Coming into Game 5, the Western Conference finals began to draw eerie comparisons to its 2012 counterpart as the Oklahoma City Thunder climbed back from a 2-0 series deficit behind athleticism that the San Antonio Spurs.
Heading back to San Antonio for Game 5 during the 2012, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the now-gone James Harden combined for 70 points as they downed the Spurs, destroying any hope of the Spurs returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
Fast forward two seasons and the Spurs core is still intact. Tony Parker is still a top point guard while Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili churn on through their old age, and with what happened previously on their mind they were set on not allowing that same mistake, this time bringing some new friends along with them. Behind Tim Duncan’s 22 points and 10 rebounds, the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 117-89.
Opting to go small with Matt Bonner inserted into the starting lineup instead of Tiago Splitter, the move allowed the San Antonio Spurs to work more comfortably on offense early in the first quarter, but it wasn’t enough early on as the Thunder kids came out on fire as the quarter ended tied up at 35-35.
But in the second quarter, the Spurs found their groove behind a small-ball lineup that hinged on the efforts on Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Boris Diaw. Behind team play opposed to the two-man show held by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the second quarter (the duo scored 18 of the teams 23 points), the Spurs, relying on the ball movement that made them basketball’s biggest threat throughout the season bust open the door for what would later be a blowout.
In fact, the Thunder had no answer for the aforementioned Spurs small-ball lineup. Per NBA Stats, that lineup posted an offensive rating 133.9 in 12 minutes of play. And when Danny Green was inserted into that lineup in place of Manu Ginobili, the lineup excelled on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, posting a net rating of 51.5 in six minutes of play.
And while all eyes will be on what the Spurs did, knocking down the shots they missed in the previous games and beating the ultra-athletic Thunder defense with precise ball movement, the huge factor in tonight’s game was the absence of Serge Ibaka. In games 2 and 3, Serge Ibaka pestered the Spurs all night long, on both offense and defense, knocking down 15-footers on one end while deterring each attempt at the rim at the other. But that impact was held to the minimum tonight. On offense, Ibaka had his worst performance of the series, scoring 9 points on 8 shots, and on defense, the use of the small-ball lineup (along with the bigs actually knocking down shots), Ibaka’s impact wasn’t game-changing as it had been before.
It was a complete effort from the Spurs. Each player that played 20-plus minutes for the Spurs ended the game in double-digit points. With Duncan leading the Spurs in scoring with 22 points, Manu pitched in with 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting, Danny Green knocked down four of his eight attempts, Boris Diaw scoring 13 points off the bench (started in the second half), and Kawhi Leonard contributing a quiet 14 points and 7 rebounds.
For the the Thunder it was the complete opposite, with only Westbrook, Durant, and Reggie Jackson making a true impact. The trio scored 57 of OKC’s 87 points while no other player posted more than 6 points. The story was similar in Game 4 as Durant and Westbrook were the only players to post double-digit points, but this time the efforts of the two superstars weren’t Herculean.
With the series heading back to Oklahoma City for Game 6, it’s gut check time for the Thunder. This isn’t an unfamiliar position as the Thunder faced the same fate in the opening round of the playoffs versus Memphis, but this isn’t a team that struggles to score points in bulks. Looking like the well-oiled machine from games 1 and 2, it’s going to take Scott Brooks some serious adjustments to match up with Gregg Popovich opting to go small from the jump. He’s faced heavy criticism throughout the playoffs and with his teams championship dreams, many saying he’s only in this position due to the talent on the roster, but this game will be Brooks’ chance to doubt all the naysayers.
Or it could be the end of the postseason for OKC.