Kevin Durant dribbles as Tim Duncan defends during the second half in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
Soobum Im/Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
As much as Game 5 was about the Spurs playing smarter, it became obvious as the evening wore on Thursday that they got into the heads of the Thunder.
The looks on the faces of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the guys in Oklahoma City blue screamed confusion. The Silver and Black faithful couldn’t have bellowed any louder if the AT&T Center was twice as big.
"We reacted better to the loss than they reacted to the win," Manu Ginobili explained. "We were upset. We were disappointed at what we did in Oklahoma City. We came with more fire."
The fifth game of the Western Conference finals wasn’t about any one Spur taking over as San Antonio took a 3-2 series lead. The credit was spread equally across those who suited up for the 117-89 humbling that leaves the Spurs one victory away from a second straight NBA Finals.
From late in the first quarter all the way through the third, the Spurs scored on every possession. At least it felt that way. The ball was moving two steps ahead of any Thunder counter, and the lead grew accordingly.
"What matters in a game is execution and mental toughness." Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "You have to execute and you have to play with passion. So it’s like the old Dean Smith, Larry Brown thing, play harder and smarter than your opponent. It doesn’t happen all the time, but if you can do it that’s the goal."
Popovich downplayed the concept of adjustments leading into Game 5, but the Spurs did make changes to the starting lineup. Matt Bonner took Tiago Splitter’s spot, fundamentally altering San Antonio’s spacing on the offensive end.
Bonner didn’t do much, but having a stretch 4 on the floor opened up driving lanes and kick-out looks. The Spurs not only found what Pop wanted with Boris Diaw out there, the move helped negate the impact of Serge Ibaka by taking the shot blocker out to perimeter.
"We went back to what we do best and we did it almost to perfection against them," Tony Parker said. "We need to move the ball and find the first easy shot."
The Spurs weren’t just forcing the ball inside or attacking the rim with Ibaka lying in wait. The ball and Spurs were moving freely, and it added up to 51-percent shooting and 13 3-pointers. The Spurs shot less than 40 percent in the two OKC losses.
"This is the way we’ve been playing all season long and how we need to play to win," Tim Duncan said "We shared the ball real well, we moved the ball real well, we moved our bodies, we took something away from them, and we made them react.
"And on top of that, you have a night where guys shoot the ball as well as they did, and it turns into the score that it did. We don’t expect everybody to shoot that well night-in and night-out, but we’ll take it when it happens."
The bench starred again - San Antonio’s reserves outscored their counterparts 55-26 - but the tone was set by the front-liners. Duncan scored 22 and grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. Ginobili added 19 points and knocked down a trio of 3-pointers. Kawhi Leonard was the only Spurs to log more than 30 minutes with the victory in hand before the fourth period started.
The Spurs return to Oklahoma City with a closeout chance and with momentum back on their side. The flip side of that coin: Nine straight losses at Chesapeake Energy Arena, including a pair of beat downs in this series.
Popovich joked about opting not going to OKC for Game 6 Saturday. If only it was that easy.
"It’s a tough place to play, and we’ve lost however many in a row there, and they’re going to be fighting for their lives," Duncan said. "All those factors altogether is not going to make it an easy game for us. But we feel we play the right way, we take care of the ball, we do the things that we’ve been talking about all series long, there’s no reason why we can’t win it."