One of my favorite things about the Thunder is the allegiance it invokes. Especially among older women. I hear from them all the time.
Like my 81-year-old mom. She told me Wednesday morning, “I’ve never seen anyone play like Westbrook played. He played like he was on roller skates.” I couldn’t disagree.
And a reader from the 918 area code called to tell me of a Damon Runyan quote. Runyan was the journalist of about a century ago, a New Yorker who wrote sports and lifestyle and all kinds of stuff. This was in reference to my column that said the Thunder (“bigger, stronger, faster”) was trumping the Spurs’ experience. The reader said her favorite Runyan quote was: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”
That’s certainly what we saw Tuesday night, when the Thunder routed the Spurs 105-92 to even the Western Conference Finals 2-2. Here’s what I saw and heard:
In the first four minutes of the game, Tony Parker had three assists and four points, making both of his shots. Parker left the game for the last time at 6:46 of the third quarter. So after those first four minutes, Parker played 21:49 of the game’s 25:15. And had one assist and 10 points, on 5-of-10 shooting. With three turnovers.
Parker’s early assists came via two Kawhi Leonard 3-pointers and Tim Duncan floater. Parker’s only other assist came midway through the second quarter, on a Duncan jumper.
Gregg Popovich criticized his team’s decision-making.
“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Pop said. “All of a sudden, we were going to see if Serge (Ibaka) could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They’d know who Serge was. But really unwise basketball all of a sudden.”
The Spurs didn’t seem to get away from their 3-point game. They shot five treys in the first quarter, eight in the second quarter, seven in the third quarter and seven in the fourth. But they certainly didn’t have the wide-open threes that were available in the first two games.
“Instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots,” Pop said. “We had seven turnovers in the first half but really 14 because of the seven blocks. Those are like turnovers.”
Popovich was close to correct. The Thunder had six blocked shots in the first half. Five of those blocks became Thunder rebounds, leading to several fast-break baskets.
“You’ve got to play smarter against such great athletes,” Popovich said. “They’re talented, obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin of error, and you’d better be smart the way you play, and you can’t afford to screw that up as many times as we did.”
But give Parker and the other San Antonio ballhandlers a break. Think about what they were up against in Game 4. In front of them was Ibaka and all his shot-blocking glory, plus his teammates were in the mood, too – Kendrick Perkins blocked two shots, and Steven Adams, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook blocked one each. Beside them was Westbrook, playing possessed. Beside them or behind them, surveying the landscape for a steal. Westbrook had four first-half steals. All resulted in fast-break baskets for OKC.
Westbrook’s epic game – 40 points, 10 assists, five steals and five rebounds – will focus on the 40 points and five steals. But don’t sleep on the 10 assists. Westbrook had eight assists in the first half, when the Thunder took control of the game.
Here are the 10 shots made off Westbrook assists: Durant layup, Adams hook, Durant 2-footer, Ibaka dunk, Durant turnaround jumper, Durant 3-pointer, Durant 3-pointer, Jeremy Lamb 3-pointer, Durant turnaround jumper and Perkins hook.
My favorite assist of the night was Westbrook’s overhand fastball, cross court, to Durant in the corner for a 3-pointer. It was Durant’s second 3-pointer in a span of 22 seconds, sending the Thunder lead from 44-36 to 50-36. And it all came off a Westbrook steal from Parker.
Perkins had one of his best games of the playoffs. He and Tim Duncan were on the court for 19:30 of the game. In those 191/2 minutes, Duncan had five points and four rebounds, on 2-of-6 shooting. Duncan spent 5:05 on the court against Adams and went 2-of-2 with four points during that time, with two rebounds.
Perkins had 10 rebounds, two blocked shots and a nifty assist to Westbrook for a layup.
Of the Thunder’s eight blocked shots, two came against Duncan. Both were by Ibaka, helping out on the back side.
The Thunder clearly has neutralized Duncan – and did so even before Ibaka’s return. In Game 2, Duncan had 12 rebounds but scored just 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting.
In the last three games, Duncan has made just 15 of 37 shots and averaged 13 points.
Duncan was having a renaissance playoff. He averaged 17.3 points a game and shot 58 percent from the field against Dallas. He averaged 15.8 points a game and shot 53 percent from the field against Portland.
But the Thunder is taking Duncan out of his game.
“They hit some tough shots, but I thought we kept touching them,” Perkins said. “We were challenging all their shots and keeping them out of the paint. Our shell was tight, and I thought we stuck with it. With San Antonio, you have to do it for 48 minutes.”
THE GREEN ROAD
TNT’s postgame crew talked extensively about Danny Green’s road troubles. In two games in San Antonio, Green made 13 of 18 shots, including 11 of 15 on 3-pointers. He averaged 18.5 points a game.
In two games in Oklahoma City, Green made four of 16 shots, including three of eight on 3-pointers. He averaged 5.5 points.
Is that typical for Green? In seven home games against Dallas and Portland, Green made 21 of 39 shots and averaged 8.3 points. In five road games against Dallas and Portland, Green made 15 of 33 shots and averaged 7.2 points. A little better at home. Green had three monster playoff games before the Thunder. Two at home (16 points on 5-of-7 shooting against Dallas, 22 points on 9-of-13 against Portland) and one on the road (17 points on 7-of-f-7 shooting at Dallas).
DURANT’S BIG NIGHT
Durant had a huge game – and again was overshadowed, this time by Westbrook. Durant made 11 of 22 shots, which is good. But Durant missed his final seven shots. He was 11-of-15 midway through the third quarter. His final basket gave the Thunder a 64-48 lead.
Durant was sensational. He made two of four 3-pointers. None of his other nine baskets were from farther than 12 feet. Durant scored on three shots from 10-12 feet. On three shots right at the basket, either via drive, layup or dunk. And on three more from 2-6 feet.
The Spurs perhaps learned a valuable lesson. You can’t let Durant shoot from that short of range. He’s not going to miss. Those seven misses to end the game? A 3-pointer, an 18-footer, a 12-footer, a drive, a 17-footer, a runner and another drive. Keep Durant away from the basket, and you’ve got a fighting chance.
The last 16 minutes of the game were absurd. The Thunder had a 74-49 lead when Popovich emptied his bench. Soon enough, a Westbrook dunk put the Spurs in a 27-point hole. And over the last 41/2 minutes of the third quarter, the Spurs outscored the Thunder 18-9.
A San Antonio lineup of Cory Joseph, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Aron Baynes and Marco Belinelli outscored the Thunder 18-9, though the OKC lineup included Westbrook and Durant.
Joseph scored six points through a variety of penetrations. Diaw scored nine points, including two off shifty layups. Diaw and Belinelli hit 3-pointers.
In the fourth quarter, the Spurs’ super scrubs kept it up. They cut the Thunder lead to 83-71 with 11:20 left in the game and to 96-84 with 3:32 left. Joseph missed a reverse layup with 3:13 left that would have made it a 10-point game.
Popovich never seemed tempted to return his starters to the court. Green came back with 6:29 left but played just 49 seconds before leaving for good.
Popovich was trying to keep his older players fresh for Game 5 Thursday night. The move paid off in that regard – Brooks no doubt was hoping his stars could expand the 27-point lead, go to the fourth quarter with a 30-point margin and coast himself. Didn’t happen. Westbrook played 45:29, Durant 41:12 and Ibaka 34:54.
“I was going to be ready if he did call,” said Leonard, “but I didn’t know what he was going to do. I just stayed ready.”
Westbrook scored 40 and Durant 31. The rest of the Thunder squad combined for 34. On this night, that was no big deal. The Thunder played so well in other aspects of the game, scoring was irrelevant.
Ibaka was off. He made four of eight shots, but all four of his baskets were dunks or lay-ins. He missed a nine-foot fallaway jumper, an 18-footer, a 17-footer and a corner 3-pointer.
Jackson was hampered by an ankle sprain and made just one of five shots. The make was big, though, a 3-point swish that padded OKC’s lead to 69-49 lead.
Butler got just three shots. Lamb made but two of seven shots.
On this night, it didn’t matter. Not with Westbrook and Durant playing the way they did.
San Antonio in two games with Ibaka sidelined: 117 points a game, 53.8 percent shooting, 66.7 shooting in the paint, 27 fast-break points total.
San Antonio in two games with Ibaka in the rotation: 94.5 points a game, 39.7 percent shooting, 46.3 shooting in the paint, three fast-break points total.
“They’re up in the passing lanes, they have starters and they have Serge in there, and their big guys back there who are protecting the rim, so they’re gambling a little more,” Duncan said. “They’ve turned that gambling into turnovers and took some fast-break points. I think they’re more comfortable with Serge and the rest of those big guys back there.”
Said Manu Ginobili, “I think they are pretty good. What should I say? They have been one of the best teams in the league. I don’t see that as a crazy thing. We have got to be way smarter and sharper. If we let them push us around and we are not strong with the ball, that is when they get us on our heels and we stop attacking. We know we have got to play games close to perfection.”