Spurs take stranglehold on Western Conference Finals

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Leading up to Wednesday night there was a glimmer of hope for the Oklahoma City Thunder in these Western Conference Finals. They kept Game 1 against the Spurs close for the majority of the evening, even taking the lead briefly in the third quarter, and looked like they may be more competitive than we expected after the loss of Serge Ibaka.

One adjustment here, a successful lineup there, and you know what? The Thunder could make a series out of this.

112 points later and the Spurs have all but put down the NBA Finals decals on the AT&T Center floor.

After 66 points in the paint in Game 1 from the Spurs, the Thunder were enamored with trying to keep Parker out of that area early on Wednesday night. On made baskets from OKC, the Thunder had Thabo Sefalosha defending Parker. On misses and turnovers, when Russell Westbrook often found himself on Parker, Oklahoma City was so focused on getting the right matchup on Parker that they lost sight of Danny Green on the perimeter.

That’s what we call a red flag.

It took a few possessions, but eventually the Spurs found Green open outside. He hit 1-of-2 3s in the opening quarter, and then the floodgates opened. Green was 4-of-6 from the perimeter in the first half. He finished the night 7-of-10 from beyond the arc for 21 points.

“I think that sometimes defenses forget about him and leave him open,” Manu Ginobili said after the game. “Tonight that is exactly what they did, and they had to pay for it.”

For Green, it was a callback to his performance in last season’s NBA Finals when, through the series’ first five games, his candidacy for Finals MVP was weighed.

This season, though, has seen its share of peaks and valleys for Green. After a relatively slow start to the season in which the Spurs starting unit struggled to play well together offensively, Green briefly lost his starting spot to Marco Belinelli. Later in the campaign, he broke his hand and missed several weeks. For a time this season, the injury bug seemed like it was occupying the 15th roster spot for San Antonio and Green fell victim.

“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season,” Green said simply after Game 2.

But much like the rest of the Spurs, Green has finally hit his stride. Big performances in scoring from ‘Icy Hot’ are a symptom of the disease of a humming Spurs offense.

In the first five games of the Dallas series, Green shot 5-of-12 from 3-point range, which is a good percentage, but totaled only 17 points. The Spurs struggled to get into playoff form against a team that had been in postseason mode for several weeks, and Green—a beneficiary of the offense, not a catalyst—was largely a ghost.

Since then, Green has averaged nearly 13 points a game on over 53 percent shooting from beyond the arc, scored in double-figures five times, and the Spurs have won seven of nine playoff games, including Wednesday’s 35-point dismantling of the Thunder.

The Spurs are paying lip service to this Oklahoma City team still being in this series, but they have to. San Antonio is a respectful bunch and they’re cautious about handing out bulletin board material to those looking for such things.

Ginobili said it was dangerous to win by so many and going to Oklahoma City for Games 3 and 4 feeling so good about themselves. “We cannot take anything for granted,” he said. Tony Parker said that the Thunder are capable of a comeback again.

“We know what we’re walking into, they’re so much better at home,” Tim Duncan added. “It’s a different team we’re going to be a different team we’re going to be walking into.”

The Spurs have to say these things right now, especially with how proceedings unfolded two years ago. Luckily for me, I don’t have to.

This is not the same matchup as the one we saw in 2012, not by a long shot. In the two years since San Antonio collapsed with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals, the majority of the players on the Spurs roster have managed to improve while those who are nearing the end of their careers have been able keep Father Time at bay just enough.

Green is better, Tiago Splitter—whose confidence caved in under the weight of the floggo-el-Tiago strategy from Scott Brooks in 2012—is improved, and Kawhi Leonard is getting his feet under himself for his leap to stardom.

This is a better Spurs team than we saw two years ago and this is a better team than this Oklahoma City Thunder.

This can still be a series. Kevin Durant is otherworldly and, on his good days, Russell Westbrook is practically unguardable. But no matter how much improvement Oklahoma City makes between now and Sunday it only feels like it stands to delay the inevitable.