I admit, I had my doubts before, but the Spurs confirmed something for me tonight once and for all.
Chesapeake Arena is no longer a house of horrors for them, a building of blue-clad boogeymen where Spurs teams treat the ball like it's coated in Kendrick Perkins' underarm sweat, the refereeing crews always seem to be looking the other way and Thunder role players keep having a maddening habit of stepping up at just the right time. This is the building where Serge Ibaka went a perfect 11-of-11 to steal Game 4 from the Spurs in 2012 and Reggie Jackson bailed them out from what would've been an embarrassing first round exit against Memphis two years later. Ibaka in particular turns into a superhuman here. He returned from a torn half in Game 3 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals and made 6-of-7 shots and had four blocks to thwart the Spurs.
And Russell Westbrook... I mean what can you say about Russell Westbrook? He's always dynamic and destructive, but he turns full freakazoid in this arena against the Spurs. The last time the Thunder beat San Antonio in a home playoff game, he had 40 points, 10 assists and 5 steals. He's like Teen Wolf injected with Hulk serum and playing on sneakers made of flubber. He's ridiculous.
But all that doesn't faze the Spurs anymore. The spell the Thunder had over them has been lifted, the curse broken. It's just another arena for them now, no different than any other.
San Antonio somehow, someway won their last game of consequence here two years ago --despite 34 points, 8 assists and 6 steals from Westbrook-- to earn a return trip to the Finals and Friday in Game 3 they came away on top once more, grinding out a win thanks to a 19-8 run midway through the fourth quarter that turned an 81-77 deficit into a 96-89 lead with a little over a minute to go. It got a little hairy after that, as it must, but the Spurs held on with some free throws.
In 2014 the offensive heroes were Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw. They all served as mostly bystanders this time around, combining for eight points and cheering their teammates on. This time they were saved by newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge, by Tony Parker --who missed the second half of that epic Game 6-- and of course by Kawhi Leonard, the one Spurs constant from both games.
I doubt very much that Leonard is the kind of individual who needs "bulletin board material" to get fired up for games, but nevertheless I'm sure somebody in his camp made him aware that OKC's Andre Roberson told reporters that he had "asserted his will," in holding Leonard to a relatively quiet 14 points in Game 2. That was still 14 more than Roberson had scored in the first two games of the series, combined, but whatever. Detroit rookie Stanley Johnson told reporters "I'm definitely in his head, that's for sure," after limiting LeBron James to 27 points on 12-of-18 shooting in a 17-point Game 2 loss at Cleveland. Young guys say dumb things.
Leonard on the other hand, has made a name for himself despite never saying anything. He doesn't need to. His work speaks for itself, free of pregame choreography, in-game preening and post-game boasts. Whenever he scores he's too busy to scream or make gestures because there's that whole other business of also having to guard the other team's best player.
The difference between San Antonio's best player and Oklahoma City's? Well let's just say there haven't been too many times where Duncan's had to cuss Leonard out for not getting back on defense or picking up his man in transition.
You had a feeling Leonard would respond with a better performance in Game 3, and he started quickly, leading the Spurs with 11 first quarter points including a pair of wide open threes. Neither team shot very well early on, but San Antonio had the kind of "clean" quarter on the road that coaches always stress, with no self-inflicted mistakes. They turned it over just once, held the Thunder to just two offensive rebounds and two fast-break points and kept them off the free-throw line completely. They led 27-20 after one and looked poised and in control.
The lead stretched out to 35-20 early in the second quarter, as the Spurs again took advantage of a Thunder lineup featuring Kevin Durant and four reserves, with Westbrook dance-partner Cameron Payne in particular looking not ready for prime-time.
And then, well...
It kind of went on like that for the next two-and-a-half quarters, with people swinging samurai swords and chopping off various body parts until two exhausted five-man units remained. If anything, Billy Donovan may have trusted more of his guys --Dion Waiters and Roberson split crunch-time possessions-- than Gregg Popovich, who rode his main horses to death and eventually settled on David West as his second big for reasons that escape me.
The Spurs' offense was mostly stagnant and broken. Aldridge was defended better in the post --and more by OKC's centers than by Ibaka-- than he had been and was seldom able to wriggle free for open jumpers. Leonard created what few opportunities he had off run-outs in transition and offensive rebounds. Whatever little else they got came from Parker jumpers, and each one was vital. In fact, Parker's six attempts from downtown were his most in a dozen years. They needed Parker's shooting because they were suffering through a team-wide free-throw shooting epidemic at a most inopportune time.
Meanwhile the Thunder were mostly held hostage by their own point guard, who took full advantage of Duncan's spectator status to propel himself toward the visitors' rim, even though the results weren't very efficient. Westbrook also took 10 threes, and made three of them, right in line with his career average. To his credit, he blamed himself afterward for his poor decision-making and shot selection, but it continues to amaze me how teammates and coaches simply cannot reach him during his tunnel-vision kamikaze missions. There were plays where he ignored Adams posting up Danny Green and plays where he refused to acknowledge Durant who was being checked by Kyle Anderson. Still, after he exulted after canning a triple to put the Thunder up four with 7:12 to go, you thought the Spurs were on their way to another frustrating loss in OKC.
Then the third game of the series entered its third act and we were all treated to the Thunder blowing yet another fourth quarter lead, their 16th of the season now, and second of the playoffs. Westbrook bristled at the question after Game 2 when asked if he and his teammates had any "Here we go again," thoughts during the Spurs' last-gasp comeback, saying, "We never say 'Here we go again,' because honestly we don't think we gave away leads in the fourth quarter as many times as you may think."
Perhaps when you're that supremely confident you can shrug off statistical fact as an annoying opinion, and just invent your own stats, like when Westbrook asserts that he makes 90 percent of his pull-up mid-range jumpers. Just nod and go with it and be happy you root for a different team.
Leonard had eight points in the Spurs' closing run, while Aldridge had five and Parker four. The Thunder actually made 4-of-7 shots in that stretch, but also turned it over three times and got exactly one stop in 11 Spurs possessions.
Even after it got tight late, with OKC cutting it to two, Leonard made the critical play, swooping past the unsuspecting Roberson for a key offensive rebound with 25.9 seconds left. Parker hit both freebies --the Spurs made 11 of their last 12 from the line-- and then the game was essentially decided when the Thunder hot-potatoed the ball for 14 seconds to score a bucket down four.
Chesapeake Arena is no longer a cemetery where Spurs postseason hopes go to wilt and die. The Thunder aren't the Thunder anymore, not without James Harden coming off the bench. Not without any useful reserves. Not without the old Ibaka, who could block everything.
And these aren't the same Spurs anymore either. They're just not intimidated by OKC anymore. They know their top two can hold their own with OKC's two superduperstars. The games boil down to which role players play better. Seeing as how the Spurs have a few Hall-of-Famers as their "other guys," you have to like their chances.
Your Three Stars:
1) Kawhi Leonard
2) Tony Parker
3) LaMarcus Aldridge