Game 4 Western Semi-Finals At Oklahoma City: Thunder 111, Spurs 97 Series Tied 2-2
You ever have one of those days where you just know you'd be better off skipping the Spurs game?
Honestly I would have if not for having to do this.
I woke up expecting to work and my manager said nobody needed a shift covered. Would've made good money on Mother's Day, and instead I had to sit at home like a lump.
Then my favorite soccer club lost, to literally the last-place team in the league, a squad that's already clinched being relegated to the second-division next season. The loss, combined with Barcelona's 5 billion to nil win, eliminated my team's chances of winning the league.
Then my favorite baseball team lost in the afternoon, despite allowing just two runs at home. They got shut out by some no-name pitcher.
And here were the Spurs, facing a road Game 4 in Oklahoma City, up 2-1 in the series and knowing full well that Thunder coach Billy Donovan had called out the officiating after San Antonio's Game 3 win. Let's just say I wasn't too optimistic about getting a clean whistle tonight. Or about the Spurs coming away with another win in spite of it. It would've been asking a lot of them to win both games out there.
I'm not even upset about it, honestly. It just went according to expectations. If the situation was reversed and the Spurs were down in the series and at home, they'd have been the aggressors and they'd have gotten the calls.
The officiating wasn't the reason the Spurs lost but as with practically every other facet of the game, it went according to script, with nothing surprising happening on either end except perhaps Tony Parker backing up his Game 3 performance with another prolific night. You knew OKC's role players would show up and be better at home after a bad night the game before, you knew Russell Westbrook would look to pass more and you knew Kevin Durant would be ultra-aggressive, that he wouldn't leave any bullets in the chamber with the realization that it could be his final home game in a Thunder jersey staring him in the face. You knew you were going to get their absolute best shot in terms of effort and intensity, no matter what. The Spurs were really going to have to earn this one.
They did not earn this one.
In some ways Game 4 started out as a carbon copy of Game 3. Again the Spurs played a fairly "clean" first quarter, with just three turnovers, just two offensive rebounds allowed and no fast break points allowed. The only check mark against them was giving up six free-throw attempts, but even that isn't an excessive number. Kawhi Leonard started well again, and once more they took advantage of the gasoline fire that is Cameron Payne: Backup point guard.
when you playing hide and seek but the beat too dope pic.twitter.com/eFm8l6NIX7— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) May 9, 2016
Yeah I wouldn't want to watch that in the film room either.
The Spurs led 27-17 after the opening quarter, with Manu Ginobili and Kyle Anderson capitalizing on breakaway steals late, but there were elements of Fool's Gold to it. They only had three assists on 12 buckets. They only attempted one three, a heave at the final buzzer. Leonard, Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge had scored the lion's share of San Antonio's points while Durant and Westbrook started coolly for the Thunder and their role players already chipped in with 11.
None of it felt sustainable for the visitors.
As with Game 3, the Thunder started chipping away, consistently getting better quality looks than the Spurs and getting to the basket at will, scoring 16 points in the paint in the quarter and taking advantage of Tim Duncan being able to play just 1:29 after picking up his third and fourth (!) fouls. OKC actually took a brief one-point lead on a Durant triple with 1:47 to go, but the Spurs closed the half on a 9-0 run behind a monster driving and-1 dunk from Leonard and an alley-oop layup from Aldridge. They had survived the quarter being outscored by just two despite being in the penalty for the final 6:43.
Still the 53-45 lead felt tenuous, at best. Leonard, Aldridge and Parker had 39 of the 53, while Duncan and Danny Green had taken just two shots between them. The team had just six assists to eight turnovers. They were 0-of-4 from deep. Steven Adams and Dion Waiters were playing well for the Thunder. There were just too many warning signs to ignore.
Alarm bells went off for good in the third quarter, what's supposed to be San Antonio's money quarter. They shot 60 percent, scored 28 points and still lost four points off their lead. Durant finally shook free, with the Spurs taking greater care to not leave Adams uncontested on short rolls to the rim, and he scored 12 in the quarter. Westbrook continued to play a cool, composed game and never took the kind of shots that sabotaged them. On the other end Leonard, Aldridge and Parker all continued to carry the load, but not overly efficiently. The Spurs finally tossed in their only two bombs of the game late in the quarter, one each from Ginobili --who took it quickly to set up a two-for-one-- and from Boris Diaw, who made a corner three at the buzzer.
The Spurs still led by four going into the fourth, but the Thunder had all the momentum. And then San Antonio played their worst quarter in forever and got outscored by Durant singlehandedly, so that's how that went.
Understand that no matter what Gregg Popovich did, it probably wouldn't have made a difference. He was like a blackjack player who stayed on "13" against the dealer's face card. Probably doomed either way, but really not maximizing the odds already stacked against him. The Spurs were probably going to lose tonight regardless with so few guys playing well and too many contributing for OKC. But I don't think Pop helped the cause at all while Donovan made a lot of smart adjustments for the Thunder.
Donovan didn't play Payne in the second half (and don't be surprised if he's mothballed for the duration), opting for veteran Randy Foye instead. He stuck with Dion Waiters in the fourth rather than non-threat Andre Roberson. Most importantly, he had the guts to play Enes Kanter down the stretch instead of Ibaka, and the Adams/Kanter combo annihilated the Spurs on the offensive glass, coming up with 11 second-chance points in the second half. The Spurs were so preoccupied trying to box out those two behemoths that Westbrook was free to sneak away with three offensive rebounds.
By contrast Popovich adjusted very little. He continued to rely on West and Diaw's phony size, on his stars' inefficient offense, by Parker's deceiving scoring. It's all pyrite, not conducive to winning in the modern age.
Diaw and West are bigs in name only. Neither score efficiently around the basket and what they give you on that end does not make up for what they allow in their own because they cannot protect the rim against the Thunder's stars and won't get the benefit of the whistle on those drives. Playing them together against the Kanter/Adams duo is especially problematic.
Even if Duncan was rendered unplayable by foul trouble and passiveness resulting from the same, I'd have preferred for the Spurs to go small and space the floor to open up their offense. It would've opened up pick-and-roll lanes to take advantage of Kanter's lateral immobility, would've gotten them more three-point looks and it wouldn't have at all hurt them on the glass or the rim on defense any worse than they were already suffering.
The Spurs also fell victim to the downside of riding two cold paint scorers in Leonard and Aldridge, who combined for just 41 points on 37 shots. When they're not scoring at an efficient clip, they can't be taking 20 shots apiece. At some point there needed to be a course correction to get perimeter guys involved.
Finally there was Parker, who threw in some tough tear drops and acrobatic finishes, but also finished with just three assists to four turnovers, dribbling into traffic too many times. The Spurs new "Big Three" allowed themselves to get baited into playing in isolation and taking contested shots over and over again, and eventually the percentages caught up with them.
The Spurs cannot win when they finish with three fewer assists collectively than Westbrook did by himself, they cannot win when they get seduced into playing limited guys like West and Diaw a combined 45 minutes --and so many of them together, ugh-- and the cannot win getting outscored by 21 from the three-point line.
I don't understand why West continues to be so trusted in crunch-time while Ginobili doesn't get a chance in these situations at all. West is the team's fourth-best big and he's getting more minutes than their second-best wing. And when Ginobili does play, he never gets to run a pick-and-roll anymore. One of his biggest strengths is creating for others, and he doesn't get a chance to. The Spurs are creating so few open looks, I don't know how they can justify not using their only guy on the roster who's a threat to shoot threes and create.
It was a frustrating loss beginning to end and the most troubling aspect of it is I don't know if it's too smart to assume that things will magically right themselves once the series shifts back to the AT&T Center. Yes, the Spurs will play harder, Leonard will probably shoot better and Durant will likely cool down some, but the Thunder look like they're learning from their mistakes from game-to-game better than the Spurs are. They're getting more clean, efficient looks from their offense, they're finding more sensible rotations and they're problem solving. The Spurs meanwhile just keep getting increasingly bogged down on offense and more dependent on Leonard's heroics.
It's a given that OKC is the younger team and the more athletic one. If they get to be the smarter and deeper ones too, the Spurs will be in trouble.
Your Three Stars:
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. Tony Parker
3. Manu Ginobili