Western Conference Finals Game 5 Vs. OKC: Spurs 117, Thunder 89 Series: 3-2, Spurs
I didn't think they were going to win.
I couldn't watch Thursday night's game live because of work, and honestly I was relieved. Games 3 and 4 were so demoralizing, with Serge Ibaka sealing off the paint and the Thunder's stars "out-athlete-ing" the Spurs at both ends to such an extent that I admit doubts crept in. They just hadn't beaten these guys with Ibaka playing in forever. Maybe there was just something to this match-up. Maybe the Thunder got themselves fully engaged defensively and were going to stay locked in. Maybe our guys were just too old and too slow.
I should've stuck with my first instinct. Games 3 and 4 were not who the Thunder are -- not regularly -- any more than Games 1 and 2 were who the Spurs are. What those games represented were one team at their best and the other at their worst. We had no idea what the middle ground is.
And we still don't.
What we do have an idea of, however, is the Spurs' mental state. They weren't scared of Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant or any of the guys in blue, and the fellas seemed to take to heart the message from Gregg Popovich to play like Cory Joseph.
So indeed the veteran, Hall-of-Fame-bound Spurs took their cues from Joseph, Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayres, noting how they played in a lost cause down the stretch of Game 4, passing quickly, cutting sharply, trusting one another and always keeping the Thunder guessing and moving, never allowing them to get set and hone in on the ball-handler. No one can outrun the ball, not even Westbrook.
It wasn't perfect by any means but the ball stuck far less Thursday night, and everyone from Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili to Kawhi Leonard to Danny Green to Patty Mills made much quicker decisions with the ball, either driving it or passing it without hesitation. When the Spurs play that way, they're able to not only negate the Thunder's athleticism but -- wonder of wonders -- they can actually tire those guys out.
Of course, this being the Spurs, they didn't do it without a bit of goofiness. Popovich's solution to his team looking too old, slow and unathletic to keep up with the young, springy, dynamic Thunder was to insert Matt Bonner into the starting lineup. That was like Donald Sterling addressing allegations of him being a racist by doing an interview with Anderson Cooper and claiming that well-off African-Americans (and Magic Johnson in particular) don't do enough to give back to their community. Popovich employed 30 different starting lineups this season and saw fit to include Bonner in exactly none of them, whereas even cup-o-coffee whodats Othyus Jeffers, Damion James and Shannon Brown started at least once.
Bonner didn't do a thing offensively, he might have opened the paint up one time, when Ibaka chose to stick to him in transition, allowing Tim Duncan an easy offensive board and put back, but what he did do is bait another victim into his offense-breaking trap. We see this time and again whenever Bonner is subbed into a game against the other team's starters. Whomever he's guarding starts openly salivating at the sight of him, a shark smelling blood, and the guy can't call for the ball soon enough. Ibaka's offensive game is canning open jumpers or throwing down dunks but he tried three uncharacteristic dribble drives against Bonner and missed all three, with the last one getting snuffed emphatically by Duncan coming over from the weak side. I'll take Ibaka dribble drives all day if it means that Durant or Westbrook aren't shooting it. Red Mamba claimed another victim.
Still, the Thunder were up 11-10 by the time Rocket checked out and soon led by seven once Reggie Jackson figured out that Tiago Splitter wasn't playing and that the paint was pretty vacant. The teams traded a few buckets, but a monster dunk by Westbrook past Leonard and over Splitter to make it 24-17 seemed to signal the jarring shift in the series from Game 3 onward. The Spurs have had their time, the dunk screamed. This is the Thunder's time.
Except, Ginobili -- nearly 37 and still completely fearless -- swished a three on the other end, and in that there was a rebuttal to Westbrook's snarling pyrotechnics. No matter how high you jump and how hard you hammer it down, it still just counts for two. They give you three when you make 'em from out here, and we do that better than anybody.
The Spurs sank a couple more threes in the period, one each from Mills and Green, and it was 32-32 after one quarter. Who could've imagined that they had taken the Thunder's best punch already?
From the second quarter on, the Spurs were relentless. Parker found his jumper for a pair of buckets and also lost Westbrook en route to a layup. Duncan got free on pick-and-rolls and scored easily around the rim, patiently pump-faking Ibaka. Ginobili drove past Durant three different times all the way to the rim. Ibaka just watched him go, immobile. These games are coming every other day now and the Thunder's defensive game-changer still has that bad calf. He had played 34 minutes Tuesday night, with Thunder coach Scott Brooks choosing to keep him on the floor against the Spurs' third-stringers, and OKC paid the price for that bit of paranoia. In Game 5, as Ibaka clearly did not have the lift or the energy to spook the Spurs. He blocked a couple, but he also finished with just six points on 10 shots and only two rebounds. The 38-year-old Duncan, by contrast, had 22 and 12, his 154th playoff double-double.
It was more of the same in the third quarter. Boris Diaw was magnificent on both ends and he was practically yawning while scoring on Ibaka, making it look so routine. He swished a three, hit another easy fadeaway, soared for a couple of offensive boards over Durant and had his fingerprints on everything. Duncan had his way inside and Ginobili hit the kill shot late in the period. Shockingly, it was a 20-point game after three quarters and the Thunder tapped out.
Durant and Westbrook scored 31 of OKC's 42 points in the second and third quarters, but they couldn't maintain the defensive energy they showed at home. It looks like it takes too much out of them to play that hard defensively for long stretches and their default switch is to save their gas for offense. Neither of the Thunder's superduperstars had a bad game shooting the ball, in fact both were quite efficient, but Popovich's decision to put the bigger, younger Leonard on Westbrook halted a bit of his aggression and took the air out of his tires, limiting him to just 12 field goal attempts, and Durant was toast defensively, letting Ginobili, Green and Leonard all score on him with ease and repeatedly.
So, the spell is broken. The Spurs now definitively know that they can beat these guys, and decisively, even with Ibaka. They can beat them with Durant and Westbrook shooting well, just as they beat them with those guys shooting poorly. They can go to the rim and have success. Just drive, cut, pass it, shoot it. Quick decisions. After being outscored by 80 points in three games, this gym has to be in OKC's head just as much as Ibaka was in the San Antonio's. The years simply seem to melt off The Big Three when they play here. They're hungry and fearless and smart and savage. It's beautiful.
All that being said, if I was Pop I'd keep them all in San Antonio and save their legs for Monday. We've seen this movie a few times already with Ginobili in particular with what happens in a road Game 6 after a brilliant Game 5 at home.
Your Three Stars:
3) Boris Diaw (13 pts)
2) Manu Ginobili (24 pts)
1) Tim Duncan (20 pts)