The San Antonio Spurs jumped out to a 12-4 lead over OKC, and it seemed as if they had solved the Thunder's riddle. At the eight minute mark of the first quarter, Tony Parker had four points and three assists, creating each of the great looks that the Spurs converted. Defensively, the Spurs' energy seemed good and they were contesting shots. Unfortunately, success on both ends was short-lived. Four minutes later, the Spurs had only scored two more points as OKC's defense picked up mightily.
For the quarter, the Spurs only managed to score 20 points and were down six at its conclusion. So, 12 points in the first four minutes and just eight over the next eight minutes. It was fairly devastating, and would get much, much worse before getting better.
In the second quarter, the Spurs committed four turnovers, which were turned into nine easy transition points by the Thunder. The Thunder shot a 54%/50%/100% split while the Spurs shot 40%/25%/83%. The wheels fell off late when Pop decided to play a zone while benching Kawhi to end the half. It led to two threes by Durant and a long jumper which he made over Manu, Diaw and then Marco.
The zone seemed to rattle the Spurs even more as they couldn't figure out where to be and OKC got everything they wanted. To cap it all off, the zone resulted in Jeremy Lamb being left as open as is possible in a halfcourt situation, and he drained a three to send the demoralized Spurs into the locker-room down 15 at intermission.
OKC continued to ride their momentum to start the third quarter. Really, it wasn't their offense that was devastating. OKC benefited from their aggressive play and made a lot of tough, contested looks. Westbrook scored 40 and Durant dropped 31, but as a team they only scored 105 points. No one else scored in double figures.
OKC's defense was really the story of this game. It was in full force tonight and the Spurs couldn't create open looks. OKC swarmed the ball at every opportunity. They were doubling off the pick and roll and recovering before the Spurs could punish them for it. OKC had 12 steals and eight blocks in the game. They forced the Spurs into committing 11 turnovers in the first three quarters. OKC's defense is what fueled their offense and absolutely routed the Spurs.
San Antonio continued to look outmatched in the third quarter, and Pop threw in the towel in record time. With 4:39 still remaining in the third quarter, the Spurs down by 25, Pop subbed in Matt Bonner for Kawhi Leonard. That made the five Spurs on the floor Bonner, Diaw, Baynes, Marco and Joseph. And, of course, this group fought their way back into the game. The starters couldn't get any traction, but the end of the bench immediately did. Sure.
Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph combined for 15 points in the last 6:46 of the third to make the game competitive. The once 25 point lead dissipated to just 14 as the bench showed heart. OKC let up just slightly and the Spurs' bench took advantage.
Although the bench never got any closer than 12 points in the fourth, they wouldn't let OKC coast to victory. Scott Brooks was "forced" to leave Durant and Westbrook in the game until the 1:06 minute mark, because the bench just wouldn't go away. So as bad as the Spurs looked, a silver lining can be found in the bench's success and the minutes played.
Manu Ginobili didn't play in the second half at all. Ginobili, Duncan and Parker finished with 11, 25 and 26 minutes, respectively. Diaw played the most minutes for the Spurs at 30 and seemed to find his shot towards the end of the game. Cory Joseph played 17 impressive minutes and can apparently dunk. He had a ridiculous and-one dunk over Serge Ibaka, of all people. Cory just might have earned himself some real minutes in Game 5. We shall see.
For the Thunder, Scott Brooks once again rode his guys into the ground. Westbrook played a whopping 45 minutes while Durant looked exhausted after his 41 minutes of action. Injured Ibaka played 35 minutes and didn't seem as spry as he did last game, even though he still played very well.
Reggie Jackson turned his ankle early in the game, and it looked pretty bad. Even so, Brooks played Jackson for 10 minutes on that bum ankle even though he was clearly very limited. Against any other team, I'd say that all this matters. Brooks' guys are all limping or sucking wind. But apparently they are aliens with a crazy ability to heal. So who knows?
OKC was incredibly aggressive in every aspect of the game. They won the 50/50 balls. They had more steals and blocks. They forced more turnovers and earned more free throws. Durant and Westbrook threw up huge numbers and were easily the best two players on the court tonight. They rattled the Spurs and Pop decided early that his guys just didn't have it.
If not for the bench's ability to dig-in, and the absurd minutes played disparity between the Spurs and OKC, this whole game would be one to forget about. Cory and Diaw proved that you can penetrate OKC's defense. The two scored in the paint and found players on the perimeter for open shots. For me, more than anything, they just showed how terribly the Spurs' starters played for three quarters.
We'll see what version of the Spurs shows up for Game 5. I think it's way too easy to just chalk this up to Ibaka's presence. Their entire team increased their defensive activity. Even Adams looks like a different player out there, showing hard on the pick and roll and blocking shots from great help defense positioning. Ibaka may have been the spark, but the entire OKC team is playing with a desire that didn't seem to exist in Games 1 or 2.
To win this series, San Antonio has to match OKC's physicality and intensity. San Antonio needs to hit first in Game 5. They need to be the aggressors. To win, the Spurs offense must dictate OKC's defense, not the other way around. The Spurs need to drive with purpose and create opportunities. Too often in Games 3 and 4, the Spurs played reactive basketball. They were hoping seams would appear in the OKC defense instead of forcing them to appear.
With nightmares from 2012 looming, this Spurs team must respond in Game 5 and take the momentum from OKC. They have to be the aggressors in Game 5. It's the only way to beat the Thunder when they're flying around as they did in OKC. If they punish OKC's aggressiveness with decisive moves, the Spurs just might find themselves on the line in the first quarter.
While it admittedly seems bleak after those two humbling losses, the Spurs just have to win at home to take this series. With any luck, the Spurs bench will play great at home and the offense will create the great looks we've been spoiled by all year long. The Spurs fought all year to win home-court advantage. Let's hope they take advantage of it.