Oklahoma City Thunder 108, San Antonio Spurs 103: Thunder sieze the moment
AT&T CENTER–The adjustment by San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was simple in theory; insert Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup in hopes of reigniting a staggering team.
Force the dynamic defensive tandem of Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka to decide which of the Spurs two elite playmakers to contend with by pairing Ginobili and Tony Parker together for as much time as possible.
For a moment it even worked. Ginobili’s presence in the starting lineup imbued the opening minutes with a frenetic chaos and pace the Spurs thrived on. Between twisting drives, threaded-needle passing, and out of nowhere steals, Ginobili almost singlehandedly willed the Spurs to a fast start with seven first quarter points and three assists.
But when push comes to shove between two great teams–and these are two great teams–the answers aren’t necessarily in the game-to-game adjustments. The Oklahoma City Thunder eventually adapted, settling the pace once the second units began to trickle in, and taking a first quarter lead.
“Changes take a little bit of time to adjust to,” Ginobili said. “But not many times when two great teams play against each other do X’s and O’s make the difference.”
Sometimes resolve simply comes from big players in big moments.
Behind a resurgent 11-point fourth quarter from Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs had managed to cut a double-digit deficit to two points in the closing seconds. His team reeling, James Harden found himself, ball in hands, against both the shot clock and formidable reach of Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard.
With a quick series of dance steps from left-to-right-and-back, Harden created just enough separation from Leonard to unsheathe a dagger of a three-pointer.
“The play was for Kevin [Durant] and the shot clock was going down, that is why I had to make a play,” Harden said. “I think Kawhi Leonard was playing very good defense on me and I just had to make a shot. I just went back to my mechanics and the ball with confidence and it went in.”
Harden’s three-pointer to extend the Thunder’s lead to five with less than 30 seconds left was the stuff of legends. It was Derek Fisher and 0.4. It was Manu Ginobili fouling Dirk Nowitzki as he barreled towards the lane down three. It was Robert Horry doing any number of things that Robert Horry used to do.
In short, it was the kind of improbable shot that comes to define championship runs.
“Bottom line, every season we won the championship we’ve had situations like that,” Ginobili said of Harden’s shot. “And every season we lost, we had those too.”
These San Antonio Spurs will have at least one more opportunity to find a defining moment of their own, if only because they have proven time and again they will not go down without a fight.
Sloppy play and a listless bench made quarters two and three as frustrating as any the San Antonio Spurs had experienced all year. Between Sefolosha and Ibaka, the Thunder have concocted a mixture of length and athleticism that has rendered Tony Parker wildly mediocre to the tune of five turnovers and 5-of-14 shooting.
With Ginobili accounting for five turnovers of his own, the Spurs surrendered 21 turnovers and 28 easy points to a team capable of scoring just as many difficult ones.
“You can’t turn it over 21 times for 28 points against a team that good,” Popovich said. “I thought we spotted them 24 minutes. I didn’t think we competed very well in the first half, and that’s not good enough against a team as good as they are.”
Only the bright play of Manu Ginobili (34 points, seven assists), like a candle flickering valiantly against a heavy wind, kept the Spurs within arms’ reach of the Thunder heading into the fourth quarter before Harden’s shot seemingly extinguished them for good.
Following a Ginobili layup, Kawhi Leonard was able to use his own considerable reach to deflect a pass off Sefolosha and out of bounds after the Spurs were able to successfully trap Durant in the backcourt. But the Thunder had the Spurs ensuing inbounds play well-scouted, keeping stride-for-stride with Manu Ginobili as he curled off a series of baseline screens, eventually settling for a desperation heave.
“[The shot was] not as open as we wanted, but at least I let it fly,” Ginobili said. “It wasn’t a great shot, but it wasn’t a bad one either. It just didn’t go in.”
Sometimes for all the adjustments in the world, these are the biggest differences in the game.