The 102-82 rout of the Spurs in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals sets a whole new outlook for the Thunder. They’ve gone from looking overmatched to looking like the Spurs’ equal. In other words, the Thunder now looks like the team, and this looks like the series, everyone thought it saw going into Game 1.
Survival remains a big task for the Thunder, since it has to win three of four from the Spurs, with two games still in San Antonio. But clearly, the Thunder sent a message, not necessarily to the Spurs on Thursday night, but to the rest of the NBA world.
“We never thought these guys had an advantage over us, even though we lost a few (two),” said Kevin Durant. “It was good that we took it to 2-1. We didn’t want to go down 0-3. We wanted to protect our home court. We weren’t worried about previous games between us. We were just worried about tonight.”
Game 3 did much for the Thunder going forward. It gave Scotty Brooks all kinds of options:
1. The moving of Thabo Sefolosha onto Tony Parker paid great gains. But the move also energized Russell Westbrook, who had four steals and was all over the court. Brooks and the players talked incessantly about energy and playing harder. It’s conceivable that Brooks could return Westbrook onto Parker, if need be, with a different result, if Westbrook and his teammates play with that kind of energy.
2. The big and the small lineups worked, but especially the big. In less than 20 minutes of action, the big lineups outscored the Spurs 45-30. That’s impressive. The key seems to be switching. Rather than fight through picks or momentarily double-team the ballhandler on a screen, the Thunder often just switched defenders. Especially on Manu Ginobili, who had an awful game — 1-of-5 shooting, eight points. “Manu will figure it out,” Parker said. “He’ll be more aggressive next game. Against me, they didn’t do that that much. It was still like trapping me and try to make the pass tougher.”
3. Shortened bench. It’s the midnight hour. No reason to save these guys’ legs for anything. Brooks didn’t go to his B Team in the second quarter. Which meant no Nazr Mohammed or Daequan Cook (Cook played 61/2 minutes of garbage time in the fourth quarter). Brooks went with an eight-man rotation, and it worked well. In Game 1, the Thunder was outscored by 10 points while Cook was on the floor. In Game 2, the Thunder was outscored by five points in Cook’s five minutes on the court, while the Thunder was outscored by seven points while Mohammed spent five minutes on the court. Brooks wised up and went with his best players throughout Game 3, until the rout was complete. We saw down in Miami that great players can do special things — Rajon Rondo played all 53 minutes and had the game of his life. If Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and, yes, Thabo Sefolosha, need to play 40-45 minutes, so be it.
4. More offensive threats. Thabo, Serge Ibaka and Derek Fisher combined to take 32 shots (and make 14). Durant, Westbrook and James Harden combined to take 42 shots (and make 18). That’s not a mandate to take take shots away from the big three; it’s never a bad idea when one of them is shooting. But it’s also fine for Thabo to show confidence by launching 3-pointers. And it’s even better for Ibaka to retain his confidence. He hadn’t been taking — much less making — his 17-footer. In Game 3, Ibaka was nailing it, and it made all the difference.