OKLAHOMA CITY — With one simple defensive switch the Thunder made Game 4 relevant.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks claims his players just put out a better effort, and yeah, no holes in that story.
But he also moved Super Swiss Thabo Sefolosha in front of Tony Parker.
It wasn’t just a temporary answer for the Thunder. It was a solution for the rest of the series and, at the same time, created questions for San Antonio.
Instead of wondering when the River Walk parade starts, the Spurs now must figure out some adjustments.
A loss by the Thunder in Game 3, and there’s no way around it, the Spurs were winning the series. And they still might. But with an OKC win? A win like the Thunder put together, slowing Parker while also dominating San Antonio in a 102-82 win, creates issues for te Spurs.
It’s a series now, not a Spurs coronation. Game 3 was all about what Sefolosha did — which was an impressive task. But Game 4 on Saturday and the rest of the series is now suddenly filled with options and opportunities because of the Game 3 change.
Let’s look back before looking ahead. Sefolosha was charged with the duty of staying in front of Parker, who went off for 34 points in Game 2. But the Sefolosha change immediately made a difference. In the first three minutes Thursday, Sefolosha had three steals. He finished with six and also had six rebounds.
“We made the adjustment and it worked out good,” Sefolosha said of the defensive switch.
Certainly the defense was the difference. After all, the Spurs were coming off a Game 2 win in which they scored from everywhere and with ease and went off for 120.
But, really, what Sefolosha did on Thursday was more evident on the offensive end, and not just from the record numbers he put up.
In 44 playoff games, Sefolosha had managed double-digit scoring only once. He had 19 points Thursday. In seven NBA seasons, Sefolosha hadn’t averaged more than 28 minutes per game. He played almost 37 on Thursday. He went into Game 3 having averaged four attempts per game this postseason but took 16 shots Thursday, one more than Russell Westbrook and one fewer than Kevin Durant.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “It’s not about Tony, it’s about our team,” and while Brooks would likely agree, it’s not a stretch to say the rest of this series will be about what Sefolosha will do — not just against the Spurs but for the Thunder.
Mainly what he did Thursday was allow Westbrook freedom. The results aren’t necessarily evident in the box score, as Westbrook scored only 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
But it is seen in the result. When Westbrook was on the court, the Thunder outscored the Spurs by 29 points. Westbrook didn’t have to concern himself with running after Parker, and in a game in which he might have been pressed to play 48 minutes in an act of desperation, Westbrook played just 33. And in that time, he recorded nine assists, four steals and a pair of blocked shots. He looked fresher and he looked active.
Meanwhile, Durant played just 38 minutes, didn’t feel the need to take more shots or push to take more shots — because Sefolosha allowed it. His minutes were quality, meaning the Thunder role players like Nazr Mohammed and Nick Collison weren’t forced to play crucial minutes.
Mohammed didn’t play at all Thursday, Collison played just nine minutes and Daequan Cook only six —all in garbage time. Being deeper isn’t necessarily better for the Thunder moving forward in the playoffs. The more Durant, Westbrook and James Harden can play, the better off they might be, and Sefolosha’s minutes, shots and energy will factor into that.
“I can ask Scotty not to play him,” Popovich said with a straight face after Game 3. “I don’t know how I can change what Sefolosha’s going to do. He did a good job.”
Popovich and the Spurs might not be able to change much, but they’re the ones who will have to make the moves going into Game 4.
Figure that Sefolosha will be back on Parker. Figure the Thunder will keep switching on the pick-and-rolls that seemed to sink them in the first two games as Parker and Manu Ginobili had few issues.
Figure the Thunder will be the ones with the confidence and the momentum.
“We can say Sefolosha did this or that,” Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said. “He made shots — that’s one thing — but they flat-out beat us. They came out with more energy.”
Now we’ll see if the Thunder come out with more Thabo the rest of the way.