If the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 105-92 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday gave you flashbacks to May of 2012, fear not, because these Western Conference finals are starting to look more and more like the Thunder’s rally over the Spurs two years ago with each passing day.
The last two games have been a complete reversal from Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio for OKC, thanks in no small part to the return of Serge Ibaka and the commanding presences of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the latter two particularly deadly in the third quarter Tuesday. And just as it rolled off four straight wins in 2012 after losing the first two in San Antonio, Oklahoma City looks capable of bouncing the No. 1 seed Spurs with a delayed sweep again.
The troubling last couple games don’t spell complete disaster, of course, for the Spurs, who looked like a shoo-in to play in their second straight NBA Finals as of last Wednesday. But the way they’ve lost — looking completely outmatched physically on both ends of the floor — has to be cause for concern.
Fortunately for Gregg Popovich’s team, Oklahoma City still has to win in San Antonio at least once if the Thunder are going to pull off the upset. But if the Spurs blow it again in Game 5 — or if they wake up Thursday and Gotye has the No. 1 song in the country — well, then they’ll really know they’re in trouble.
Takeaway: Very early on in Game 4, San Antonio looked like it had figured out how to right its wrongs from Game 3, as it made five of its first seven shots and took leads of 8-0 and 12-4. But Oklahoma City very quickly found its stride and, led by 11 points from Westbrook, outscored the Spurs 22-8 over the final 8 minutes of the first quarter in what turned out to be a preview of things to come. In the second quarter, OKC picked up where it left off — this time paced by 15 points from a near-perfect Kevin Durant — and hit 13 of 24 shots to take a 15-point lead into the half. In the third, Westbrook retook control with 13 points to effectively put San Antonio away.
The Thunder didn’t get a whole lot in the way of scoring outside of its two superstars, but Durant and Westbrook were incredibly balanced, with each ceding control to the other when the timing was appropriate. It’s that unselfish approach to self-indulgence (if there is such a thing) — not to mention another commanding defensive performance, holding the Spurs to 39.8-percent shooting in the game — that has Oklahoma City in the driver’s seat going into Game 5. The Thunder dominated at the line (24 made free throws to 17 for the Spurs) and in transition (21 fast-break points to zero for San Antonio), they won the turnover battle handily and they made the Spurs rethink just about every shot they took in the restricted circle, where they were 13 of 32 for the game. And if Oklahoma City can keep building on that approach, the future of this series is looking bright for the MVP and his running mates.
Star Review: Westbrook has been playing the last few games like a guy waiting to explode, and on Tuesday he finally did with just the third 40-point playoff game of his career — and his first since the 2012 Finals against Miami. But unlike his 43 points in that game against the Heat, which came on 32 shots with just three free-throw attempts, Westbrook’s 40 points Tuesday came much more efficiently — 12 of 24 from the field, a perfect 14-of-14 mark from the foul line (Westbrook’s most free throws without a miss in his career). In fact, Westbrook was so good in Game 4 that he nearly managed to overshadow Durant, whose 31 points were the most he’s scored in a game all series long. In addition, Oklahoma City got another strong effort from Ibaka (nine points, eight rebounds, three blocks) and a stalwart defensive showing from Kendrick Perkins (10 rebounds, two blocks) to help even the series.
On the San Antonio side, the Spurs got Tony Parker back after the veteran point guard fizzled in Game 3, but Parker’s 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting weren’t nearly enough to make up for the dearth of offense found among the rest of the starting lineup, which combined for just 25 points. The main culprit in that lapse was Danny Green (3 points, 1-of-4 shooting), who has seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth after absolutely lighting it up from 3 in the first couple games of the series. But Tim Duncan (nine points) was also held to single-digit scoring for the first time this postseason in the loss, and Kawhi Leonard scored just 10 points on nine shots and was a team-worst minus-20 during his almost 25 minutes of action. Boris Diaw did what he could to try to keep the Spurs in it, with 11 of his 14 points and six of his 10 rebounds coming in the second half, but when Diaw is San Antonio’s No. 1 or No. 2 option with that kind of regularity, it’ll be tough for the Spurs to compete offensively.
Looking Ahead: Game 5 at San Antonio, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET
What To Look For: It seems hard to fathom that we could be talking about what San Antonio needs to do to keep from crumbling, given the way this series started. But it’s come to this, and unfortunately for Spurs fans, there’s not an obvious answer to their issues. All season long, Ibaka was a nightmare matchup for San Antonio, averaging 14 points, 11.5 rebounds and four blocks per game in OKC’s regular-season sweep. And now that he’s back and apparently healthy, the answer to beating the Thunder will likely rest in what the coach of the year Popovich decides to do to counter the athleticism Ibaka brings to the paint at both ends of the floor. Problem is, going straight at Ibaka on defense isn’t going to work — or it hasn’t yet, anyway — so for the Spurs to really put themselves back in control, they’ll need to remember where they left their outside shooting stroke.
San Antonio’s 27 3-point attempts in Game 4 were the most for the Spurs in a game this postseason, followed closely by the 26 3-pointers from Game 3. Usually when San Antonio is shooting that many long-distance shots, it’s because they’re falling — the Spurs shot better than 40 percent in 10 of their 15 games with 27 or more 3-point attempts in the regular season — but over the last two games, they’ve made just 19 of those 53 combined 3s, an effort eerily reminiscent of the team’s 7-of-27 mark from 3 in a November loss to these same Thunder. In order for them to get their affairs in order, the Spurs will need to start shooting like the team that led the league with a 39.7 percent 3-point clip in the regular season, or else things could get really ugly. But even if they can find their range from 3, that might still not be enough. After all, the Spurs shot a combined 28 of 63 in their three other regular season games against OKC, and we saw how that turned out for them.