The return of Serge Ibaka was right out of a cheesy sports movie script. He not only overcame a supposedly season-ending injury in record time but came back to be a game-changer. Ibaka scored the first two points of the game and finished the first quarter with eight points on 4-4 shooting, three boards and two blocks. The crowd went nuts and the Thunder seemed prime to use the emotionally-charged atmosphere to fuel a run. But the Spurs just kept on executing. While a different team would have relied on their stars to survive early, the Spurs moved the ball and Green and Leonard scored the first ten points of the game for San Antonio.
The game was close, with the stars struggling and both teams going through an almost two-minute long dry spell during the period. OKC snapped out of it first and secured a four point lead with 1:45 to go. But Manu Ginobili foreshadowed the kind of night he was going to have with seven straight points to finish the quarter after frustrating Westbrook on defense. The Spurs actually led by one after the first, 29-28.
Unlike other games, San Antonio couldn't ride its bench to create separation. Both teams traded buckets and turnovers, as the pace sped up and emotion trumped cerebral play. The officials were doing a good job of not letting the crowd get to them at that point but the Spurs' role players started missing some open shots. The Thunder finally made their push after three consecutive turnovers by an unrecognizable Parker. A breakaway dunk by Durant pushed the lead to six with 5:45 to go and over the next couple of minutes OKC managed to stretch it to nine points.
But the Spurs chipped away at it, as the Thunder offense went cold. A red hot Ginobili hit three three-pointers on the last two minutes and it seemed like the momentum was swinging. But Russell Westbrook answered with two of his own and scored OKC's ten last point of the frame to keep the lead at four at the end of the second quarter, 57-53.
As the third quarter started, Parker tried to get himself out of his funk by calling his own number often. Unfortunately, the results weren't good and the Spurs' offense couldn't really take off early. Making matters worse, the defenders were gambling too much and not getting back fast enough, which forced them to resort to fouling. The Thunder got in the bonus early and that ended up playing a huge, huge part in determining the winner.
Once the ball started moving again, the Spurs' offense clicked while the only one hitting shots for OKC with any regularity was Westbrook. San Antonio went 5-11 with three three-pointers on the last six minutes of the quarter while OKC went 2-11 with no threes. A 13-4 run wouldn't have been out of sync with how things were going on the court. But during that same span OKC went to the line 12 times, with only two of those coming from an intentional foul to Adams. For the quarter, the free throw disparity was 22-0. That prevented the Spurs from making a push and allowed the Thunder to go into the final quarter not only with a lead but also with the mental edge.
San Antonio was still in it to start the fourth quarter, only down seven. But the combination of Ibaka returning, the roaring OKC crowd, the free throw disparity and their own struggles was just too much to overcome emotionally. An offensive fouled called on Mills for kicking his legs on a made corner three was the last nail in the coffin. The fourth quarter started with a 12-2 run for OKC and that was the game.
As tempting as it is to blame the refs right now, the officiating wasn't even close to being the sole or even the main reason for the loss. It was just a terrible, terrible game for pretty much anyone but Ginobili. The energy was down and San Antonio allowed a lot of offensive rebounds, which salvaged bad possessions for the Thunder. Parker had an abysmal game, Leonard wasn't much better, the shooters were off and the key players all responded for OKC.
The Spurs now lead 2-1 and with a win on Tuesday could close the series in San Antonio on game 5. So as demoralizing as the loss might have been due to how it came about, the Spurs are in a good place.
- There were some questionable calls on the third quarter - headlined by a call on Bellinelli made by the ref furthest away from the play - but I rewatched every foul and most were correct or at least acceptable. Durant and Westbrook are masters of creating contact; that's what they do. Every time the Spurs didn't run back, OKC pushed the pace, leaving the defense no recourse other than to foul to stop the bucket. Plus, the Spurs didn't attack the rim all quarter long. All of that explains the disparity. But even though I didn't find anything nefarious after going through the plays, it still feels unfair, for some inexplicable reason. 22-0 just feels like too much.
- After the circus surrounding the situation clouded people's perceptions of him, we had a good reminder of just how important Ibaka is for OKC. His mid-range jumper erases bad decisions by the ball handlers and his rim protection is truly impactful in a major way. That being said, this qualifies as a good game for any version of Ibaka. He went 6-7 from the floor, pulled down seven boards and blocked four shots in just under 30 minutes. He might not be this good again in the series.
- Manu Ginobili was the sole bright spot for the Spurs. 23 points on 13 shots, with six threes to boot, is just a monster scoring game for Manu. Too bad it came in a losing effort. But Ginobili moved the ball without forcing things and did a decent job overall on defense as well. He might not be as efficient going forward, especially since he won't have three days to rest, but he could make his mark on other areas.
- Parker and Duncan were not good on this one. Duncan's jumper has pretty much abandoned him and his touch around the rim was uncharacteristically bad tonight. As for Parker, it was just a terrible game all around. It took him 13 shot to get nine points and he had as many turnovers (four) as assists. Not much to analyze. Sometimes even great players have stinkers.
- Asides from Manu Ginobili, four Spurs (Leonard, Green, Mills and Diaw) took at least three three-pointers. They went a combined 4-15 from outside. That number needs to go up. If the Thunder take away close shots by packing the paint, the Spurs need to make them pay from outside.
- As mentioned, Diaw's shot was off. But he had six assists and a couple of pretty buckets on Durant in the post. Boris needs to rebound better and hit those open threes to bust the Thunder's defensive scheme. But even when he is failing to do that, he contributes in other ways. Splitter, for his part, had a solid eight boards in just 19 minutes but six of those were offensive rebounds. The team had a hard time rebounding at times and while it wasn't Splitter's fault, he wasn't the solution neither.
It was just one of those games for the Spurs. Parker was bad and the role players didn't hit their shots. At the same time OKC got the calls it usually gets and made their desperation work for them by outworking San Antonio all night. Hopefully, the Spurs can match that intensity in game 4.
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