There’s a lot to like about the way the San Antonio Spurs have played so far in the Western Conference Finals, and there’s just as much to hate about virtually everything the Oklahoma City Thunder have done — or, more accurately, not done — in the series. Unfortunately for the Thunder, those opposite paths collided hard on Wednesday night in a 112-77 loss that has to have the OKC locker room pondering what, exactly, it’s doing here.
There’s still plenty of time for the Thunder to recover, despite being down 2-0 to the most consistent and calculated team in the league. But that presupposes that the Spurs have given any indication that they’re capable of blowing this series. Realistically, though, OKC’s window is closing and doing so at a breakneck pace, and while the comforts of home might be good for a win this weekend, all indications are that the Thunder will be formulating an offseason plan sooner than most expected or hoped.
Takeaway: Hard as it is to believe, the Thunder actually led Wednesday’s game 36-33 with 7:47 left in the first half. But over the next 19:18, San Antonio unleashed a 58-24 run to extend the lead to 31 points with 29 seconds left in the third. In that span, San Antonio shot 58.8 percent from the field to just 35.3 percent for Oklahoma City, and held the Thunder to an 0-for-9 mark from 3. And in the third quarter alone, the Spurs hit 12 of their 16 shot attempts, including three 3-pointers and all six free throws they attempted. The rally was swift and devastating and highlighted every spot where OKC is at a disadvantage against a Spurs team that, frankly, has looked unbeatable the last couple weeks. And by the time the start of the fourth quarter rolled around, all of Gregg Popovich’s starters were comfortably on the bench — rest that won’t hurt them any as the series plays out.
Just a few days ago, Serge Ibaka’s absence seemed like it might be a minor inconvenience for a Thunder team that had gotten comfortable dominating the Spurs in recent years. But after two games, it’s undeniable that Ibaka, more than the other stars on Oklahoma City’s roster, was the team’s most vital piece of the puzzle against San Antonio. Defensively, it’s almost as though coach Scott Brooks just took the spot vacated by Ibaka and just left it empty. And on offense, the absence of Ibaka’s presence down low has made Oklahoma City a little too one-dimensional — and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant don’t necessarily seem to be responding to the increased responsibility well. The biggest problem, though, is that you can’t look at the Thunder roster and pinpoint a clear answer to what ails them right now, so unless a group of pint-sized aliens show up and steal all of the talent from the Spurs roster, it’s hard to see this getting a whole lot better.
Star Review: Oklahoma City’s 77 points in Game 2 were the team’s fewest in a game this season. The Thunder’s 2-of-20 clip from 3 matched their worst showing of the season, as well. OKC’s five made free throws also marked their worst game of the year, and with all of those depressing designations considered, you likely don’t need me to tell you just how bad the stat lines looked on Wednesday. But even if you don’t know all of that, the box score kind of speaks for itself. Durant scored 15 points and was 6 of 16 from the floor. Westbrook was even worse, with just 15 points on 7-of-24 shooting. The trio of other starters — Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — was useless on offense (four combined points; nine combined in the two games), and had it not been for Steven Adams, Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler pitching in 26 points off the bench, San Antonio’s starters might have found themselves in sweats on the bench even earlier.
As for those Spurs regulars, the backcourt combo of Tony Parker and Danny Green was electric, hitting 17 of 28 shots during the game. Green was a ridiculous 7 of 10 clip from 3 and has hit 15 of his last 21 3s dating back to the Portland series. Those two helped carry the load for Kawhi Leonard, who was slowed by foul trouble early and then no longer needed by the time he would have normally returned. They also helped cover up Tim Duncan’s 5-of-12 shooting performance, which was mundane even by his standards. But even still, Duncan grabbed 12 boards and at this point is allowed to have an off-night — considering that he, Parker and Manu Ginobili (11 points) have now passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper for most NBA playoff wins by a “Big 3.”
Looking Ahead: Game 3, at Oklahoma City, Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET
What To Look For: If you think it looks grim for Oklahoma City right now, just wait — you haven’t even heard the worst part yet. There are other factors working against the Thunder, too. Not only is San Antonio the league’s best road team, with a 30-11 regular-season record away from home, but they also just don’t lose leads when it comes to playoff series. If you go back to the beginning of Popovich’s tenure with the Spurs, his teams have taken a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series on 20 different occasions, and only twice has San Antonio’s opponent come back to win the whole thing. Of course, everyone will point out that one of those times was against the Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference Finals — the other was against the Lakers in the 2004 conference semis — and I’m sure that will become a rallying cry for OKC fans during the long layoff until Game 3, but in this case, there are so many other factors at play that it’s hard to envision a repeat of 2012 this time around.
That’s because every dilemma the Thunder face can seemingly be answered with the same reply. They’re having trouble covering the paint? Who else is supposed to do it? Westbrook and Durant are taking too many shots? Who else is supposed to take them? Brooks doesn’t seem to be making useful adjustments? What else is he supposed to call? Oklahoma City’s options are limited, and it’s difficult to picture the circumstances to improve regardless of what Brooks does. But at this point, what his team is doing just isn’t working, so it’s reached a point where he’s going to have to start throwing ideas at the wall, hoping one sticks. As I wrote after Game 1, maybe it starts with just removing Sefolosha from the lineup altogether and giving the limited minutes he’s playing to Jackson, as Sefolosha has been arguably the least productive member of the Thunder rotation thus far. Or maybe Brooks needs to find more minutes for Adams, a 7-footer who nearly posted a double-double in 21 minutes over the course of the first three quarters of Game 2 before just kind of coasting and letting Jeremy Lamb do the work in a pointless fourth. Adams isn’t an Ibaka replacement by any stretch, but at least he’s big enough to maybe make some of the Spurs players think twice before attacking the rim.
On their own, neither of those tweaks will salvage the series for Oklahoma City, but, if paired with a top-shelf performance by the Thunder’s two superstars — and a little (or a lot) of luck — maybe it can at least help them swipe a win or two before they get sent home for good.