The Oklahoma City Thunder were facing a postseason ultimatum: Figure out a way to slow down the red-hot San Antonio Spurs, or meekly bow out of the Western Conference finals for the second straight year, well short of the stated, realistic goal of winning a championship.
Through the first two games in San Antonio, Oklahoma City had very few answers, surrendering more than 110 points per game while losing twice. A 3-0 deficit to a team that had not lost in seven weeks would be a death knell.
So Thunder coach Scott Brooks made a bold but sensible move. He put his best perimeter defender on San Antonio’s most potent offensive player, hoping to stall the offense of the Spurs at the source.
The plan worked like a charm. Thabo Sefolosha throttled Tony Parker, the Thunder were energized by their home crowd, and the Spurs finally played a bad game. The end result was a convincing 102-82 victory that allowed Oklahoma City to climb back into the Western Conference finals.
From Berry Tramel of the Daily Oklahoman: “Scotty Brooks assigned Thabo Sefolosha to guard Tony Parker. It was neither a move of genius nor desperation. Just a move of common sense by Foreman Scotty. If you’re going to get beat, get beat with your best. Thabo is the Thunder’s best defender, and all hands on deck are needed against this San Antonio offense. The Thunder did not get beat. Thabo played the game of his life, Parker fell gently back to Earth and the Thunder turned Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals into a Swiss Ease. The Thunder rolled the Spurs 102-82 Thursday night and now this is a series again. Fourteen seconds into the game, Thabo kicked the ball. He spent the next 3 1/2 quarters kicking San Antonio. Before Game 3 was three minutes old, the Switzerland native had intercepted two Tim Duncan passes, grabbed a Boris Diaw fumble and swiped the ball from Parker. The four steals led to an 8-0 Thunder lead, and energized Thabo, who suddenly made like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and jacked up shots all night long. Sefolosha put up 16 shots — the most he’s ever launched wearing Oklahoma City colors; his season-high had been nine — and scored 19 points, matching his high as a Thunder. Thabo’s shot total was smack in the middle of Durant (17) and Westbrook (15). “He was phenomenal tonight,” said Kevin Durant, with 22 points the lone Boomer to outscore Thabo. “He was so active on the defensive end. He got a lot of deflections and got us some easy points in transition.”
Sefolosha is usually the player who exits when Sixth Man Award winner James Harden enters. But in Game 3, Brooks played Sefolosha with Harden – and with Durant and Westbrook – instead removing one of his bigs and sliding Durant to power forward.
Sefolosha’s unexpected offensive contribution certainly helped. But so did San Antonio’s tendency to play with one low-post threat. The Spurs rarely play Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter together, and alongside them often is a power forward with stretch-the-floor capability such as Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner.
From Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com: “We tend to see the shutdown defender as a luxury rather than a necessity, an accessory that can make life easier for the team, but nobody whose absence would be fatal. In case anyone needed evidence that who guards the best opposing player might be influential to the outcome of a basketball game, Thabo Sefolosha provided it on Thursday night. Sefolosha isn’t the offensive equal of any of the marquee names on the Oklahoma City roster, and he’s probably not a plus offensive player in the NBA. But does Oklahoma City strike you as a team that needs secondary offensive players to eat up possessions that belong to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden? If ever a team had the capacity to absorb the presence of a non shot-creating defender, the Thunder are it. Go ahead and cash in! What does Sefolosha bring? He can make a point guard — even one as dynamic as Tony Parker — expend more energy going east-west. Sefolosha’s length sent Parker drifting off-course all night.”
Parker was limited to 16 points and four assists while committing five turnovers. In Game 2, he had run wild for 34 points on 16-of-21 shooting with eight assists as he confounded the Thunder with his peerless ability to run the pick-and-roll.
Sefolosha’s length on Parker certainly helped, but the Thunder appeared to change their overall scheme as well. They blitzed Parker with the big man, forcing him to turn away from the rim and start over. They overplayed the point guard, making him pass the ball to Duncan or Diaw and forcing them to make a play.
And center Kendrick Perkins, who drew some criticism for his poor pick-and-roll defense in the first two games, took those words personally and ratcheted up his approach.
From Jenni Carlson of the Daily Oklahoman: “Kendrick Perkins turned and glared at TNT’s broadcast table. Apparently, the Thunder big fella had heard about the less-than-complimentary things the network announcers had said about his pick-and-roll defense in these Western Conference Finals. And apparently, he didn’t like it.After at least two first-half defensive stops aided by his play, Perkins stared down the broadcast crew. “Talk about that,” he yelled. That scowl had never looked more nasty. Ditto for the Thunder. On a night when the boys in blue had to find a way to win to extend their season much beyond the weekend, they not only beat the Spurs but also changed the complexion of this series. They did it with defense. They did it with execution. But most of all, they did it with nasty.”
Over the last seven weeks, the only major adjustments the Spurs have had to make have been in preparation for different personnel in each of their three playoff series. When you win 20 straight games in dominant fashion, the schemes on both sides of the ball need only a tweak here and there unless the opponent changes.
But a 20-point loss – whether it comes after 20 straight wins or one straight win – calls for considerably more self-examination. And that may not be such a bad thing for the Spurs.
From Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News: “All through their winning streak, the Spurs discounted talk as the victories kept mounting and the team started being included in the discussion in the rarefied air of the greatest teams of basketball history. Their winning streak was bound to end. They all do. It reached 20 before their 102-82 loss to Oklahoma City Thursday night. It finishes as one of the four longest in NBA history. “We’re human,” Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said. “We had a good run, but it’s just one loss. We have just got to get ready to play the next game.” No matter what Coach Gregg Popovich has said, the winning streak had to enter his team’s mindset — at least a little. And losing in convincing style like they did Thursday night should be a reminder of what can happen when they don’t play well. That certainly was the case Thursday night as they committed 21 turnovers, shot 39.5 percent from the field and made Thabo Sefolosha look like the second coming of Walt Frazier with his strong all-around play. It will reinforce some teaching points for Popovich, who still has several young players with little playoff experience. Game 4 looms critical. If the Spurs can win that game, their chances for a quick finish to the series remain high. But if Oklahoma City wins on Saturday night, we suddenly have a series that might be as interesting as all the prognosticators thought it would be. It will make for some interesting adjustments for both teams over the next 36 hours. And secretly, I bet part of Popovich wasn’t that disappointed at the margin of his team’s defeat in Game 3.”
And forgotten in all of this was the minor point that the Thunder are a really good team. They are making a return trip to the conference finals. They led the West for most of the regular season before succumbing to San Antonio’s closing rush. And in the postseason, they are 6-0 at home, where they are extremely tough.
From Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News: “The flow of energy is sometimes mysterious in the NBA, but sometimes it is predictable, too. And while Thursday it was the Thunder’s turn, the Spurs got what they wanted from their first loss in 50 days. Getting embarrassed can be a good thing. All of it is new to the Spurs, who forgot how these things feel. But this wasn’t the streak of Wooden’s UCLA that was broken Thursday. It was an NBA streak, and they never last too long. They never last long, either, when the energy divide is as severe as it was. And something Scott Brooks said afterward told of that. “That was as well,” he said, “as you can play against the best team in basketball.” The best team in basketball? The Thunder wanted to prove that wasn’t true. “We never thought these guys had an advantage over us,” Kevin Durant said Thursday, “even though we lost a few.” It’s an attitude based on more than bravado. The Thunder played well in the opener, taking a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, then made Game 2 interesting with a late surge. The Thunder are exactly what the Spurs coaches thought they were before the series began — scary good. And scarier for the Spurs is to let this series become tied heading back to San Antonio for a Game 5.”
Game 4 on Saturday night should be outstanding.