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