The Margin: Oklahoma City Thunder 105, San Antonio Spurs 92

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As you should know by now, especially if you’ve been frequenting 48MoH during the last few weeks, we’re doing a post called “The Margin” for each Spurs playoff game. The premise, stolen from one Rob Mahoney, is a point of discussion for each point in the difference in the final score. With San Antonio dropping Game 4, 105-92, we’ve got 13 things to say about the Oklahoma City Thunder evening the series at two games apiece.

  • The second-most obvious place to start is the play of the bench in the second half. With the Spurs falling behind by 20 midway through the third quarter, Gregg Popovich pulled his starters over a period of about two minutes and was left with Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, Boris Diaw, Aron Baynes and Matt Bonner in the game. For the last quarter and a half of the game, the Cube Steaks played a much more appealing floor game than the Spurs starters and cut the lead down to 12 points before running out of time. Thunder coach Scott Brooks had his starters in the game for most of this time and San Antonio simply failed to get over the hump. There was one chance in particular when the deficit was 12 and Joseph had a good look at a reverse layup attempt, but failed to convert at the rim.
  • There are a couple of ways to think about the play of the bench late. The pessimist says that it was meaningless. The Thunder knew San Antonio had given up and they took their feet off the gas pedal. (If you watched how the Thunder played for two and a half quarters on Tuesday night, it was clear both feet were hammering the accelerator.) On the other hand, the optimist looks at those 17 minutes or so and sees a bench that gained some confidence despite the loss. It was clear for most of the game that the players around Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard weren’t accomplishing a whole lot—although I thought Danny Green played well defensively—any rhythm, confidence or karma they gained from putting a mild scare into the Thunder late in Game 4 can only help. The old cliché is that role players step up at home and go missing on the road. In theory, Gregg Popovich gave his role players nowhere to hide for a few minutes and they performed admirably. With one more game in Oklahoma City remaining, it couldn’t hurt.
  • Cory Joseph (11 points, three rebounds) really came out of nowhere in Game 4, in more ways than one.
  • Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili didn’t play a second in the third and fourth quarters. By the time Ginobili normally enters the game in the third quarter things had gotten so out of hand that Coach Pop was already thinking about pulling the plug. I’m a little surprised Manu didn’t get even a courtesy rotation, but I think the move was more about sending a message to San Antonio’s main guys than anything.
  • So what about the starters? Well, after jumping out to an 8-0 lead, the wheels feel off. Your worst fears about what the Thunder would look like with Serge Ibaka back in the lineup came true for one game and Oklahoma City got the Kevin Durant (31 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals, zero turnovers) and Russell Westbrook (40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, five steals, one block) performances that should be expected of them to have at least once in a seven game series.
  • After that quick start out of the gates, San Antonio’s offense degenerated into rushed, inaccurate passes all over the offensive end and poor spacing. The Thunder’s defense was the active, athletic version that causes so many problems for the Spurs attack. The wide open, drive-and-kick attack was stymied and there were players in black and silver in all the wrong places, oftentimes close enough to shake hands with each other.
  • Turnovers felt in the moment like they were a problem for San Antonio, but the Spurs finished the night with just 13 giveaways. During the regular season they averaged 14.4 a game. The problem lies in the type of turnovers San Antonio committed. Oklahoma City finished the night with 12 steals on the defensive end. Meaning 12 out of 13 of the Spurs’ giveaways were live ball turnovers. Meaning the Thunder were able to get out on the break, often times with numbers and a full head of steam. Meaning OKC scored 21 points off of turnovers. Compare the Thunder’s 21 fast break points, most of which (if not all) were off turnovers, with San Antonio’s goose egg and you’ve got yourself a major key to the game.
  • Despite the sky is falling response sure to resonate from this game for Spurs fans, there are a number of things to point out with the Thunder’s performance. Kendrick Perkins had a solid game for OKC, finishing with 10 rebounds, but again the Thunder really got nothing from anyone outside of Durant and Westbrook. Even Ibaka, whose performances in Game 3 and 4 I really don’t want to understate because of the importance of his presence on defense, finished with nine points and eight rebounds on Tuesday night. Durant and Westbrook went supernova in Game 4 and that was the primary reason for the OKC. Thunder guard Reggie Jackson turned his ankle pretty severely in the first half and was limited physically in the eight minutes he played in the third quarter. If his ankle doesn’t respond well to the time off, Oklahoma City’s offense could run into some more trouble come Thursday’s Game 5.
  • There was a point of contention again in Game 4 about the number of free throws awarded to each team. Oklahoma City ended up being awarded nine more free throws (31 to 22) than the Spurs did. This after shooting 15 more free throws than San Antonio in Game 3. Here’s the thing, though: Referees tend to award the more aggressive team, the one that attacks the rim harder with free throws more often. With Ibaka back in the lineup, the Spurs drive the lane passively and look to avoid contact all too often. That doesn’t tend get you to the charity stripe. Increasing the body contact at the point of attack can help increase the number of free throw attempts for San Antonio and help to limit transition opportunities for OKC.
  • A handful of people on Twitter suggested to me the hack-a-whoever strategy for the Spurs in Game 5. Both Steven Adams (58.1 percent) and Kendrick Perkins (55.2 percent) were sub-60 percent free throw shooters during the regular season, so it stands to reason that this could be a strategy Pop employs in this series. It’s a loathsome strategy for someone who likes to watch actual basketball, but Popovich has never shied away from going to it if he thinks it can help his team. God help us if that’s the case.
  • I still want to think about what this means for a few more hours/days, but I’m starting to feel like this is the point in the playoffs where San Antonio needs to see Kawhi Leonard make a sustained leap. Offensively he’s a different player from anyone on the Spurs and he’s one that has the ability to get to places and hit shots that no one else can. He’s shown it in flashes, but the Spurs may need three straight games of it.
  • More on this on Wednesday, but could we see a lineup change for Game 5. Oklahoma City has made its adjustments—Nick Collison and Thabo Sefalosha went from startin Games 1 and 2 to playing about as much in 3 and 4 as you and I—could it be time for Gregg Popovich to do the same?
  • There’s also the question of what to do with Marco Belinelli, who’s been a disappointment in these playoffs after a solid regular season. Belinelli just 6.1 points in the postseason and 6.5 points per game in the conference finals. This after putting up 11.4 points per game on 43 percent shooting from 3 during the regular season. Cory Joseph, who cuts off the ball just as well as Belinelli, could see an increase in playing time after playing well in his short span in Game 4.
  • spurs10

    Thanks! There is a lot riding on Thursday.

  • Abe

    So who would you start? Diaw in place of Splitter and then bring CoJo in to spell Parker off the bench. His cutting might be nice with Splitter setting screens off the ball and Manu being the delivery guy.

  • Abe

    Clarification – Corey off the bench working with Splitter and Manu off the bench. Diaw starts in place of Splitter to draw Ibaka out of the paint a bit maybe.

  • SpurredOn

    One wonders why more offense hasn’t been run through Kawhi anywhere and Diaw in the post.

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