Ouch. Another game of the Western Conference Finals, another blowout. The Spurs solved the Serge Ibaka riddle and routed the Thunder 117-89 Thursday night in Game 5. Here’s what I saw and heard:
Remember when the Thunder habitually got off to horrendous starts? That’s not been the problem in this series. OKC got down early in Game 1, 20-9, but almost caught up by the end of the first quarter. The Spurs took a 16-9 lead early in Game 2, but the Thunder did catch up by the end of the first quarter. Then Thursday night, the Thunder led 19-12 in the first quarter, but the Spurs caught up by quarter’s end.
Game 5 turned when Scotty Brooks first went to his bench. The Thunder led 21-17 at the first substitution, Steven Adams for Kendrick Perkins, but that didn’t seem to affect the game. The Spurs had scored two straight possessions but weren’t in any kind of rhythm. Manu Ginobili already had entered the game. But at 3:41, Gregg Popovich replaced Tim Duncan with Tiago Splitter, another move that wasn’t pivotal. But Brooks replaced Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson with Nick Collison and Derek Fisher. Uh-oh. The Spurs scored on six straight possessions, taking their streak to eight, and it was 32-32.
When the second quarter started, Brooks had Jackson and four reserves on the court. They actually held the Spurs down, allowing only a Patty Mills 3-pointer in the first five possessions. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook soon returned to the court, but the Thunder defense collapsed again. San Antonio scored on 13 of 18 possessions and the rout was on.
“San Antonio played a very good basketball game,” Scotty Brooks said. “Give them credit. They came back home and played their game. We didn’t have the defensive disposition that we’ve had the last two games. This is what happens against a very skilled offensive basketball team.
“We gave them everything they wanted. They got the dribble drive, they got the 3-point line and they got to the free-throw line. They shot 30 free throws. They’re not a team that shoots a lot of free throws, but we fouled them enough to put them on the line for 30 free throws.”
Popovich benched Splitter in an attempt to draw Ibaka away from the basket. Playing Matt Bonner didn’t seem to help. But playing Boris Diaw 23:48 of the game’s first 36 minutes helped a ton. It spread the court and made Ibaka play out on the perimeter, sort of like the NBA Finals against Miami.
A counter for Brooks could be to use the small-ball lineup more, with Ibaka staying at center to guard Duncan. Through three quarters in Game 5, Brooks went small three times:
1. In the second quarter, the small lineup of Caron Butler, Jackson, Adams, Durant and Fisher/Westbrook played 3:22 and was outscored 7-5.
2. The Thunder went small the final four seconds of the first half, and Westbrook drained a long 3-pointer.
3. In the third quarter, the lineup of Butler, Westbrook, Adams, Durant and Jeremy Lamb played a stretch of 3:54 and was outscored 12-4.
So not promising. But no small ball with Ibaka. Maybe that is Brooks’ next move.
We had a Thabo Sefolosha sighting – the former starter played the final 7:38 of the game. But might it be time to bring Thabo out of real-time mothballs? Not to start, but to try to corral Ginobili.
Jackson was lost in the second quarter, trying to stop Ginobili. In the quarter, Ginobili played 8:19 and made all four of his shots, mostly at the expense of Jackson. Ginobili scored on three drives to the hoop, plus a 3-pointer. All of Ginobili’s baskets came in the final 5:15. The Thunder trailed just 42-38. Ginobili got hot, and his 3-pointer just before the half zoomed the lead to 65-52.
“Personally, it felt like they were attacking me,” Jackson said. “Gregg Popovich himself could have thrown on a jersey.”
Lamb tried his turn at Ginobili during the third quarter and did a little better – how could he not? – but is it time to at least give Thabo a crack at slowing Ginobili. For five years, Sefolosha’s been assigned the opponent’s best wing player and sometimes even the point guard. That player, of course, is almost always a starter. But here comes San Antonio with a bench player who is a total load, and the bench is where Thabo finds himself. Maybe Sefolosha can stay in front of Ginobili for small stretches of each half.
LOOK WHO’S GUARDING WESTBROOK
Just in case anyone is wondering Russell Westbrook’s status as a ballplayer, don’t forget what Popovich did in Game 5. Pop assigned his best defender, Kawhi Leonard, a prototype on slowing Durant, to guard Westbrook. And the Spurs stayed with that for much of the game.
Think about that. The Spurs were willing to take their chances with Danny Green or even Ginobili on Durant, and ask Leonard to curtail Westbrook.
The maneuver worked to some degree, in this way. Westbrook got up just 12 shots in 30:48. He still played superbly – 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting, seven assists, three steals, four rebounds. But the way Westbrook is playing, more than 12 shots wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“I think I did OK,” Leonard said of guarding Westbrook. “We all did well as a group defensively, by just keeping a hand up and forcing difficult shots for everyone. Everyone was there with a hard edge and just playing the game with aggression and being physical.”
Durant had a good game offensively, too, making 11 of 21 shots and scoring 25 points. The Spurs kept Durant off the foul line (1-of-4), but not Westbrook (7-of-9). But Durant didn’t blossom with Leonard assigned elsewhere. His shots were much tougher than the shots he got in Oklahoma City. Durant took six 3-pointers, six mid-range jumpers, one runner in the lane and eight shots right at the basket, either dunks, layups or drives.
“As I’ve said before, they just tried to make those guys work as hard as they can,” Pop said. Durant and Westbrook are “great players, they’re all-stars. They’re going to continue to be, and we’re going to hear from those guys for a long time to come, so you’re not going to stop either one of them. But I think Danny and Kawhi worked as hard as they could on it.”
Here’s a fundamental problem for the Thunder. The No. 1 key to victory for the Thunder was achieved. Westbrook was great and Tony Parker was not. Westbrook neutralized Parker to a large degree. Parker was decent, just not dominant. Parker had 12 points on 6-of-13 shooting, with four assists and two turnovers. No foul shots.
That’s the frustrating part for the Thunder. Westbrook and Durant are playing well offensively, and Westbrook has answered the defensive challenge. And yet OKC trails 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Matt Bonner played for the Florida Gators as a freshman against OSU in the 2000 East Regional championship game. He’s been around a long time. Bonner has played eight seasons with the Spurs, as a stretch forward – a big man who can shoot the 3-pointer. Over eight years, Bonner has made 91 starts, plus six in the playoffs. Make it seven.
Bonner started in place of Splitter and didn’t even score, missing all four of his shots. But the move got the Thunder out of its comfort zone. Ibaka got off his game, missing his first five shots, most of them while trying (and succeeding) to drive on Bonner. The Bonner move didn’t have concrete results for Popovich. But the abstract benefits were apparent.
“That’s what they’re known for,” Jackson said of the Spurs’ lineup changes. “I don’t think it matters who plays. They could play five centers and they would still find a way to move the ball. It’s just what they do, their system, and they’re good at it.”