SAN ANTONIO — Here's the question of Game 2: What's more indicative of how this series will go, the Thunder's three quarters of strong defense or its fourth-quarter fold in the face of Spurs nasty?
The wind in the Alamo City blows strongly in the direction of nasty. I get that.
But what to do with those first three quarters of Game 1? Discard them? Attribute Tony Parker's hesitancy, those 16 Spurs turnovers and their 39 percent shooting to San Antonio's week layoff?
To do so is understandable given the gravity of that fourth quarter for the ages, the Spurs' 101-98 victory and the fact they haven't lost a game since filing their taxes.
Understandable, but unwise.
If you're Oklahoma City, you build on those 36 minutes, if only for this reason: Playing that way might be the Thunder's only viable option.
This team is not built to consistently walk the ball up court in the Western Conference Finals and run a half-court play that produces an open shot against the smartest, most cohesive team in basketball. And if anyone needed a reminder of that, the Thunder's International Distress Signal was on display again in Game 1.
You've seen the signal. It's Kevin Durant drifting, drifting, drifting toward half-court, desperately holding out one hand and begging for the ball as the shot clock ticks inside 12 seconds. It's not the sign of an unimaginative offense. It's a sign the Thunder is taking the ball out of the net too often — which is about all OKC did in the fourth quarter when San Antonio hit 12 of 16 shots.
We might grow weary from listening to Durant, Scott Brooks, Brian Davis and everyone else cashing a Thunder paycheck say this. But “defense leading to offense” is the only Thunder Way that works this deep in the playoffs.
Remember that comeback from a seven-point deficit in Game 2 of the Lakers series? Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden got serious about contesting passes to the wing. (Kobe Bryant called it a risky strategy. Others termed it essential). Steals led to layups that led to another Durant game-winner.
On each of those plays, the Thunder scored before Laker 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol crossed the 3-point line. When you're facing Tim Duncan, the easy basket imperative is even greater.
The Thunder had them in Game 1, outscoring the Spurs 14-6 on fast break points through three quarters. When Brooks dreams of this kind of basketball, Westbrook fights over a screen to block Parker's shot from behind and ultimately prompts a series of skittish shots by the Spurs point guard. Serge Ibaka lurks close enough to make Parker think twice about pulling the trigger, giving Westbrook time to use his quickness to recover for the block, the loose ball and a layup at the other end. All of that happened Sunday, on one play.
“We did a pretty good job for three quarters of really containing them, really frustrating them, getting out to their shooters,” Harden said. “In the fourth quarter, we let up.”
Said Thunder reserve Derek Fisher: “It's tough to put together a perfect game or play four great quarters. But we did some good things ... that we need to do for longer.”
Of course, the Game 1 reflex is to think the Thunder's fourth-quarter struggles could have been fixed by letting Ibaka play in the fourth quarter. It probably wouldn't have hurt to have the NBA's leading shot blocker serving as a last line of defense against Manu Ginobili's drives. Expect Ibaka to play more in Game 2.
Also expect OKC — and specifically Thabo Sefolosha — to do a better job of stopping Ginobili's drives before they start. The Thunder certainly can't do much worse. Ginobili blew past everyone in Oklahoma City blue so easily you almost wondered if the Thunder forgot he's left-handed.
Maybe they did. Ginobili missed all three regular-season meetings, meaning the Thunder hasn't faced him since Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green were Thunder starters. That's right: No Manu a Thabo since February 2011. Game 1 was one wicked refresher course on the game's most creative playmaker, but at least now everyone has experienced it.
Thabo and everyone else has had a chance to recalibrate the explosiveness of Ginobili's first step, and see the consequences of trailing him on an inbounds play. (Remember Manu running Harden around the Maypoles for a layup on that inbounds play?)
There's still the small matter of staying in front of him, and Sefolosha is the best candidate to do that. I'm told a certain Oklahoma City sports-talk host is on the verge of circulating a petition calling for Brooks to start Harden so that Thabo can come off the bench when Ginobili does. It's bold and gutsy if it works. Reactionary and panicky if it doesn't.
Do any of those adjectives sound like the Thunder Way? Better to stick with “defense leading to offense.” It might be the only way.