After five consecutive blowouts in the Western Conference Finals, it kind of felt as though we were due for a Spurs-Thunder game to go down to the wire. On Saturday night, San Antonio and Oklahoma City finally came through, with the Spurs escaping OKC with a 112-107, overtime win to advance to the NBA Finals.
The series’ first true officiating controversy nearly became a chief talking point between Game 6 and what would have been Game 7 on Monday, after a missed goaltending call on Serge Ibaka with 44 seconds left in regulation gave the Thunder just enough breathing room to force the extra period. But the Spurs locked down on D in the OT, holding OKC to just 1-of-11 shooting, and put themselves in the Finals in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history.
San Antonio will no doubt have to be better in the Finals than it was at times against Oklahoma City if the Spurs want to avoid a repeat of last year’s heartbreaker against the Miami Heat. And the health of Tony Parker, who missed the second half of Saturday’s game with an injury, could become a huge obstacle if Parker’s injury turns out to be serious (though there is no indication yet that it is).
But this is the Finals matchup many expected and hoped to see from the beginning, and there’s no questioning that it will, once again, be the league’s two most deserving teams battling it out for league supremacy.
Takeaway: Given how quickly Gregg Popovich has gone to the hook with his starters in each of the Spurs’ other two losses in this series, there was a thought that even the slightest slip-up by San Antonio without Parker in the second half could lead to an early white flag by the Spurs. Instead, San Antonio rallied despite the absence of its achy star and took control of the game with a commanding, 37-20 third quarter that ended with a 9-0 Spurs run over the final 1:20.
The 4-point play Danny Green executed with one second left in the third quarter could very well have been the turning point for the whole second half, but Oklahoma City responded admirably with a strong fourth quarter paced by 24 combined points from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But Westbrook, once again, tried to do too much in the overtime period, and his 1-of-7 clip in OT may have been what did his team in.
In fairness, Durant also missed all three of his shot attempts in overtime, including two 3-pointers, but he also took just one shot between the 4:11 mark and the 16-second mark in the period, and that’s unacceptable for the league MVP in a playoff elimination game. Had Durant played a more active role in OT, it by no means would have been a guarantee that OKC would be playing Game 7 on Monday.
When Durant is taking a backseat to Westbrook at the most critical juncture of the game, Oklahoma City simply isn’t putting itself in the best position to win.
But against the Spurs, a team like the Thunder can’t afford to be even a hair shy of its best, and when Durant is taking a backseat to Westbrook at the most critical juncture of the game, Oklahoma City simply isn’t putting itself in the best position to win.
Star review: Despite his cold snap in the OT, Westbrook did finish Game 6 with a game-high 34 points, with most of his damage coming at the free-throw line, where he hit 17 of 18 attempts. In addition, Westbrook added seven rebounds, eight assists and six steals. But his seven turnovers and his inefficiency when he couldn’t get to the line (8-of-23 shooting) both left him culpable in the loss. Like Westbrook, Durant also had trouble keeping the ball in the hands of the guys on the home team, with seven turnovers himself, but KD was much more discerning with his shot selection, and he ran the offense far more deftly than his co-star.
Beyond their stars, the Thunder also didn’t get much in the way of assistance from its bench, with Derek Fisher’s five points representing all of the bench points while Serge Ibaka (16 points, four rebounds, four blocks) and Reggie Jackson (21 points) accounted for the rest of the OKC scoring. And that, all series, has been one of the main differences between the Thunder and the Spurs, who got 51 points from their reserves in Game 6. That number was largely supported by another great game from Boris Diaw (26 points, 8-of-14 shooting), who made three 3s, and Manu Ginobili (15 points), who was timely despite a poor shooting night overall, knocking down a 3 to give San Antonio a one-point lead with 27 seconds left in regulation.
As for San Antonio’s starters, Parker made good use of the 18:52 he did play, adding eight points while hobbling around on an injured left ankle, and Tim Duncan (19 points, 15 rebounds) and Kawhi Leonard (17 points, 11 rebounds) each executed well in the win.
Looking ahead: NBA Finals, Game 1 vs. Miami Heat at San Antonio, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET
What to look for: There’s little argument that the Spurs and Heat have been the two most championship-worthy teams throughout the playoffs thus far, but in the end, this rematch of last year’s Finals may be decided by the health of Parker’s ankle. After Game 6, Popovich played his hand close to the vest – where else? – when asked about Parker, and gave a coy answer about not dealing in hypotheticals when asked if Parker would have played in the second half had it been a Game 7 or a Finals game. But Popovich also intimated that Parker wanted to play in the second half and it was he who decided that it wasn’t happening, so with that in mind, you’ve got to imagine Parker will be just fine for Game 1.
Assuming that’s the case, we could be in for another dazzling series, and if it even comes close to living up to the hype of last year’s Finals, it’ll surely be more interesting than either of these conference finals turned out to be. San Antonio has been the more consistent of the teams for most of the season, and the Spurs have shown an ability to handle superstars, even if that doesn’t mean shutting them down. But Miami is well-rested, has championship pedigree and has the most dominant player on Earth, and that alone will make the series worth watching. Miami has gone largely untested in these playoffs, and that should end in these Finals, and when all is said and done, the question of who will win may come down to one not-so-simple answer: Would you rather have the better players or the better team?