Blown out of OKC, Spurs head back to home court they earned

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In searching for answers after a second consecutive blowout in Oklahoma City, the Spurs hope home court will provide the sanctuary they aimed for all season.

The NBA’s top seed got trounced, 105-92, by the Thunder in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals and now find themselves tied two games apiece with the series heading back to San Antonio, and they’re looking down the barrel of a weapon that looks completely different with Serge Ibaka back in the lineup.

Oklahoma City brought a knife to gun fights in Games 1 and 2. For the last two contests, they rolled in a howitzer.

Russell Westbrook exploded for 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals in 45 minutes of playing time, and Kevin Durant ‘chipped in’ with 31 points, five boards, five assists and three steals of his own as the two superstars just blew the top off Chesapeake Energy Arena. When this duo explodes like it did in Game 4, nobody on the planet can beat the Thunder.

And Westbrook was everywhere. After the Spurs jumped out to a quick start, the lightning rod point guard took over—deflecting passes, picking pockets, jumping passing lanes and taking his usual gambles that all seemed to pay off. His five steals were a postseason best for his career, and once the floodgates open with Russ at the wheel, all hell breaks loose.

Then there was the MVP of the league. Kevin Durant was unstoppable when it most mattered most, before Pop waved what appeared to be a very early white flag around the seven-minute mark of the third quarter. The NBA’s leading scorer went 11-of-22 from the floor, but was 11-of-15 up to that point, knocking down off-balance runners with his right hand while falling left, turning over either shoulder and fading away or simply stepping into 3-pointers with hands in his face. And it was all in a backseat role, essentially.

Opulence—the Thunder has it.

But it wasn’t even necessarily Oklahoma City’s offensive outbursts that have killed the Spurs in the two most recent games. Putting up 106 and 105 points, respectively, is a lot, but it’s not overwhelming. The problem for San Antonio has been on the offensive side of the ball, where the return of Ibaka has apparently come with a complementary vat of quicksand in which the Spurs are forced to run.

Early in the game, however, things looked better. The Spurs were getting Tony Parker—who was much, much better in this one—the ball in space, running through a gauntlet of off-ball screens and receiving hand-offs on the move that filtered directly into pick-and-rolls toward the middle of the floor. It created that natural, swirling motion we’ve come to know so well, and players were knocking down shots from those familiar spots.

Then it all just… stopped.

San Antonio took a 12-4 lead in the first four minutes of the game, then after two straight turnovers and three consecutive missed shots, OKC was right back in it, and so was the crowd. All that length and athleticism set in needed a quick charge, but it finally settled in. Suddenly, all those crisp passes, the nonstop off-ball movement and the picture-perfect pick-and-rolls devolved into scrambles after the first action didn’t take. Where before the ball was swinging around the perimeter while hardly touching the ground, players started pounding out the dribbles and getting caught in the Thunder spiderwebs.

The Spurs managed to tread water for a little while, then it all crumbled in. A Patty Mills jumper cut the deficit to two points with 9:55 remaining in the second quarter, then Oklahoma City proceeded to go on a 50-25 run over the next 17-plus minutes to blow the lead open to 27 points and prompt a furious Gregg Popovich to pull his starting unit not even halfway through the third quarter.

It had become an abject disaster for San Antonio, and this team that had been blowing through opponents less than a week ago looked downright lost.

The return of Ibaka was viewed as an interesting sidebar to a series that seemed totally one-sided, but it’s since become a game-changer. San Antonio’s offensive rating has plummeted from a 123.4 in the first two games to a 95.6 in the last two, and its defensive rating has spiked from 94 points allowed per 100 possessions to 111.5 since Sunday. Worst of all, a restricted-area field-goal percentage that burned the paint at better than 76 percent through the first two contests has dropped more than 30 percent since Ibaka’s return. A screw is loose in the collective head of the Spurs’ locker room, and not until the Cube Steaks checked in did a silver lining even appear.

That weird lineup we’ve seen compete on random regular-season nights made another appearance and did what it’s done so many times before. A 27-point deficit was cut into, piece by piece, until there was actually a chance to slice it to 10 with just more than three minutes remaining. But a Cory Joseph reverse layup spun off the rim, and the 35-20 run over a 13-and-a-half minute span was stopped short before it could reach a potential finale.

(This happened, though.)

Still, what the “Cube Steak Run” showed us (hat-tip to Trevor Zickgraf for that one) was the sort of motion offense that had suddenly become lost. The ball started zipping around again, players never stopped moving, cutting and screening, and the Spurs were finding open looks once more. It was a reminder that the system still works, but the stagnancy has to stop.

There’s no doubt the Thunder lost some energy once San Antonio’s starters checked out of the game for good in the third, but when Popovich didn’t reinsert early in the fourth when the lead was cut to 12, he was also sending a message.

Watch and learn, because the biggest test of your season is on Thursday.


  • spurs10

    It was a gutsy move by Pop that I hope to the high heavens works! Great take.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    Near the end of the regular season, there was a small contingent of us Spurs posters who were adamant that the Spurs go all out for homecourt advantage in anticipation for the Thunder and the Heat; Most of the rest said, nah it wasn’t necessary.

    You think the Spurs are winning a game at OKC this series? We’d better be thanking our lucky stars that we locked up homecourt when we had a chance.

    It’s simple really: We drop a game at home, and the series is over (obviously Game 7). Game 5 is the Spurs season. Pop and the boys better come with guns blazing, leaving nothing in the chamber, nothing in the tank. And play Cory Joseph more. Bench Splitter. Against OKC and Miami, he’s worthless.Give Bonner some run to stretch the court and bring Ibaka out of the paint.

    After watching this series, maybe I need to go back to school and major in Sports Psychology. I need to figure out how basketball fundamentally changes when you go from one regulation court to the next..Thunder absolutely suck at the AT&T center, then we absolutely suck at their house (Ibaka notwithstanding). Remember when Norman Dale from Hoosiers showed the guys that the State Championship hoop was the same height as the hoop in their gym back home? Do the Spurs need to check out that movie?

    What the hell are the Spurs scared of? Dude, it’s just basketball. It’s not war with real life bullets. It’s just a sporting event. Just compete, stay calm, play smart, and play hard. These guys are battle tested, playoff veterans and champions. Why can’t they figure this out? Speaking of old movies, they need to check out Rocky IV again. Serge Ibaka is Ivan Drago, and Cory Joseph dunks on him then yells to his teammates, “You see! He’s not a machine! He’s a man!”

  • abe

    Hmmmm…so…here’s my suggestion for Pop. I’m available for consultation if necessary ;)

    Start Diaw in place of Splitter to try and draw Ibaka out of the paint at the onset of the game. He sets decent screens and moves well without the ball. Reward Cory Joseph by using him before Mills off the bench along with Splitter and Manu. Splitter can set good screens for him and Manu can get him the ball off cuts, which he is great at. He has more of a distributor mentality than Mills, so he will be looking to pass to another cutter unless he has space to shoot. Maybe even use he AND Mills together when the Thunder go small.

    One thing is for sure…something has to change and I think this is a good start.

  • SpurredOn

    We’ll find out Thursday which was the bigger factor these past two games: Ibaka or home court. I’m of the opinion that the Spurs would’ve lost both games in OKC without Ibaka and would’ve won both in SA had he played. Scoring margins would’ve been different but, when these two teams are at full strength the past three seasons, HCA has been the deciding factor. Nine consecutive losses, only two of which were up for grabs in the 4Q, and only once holding a 4Q lead. It’s an embarrassment that always falls apart with one destructive quarter of bad offense, negating what has usually been stout Spurs D. If Westbrook goes off only once every five or so games vs the Spurs, I’ll take that.

    The Spurs would do better to be so patient as to take some shot clock violations since OKC can’t fastbreak from those. They’re losing 10-15 easy points per game in OKC from rushed shots early in the shot clock or foolish turnovers preceded by over-dribbling. Halving those wasted points would allow that the 4Qs be up for grabs. It’d be nice to see how OKC would play in a tight home game while trailing in the series. Two chances for that wasted, yet hopefully another chance for the Spurs up 3-2 in game 6.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    I like your idea. Keep working until the shot clock runs down. Even though its a turnover, it’s not of the deadly “live ball” turnover variety. OKC inbounds the ball and the Spurs get to set their halfcourt defense. Additionally, they have to get Ibaka out of the paint. Bench Splitter, and play Bonner and Diaw to spread the floor. Sic CoJo on Russ Westbrook and tire him out. Page Kawhi Leonard and tell him that our season is on the line.

  • Saxmann

    What if we just bust Ibaka’s knees? that would be swell. Oh also include KD’s and Westbrook’s knees as well.

  • ferscia

    Nice recap, Matthew.

    Winning or losing, I love the Spurs. But that game was a nightmare. The A team gave up on moving the ball (and moving themselves) and settle for/forced jumpers too early. Move, move, move!

  • ferscia

    I agree, live ball turnovers or missed shots/fast breaks were the killers. Move the ball till you get a good shot, don´t settle for a contested jumper or for a layup/dunk with Ibaka ahead until 1 sec left on the clock (except if you are Corey Joseph).

  • Tyler

    Like some have suggested, I’d think about starting Diaw in place of Splitter. One thing the bench unit did very well was move the ball. When Diaw is on the court, the ball just moves better. It was also good to see Boris hit a few jumpers. If he’s confident and decisive, he can be a difference maker for a game or two.

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  • John T.

    Or why not play Leonard at pf. I don’t think Ibaka really scores with his back to the basket and it might free Leonard up to crash the boards, which is killing the Spurs as much as turnovers. It might even create switching situations that allow Leonard scoring chances on the block. Have Splitter come in for Duncan and Diaw for Leonard.

    Green moves to SF and guards Durant, and have a secondary ball-handler and superior passer at the SG position. If Chris Paul and Tony Allen can have moments of success on Durant, and I’ve seen Manu guard him in this series then the Spurs should be willing to allow Green to guard him too. And Durant does have a tendency to sag on Defense so it might even give Green more open looks.

  • Tyler

    It’s possible. The reason I’d rather start Diaw at PF over Leonard is for defensive rebounding purposes, where SA has been getting killed. Removing Diaw for another guard (Manu, Joseph, etc) would only make that situation worse.

    Also, I’d rather keep Green on Westbrook and Leonard on Durant so that they can switch the Westbrook/Durant PnR, one of OKC’s pet plays. I noticed SA started doing this in game 3 and I think it’s the best way to go. Any other combination of defenders would lead to a bad mismatch OKC would undoubtedly exploit.

    Either way, I think we’re on the same page. SA’s problems stem from their offense – not moving the ball well enough, not enough player movement, bad spacing, etc. The lack of good offense has led to live ball turnovers and high % looks for OKC. Hopefully inserting a better passer at the PF position can remedy these issues. Truthfully, our 5 vs 5 defense has been alright. Shore up the offense and don’t give OKC anything easy and I think SA has a better than 50/50 shot at winning game 5.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    Agree with you both. Against overaggressive athletes who play the passing lanes on defense, you have to MOVE! Not just the ball, but more-so bodies. Constant motion, guards running defenders through a maze of screens. Relentless activity. Watch for the instant they take their eyes off you to watch the ball, then dive to the hoop or flare out for a jumper.

  • Mattyg614

    Maybe the CoJo dunk will show the rest of the Spurs that you can drive and attack a rim protector! With Serge in the game every Spurs player tries to shoot a floater/tear drop instead of making contact and trying to get Serge/Perkins in foul trouble and on the bench. I didnt think Serge would make this much of an impact.

    On another note – Westbrook is SUPER athletic. How do you contain him? I sure do wish he’d just play and not throw up his hands, scream, pound his chest, or holster his guns after EVERY SINGLE BASKET!

  • John T.

    A great argument Tyler, and I am really of the same mind as you. The Spurs need better ball movement and more dynamic players out there and Diaw is certainly that.

    For me the most frustrating part of the game was the last 6-7 min of the second quarter when the Thunder had Durant on Diaw. I think the Spurs ran only one isolation play for Diaw during that entire stretch and it resulted in a made layup for Duncan. But, the rest of the time the Spurs offense seemed to ignore the advantage and the result was a Thunder run that doomed the Spurs.

    Overall, it does seem like a tipping point has been reached just like with the Miami series last year. Splitter is a nice player but with Duncan unable to consistently hit perimeter jump shot this season, and Splitter not being able to create a shot it becomes hard to justify him playing let alone starting.

    And of final note, can we just keep Leonard on the court unless he is in foul trouble. He’s 23 right?

  • Tyler

    Agreed. They need to go at the Diaw/Durant matchup as much as they can.

    And as much as I love Splitter, this might not be the series for him. Bring him off the bench for TD.

    I also think we might see Bonner a bit with the 2nd unit especially if he’s guarded by Adams or Collison. That might be a good situational matchup for SA to exploit for a few minutes. You could even play Baynes/Bonner/Leonard (assuming Manu or TP is in) when OKC goes small and hide Bonner on Caron Butler defensively. (Newsflash – Butler isn’t very good. Unless he’s shooting wide open 3’s, he doesn’t provide much. At his age he really can’t go by anyone anymore. Instead, he’ll simply take one dribble pull ups, a shot SA will definitely live with.)

    Lots of things to think about (almost too many).

  • Chris FOM

    The depressing part? While we get game 5 at home, if the Spurs HADN’T had home court for the series the Ibaka-less games 1 and 2 would have been in OKC and we probably would have still won both. Then when Ibaka came back he’d have been returning in SA. Even with a split that gets us to game 5 (in OKC admittedly) with a 3-1 series lead and only needing to win 1 of 3 to advance.

  • John T.

    I remember a friend of mine commenting that the offensive rating for a line up featuring Bonner and Splitter together (not sure if that included Manu but it wouldn’t surprise me) was really good. So I agree, Bonner is much maligned over the years, but if that top of the key three point shot is going to be wide open for Diaw it would make practical sense to put Bonner in that same position. Especially with Butler out there like you said.

    I don’t want to sound like I am just putting it all on Splitter cause I really do like him as a player and a lot of his weaknesses are only magnified by the decline in Duncan’s ability to score facing the basket. A lot of people will think he is over paid, Bill Simmons, but let’s be honest if he had post moves or could hit a jump shot he’d be commanding 14-18 million a year, on a different team, instead of the 8-10 million he is currently making.

  • Tyler

    FWIW, I don’t think Splitter is overpaid by any means. To get a starting center for $10M (and it declines each year) is pretty reasonable.

    It’s just not a series in which he can play alongside Duncan that’s all.

  • Zach R.

    Start Bobo at the 2, Green at the 3 and Kawhi at the 4. Jackson and Lamb are too small to play him so a big would have to move farther to the perimeter, freeing up space and facilitating the motion our offense so desperately needs.

  • DorieStreet

    How did you come to this conclusion? How many seasons– and how many games –have the Spurs lost to OKC on the road? At best it would have been 2-2 –like it is now.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    Yep. Splitter was awesome against Dirk and LMA in the first two rounds. He gets a world of credit what he did for us. It’s just against teams like OKC and MIA where he becomes a glaring liability.

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