't really been talked about in those situations has been our defense," Donovan said.

The Thunder have started strong in all three games they've won and, as Donovan said, had "good bounce" to begin Tuesday. After the Game 1 demolition, where it wasn't clear if the hyped second-round series would even be competitive, Oklahoma City needed some fixes and the knowledge to know where to stay the course. On almost every issue, Donovan has navigated the waters correctly.

"Coach's doing a hell of a job, man, he's doing a hell of a job," Waiters said. "First year, everything happens so fast. We know that, but coaches adapt. ... He's just gotta continue doing what he's been doing for us, continue to lead us and we just go out there and try to get it done."

The matchup that was supposed to be most lopsided is the one that has helped the Thunder recover from the opening dud and put them within a win of a Western Conference Finals. Clearly, Donovan isn't the only factor, not a team with Durant and Westbrook, not when players like Kanter, Waiters and Adams have stepped up.

But in a series where Oklahoma City needed everyone at their best, Donovan's coaching has been a critical part.

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