Spurs become executioners again in Game 5 win

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SAN ANTONIO – More than the mystery of who would win Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the question everyone wanted to know pre-game was who Gregg Popovich would be starting in place of Tiago Splitter.

It was widely assumed that the Spurs would need to make some sort of lineup adjustment after dropping Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City and the assumption was just as common that it would be Splitter who would be relegated to the bench.

Asked before the game if he was trotting out the same starting lineup for Game 5, Popovich confirmed the popular theory.

“Probably not,” he said. “We’re trying to figure it out right now.”

Closer to tip-off, the rumors started to circulate that it would be Matt Bonner, the Red Rocket/Mamba himself, making his first start of the season. The Spurs needed to do something to space the floor on the offensive end and few big men in the league can stretch a defense to the brink of seam-bursting quite like Bonner.

Two and a half hours later and Bonner was scoreless, but the Spurs marched their way to a massive 117-89 win over Oklahoma City, taking a 3-2 series lead in the process.

San Antonio landed six players in double-figure scoring in Game 5, led by Tim Duncan’s 22 points and 12 rebounds. Danny Green, the barometer of the Spurs offense, scored 14 points on nine shots, including a 4-for-8 performance from the 3-point line. Manu Ginobili came off the bench to produce 19 points on nine shots, six assists and four rebounds.

A helter-skelter first quarter ended with the game knotted at 32, but it looked like the performance from Oklahoma City was much more sustainable. San Antonio had a number of broken or Keystone Cops-ish possessions that somehow resulted in points for the Spurs. The Thunder, meanwhile, looked like they had in the previous two games in Oklahoma City, simply playing their game and getting to the basket at ease. Reggie Jackson in particular looked primed for a big night after scoring 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the opening period.

Jackson finished the night with 11 points, going 5-of-10 from the floor, as the Spurs outscored OKC, 85-57, the rest of the way.

For the Spurs offense, it was clear that Duncan and Tiago Splitter could no longer play together in this series. Splitter came off the bench to spell Duncan, while Bonner and Boris Diaw (13 points, six rebounds, three assists) shared other big man duties.

Having one big man who can play on the perimeter at all times helped open up passing lanes and gave just a little bit more space for San Antonio’s offense to operate.

“Definitely helped,” Duncan said of having Diaw or Bonner in the lineup at all times. “Boris shot the ball really well and just the threat of Matt being out there I think helped us to keep [Ibaka] out of the lane a little bit and spread him out a little bit.”

The result was an offensive performance that looked both aesthetically and in the box score like the Spurs attack that shredded the Thunder in Games 1 and 2. San Antonio looked much more deliberate in its movements. They rarely hesitated to try and score inside, whether Ibaka was in the game or not.

“Well, we got off the ball, we didn’t have any ball stoppers,” Popovich said. “We hit open people and relied on team play more than we did in OKC.”

When all was said and done, it seemed like mentality was the biggest adjustment of all. More than anything in Xs and Os–and there were plenty of things the Spurs did differently on the floor, some I noticed and plenty more I’m sure I don’t have the know-how to pick up on—but the sharpness with which the Spurs played for 48 minutes on Thursday night was far beyond any stretch of time we saw at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

“What matters in a game is execution and mental toughness,” Pop added. “You have to execute and you have to play with passion.”

This was to be expected to some extent. It’s almost unfathomable to question this team’s mental toughness after watching them come back a better squad following losing the 2013 NBA Finals in the most heartbreaking fashion I’ve witnessed in my time watching the league. They weren’t going to produce back-to-back duds.

Now they’re going back to Oklahoma City for Game 6 on a floor they’ve rarely looked like themselves on this season. Popovich can only hope the execution travels as easily as it made itself at home.

Before Game 2 of the conference finals, reserve forward Austin Daye was a few minutes late for his pre-game shootaround. When he arrived on the floor ready to work, assistant coach Chip Engelland took him to the side and gave him a talking to about attention to detail and showing up on time. Then they got to work.

Daye didn’t play that night as the Spurs unloaded 112-77 beatdown on Oklahoma City. In fact, he wasn’t even in uniform. He’s on a unguaranteed contract for next season and there’s little reason to fret over a couple minutes of lost development time for a 14th man.

But that’s the Spurs way.

Attention to detail trickles down from the top and everyone is expected to fall in line. Things were shipshape in Game 5 and the result has the San Antonio Spurs one game away from a return trip to the Finals.

  • Mike

    I haven’t seem anyone talk about Matt Bonner’s defense on Ibaka. It was outstanding.

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    Two HUGE psychological barriers hurdled tonight:

    1. Beating the Thunder with Ibaka – healthy or not – on the floor (destroying them, in fact).

    2. Taking the 2012 WCF script and tossing it in the dumpster. Tonight’s home beatdown made it official: 2012 is no more.

    Bonus psychological barrier: Diaw, after showing signs in Game 4, is now an AGGRESSIVE offensive player. His incredible craftiness and versatility literally transforms this team when he’s aggressive.

  • Bussman

    #RedMamba rules

  • Fred

    Pop HAD TO SEE THE LIGHT: at this stage in the playoffs you have to ADJUST.

    It is UNREAL that a team with TWO STARS, a third one at less than 100%, WITHOUT A BENCH scoring power could soundly embarrass the arguably best NBA team in the past two decades.

    Instead of sticking his head in the sand and HOPING for a different outcome without actually making any adjustment(s) Pop FINALLY decide to tweak with the lineup and it worked!

    OKC has little room for adjustment(s), they tried every possible lineup in Games 1 and 2, therefore if the Spurs play with the same level of intensity and aggressiveness they may just get that elusive win in OKC.

    Go Spurs go!

  • SpurredOn

    Didn’t Scott Brooks say that the Spurs are not 35 points better than the Thunder? While I agree with the point, and the unstated flip that OKC is not 20+ better than San Antonio, it is humorous that OKC now has consecutive playoff losses in SA that weren’t 4th quarter competitive. Perhaps not 35 better, but 28 will do.

  • Mark Travis

    I think he was solid individually in that matchup, but the Thunder went right at Bonner in the pick-and-roll a few times.

  • Gus

    It was all about those two time-out durieng the first 7 minutes of the game, with the score still close. Ic could have been the 2nd time inthe yearthat he did that. Pop won this one more than anyone.

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  • Monion

    Bonner overhelped on Perkins and gave up a wide open corner three to Fisher, thats when he got pulled.

    Bonner hustles and plays stout 1 on 1 post D against a guy like Ibaka, but the common gripe by Spurs fans is that he has mental lapses on rotations.