The Spurs crossed the Red River with a commanding 2-0 lead, no Serge Ibaka to contend with and the majority of NBA followers labeling them as an indefensible force rolling its way to a likely rematch with Miami.
Now, San Antonio flies south in a 2-2 deadlock, looking sluggish and overwhelmed by the Thunder athletes, unable to solve the Ibaka riddle and facing legit 2012 flashbacks that seemed far-fetched just 72 hours ago.
Oh, what a difference three days and two games make.
So what happened to turn this thing? Why has the momentum been completely flipped? How did the Spurs suddenly go from unstoppable to uncompetitive?
“That’s a great question,” a confounded Tony Parker said following the Spurs’ 105-92 Game 4 loss on Tuesday night.
And it’s one the Spurs must solve in the coming days, or risk a surprising end to a promising postseason run that remains at risk of being the last of the Tim Duncan era.
To find the answers, San Antonio must confront the problems. And that starts with Ibaka, the biggest tangible difference between the first and second pair of games.
Far more than an emotional lift, the once hobbled Ibaka didn’t even flash a limp on Tuesday, leading a transformative defensive effort that has stonewalled the Spurs attack. San Antonio had 120 paint points the first two games, while the Thunder had just six blocks. The Spurs struggled to find only 76 paint points the past two games, while OKC compiled 18 blocks.
Seven of those came from Ibaka, OKC’s game-changing rim protector who the Spurs kept unsuccessfully challenging at the summit.
“I thought about passing a picture out on the bench so they’d know who Serge was,” Gregg Popovich joked postgame. “Really unwise basketball all of a sudden. Instead of hitting the open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely.”
“Pop is right,” Parker said. “We have to keep moving the ball and find the open shooter.”
But with Ibaka patrolling that back line, the reinvigorated Thunder perimeter defenders have been freed to press up on threes and get physical with cutters. Russell Westbrook was the ringleader on Tuesday, unleashed to gamble and wreck havoc, compiling four steals in the second quarter and five of the Thunder’s 12 on the night.
The Spurs were outscored 21-0 in fast-break points and had no answer for the intensity, physicality, speed and athleticism.
“If we let them push us around and are not strong with the ball,” San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili said, “that's when they get us on our heels and we stop attacking the way we do …We were again slower. It looked like we were a different speed, like we were in slow motion and they were going fast and strong.”
Against the Thunder, San Antonio’s old legs have again popped up as a potential problem. But after a season full of limited minutes, the Spurs starters rested plenty in Oklahoma City.
Facing large deficits and led by a dictator with occasionally radical tactics, the Spurs starters were benched for a majority of both fourth quarters.
“Thursday,” Popovich said as reasoning for his extensive use of the mop-up crew.
Thursday — when San Antonio returns to its safe haven with a chance to solve these sudden problems and save its season.