SAN ANTONIO — The one that the Thunder needed was right there, well within reach. Only 12 minutes stood between it and the finish line.
But this time, Oklahoma City couldn't close.
The Thunder wasted a golden opportunity to steal Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday night, losing 101-98 to the San Antonio Spurs inside the AT&T Center after blowing a nine-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
Oklahoma City uncharacteristically surrendered a staggering 39 fourth-quarter points to the Spurs, allowing San Antonio to shoot 12-of-16 from the field in the final frame to escape with a 1-0 series lead and its home-court advantage still intact.
“I thought in the fourth quarter, we gave up too many opportunities in the paint,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “They got 50 paint points throughout the game…We take a lot of pride in our defense in the fourth quarter, (but) we gave up 39 points. Six of those, I think, were intentional fouls at the end. But over 30 points in the fourth quarter is not good enough to win.”
Not against the Spurs. Not on the road. And not when the Thunder's high-powered offense disappears.
Prior to James Harden's back-to-back but too-little-too-late 3-pointers in the final four seconds, the Thunder went just 5-of-14 in the fourth quarter. The reason was a heavy dose of one-on-one offense. The Thunder ran few sets and seemingly spent the first 15 seconds of the shot clock on every trip getting the ball up the court and trying to force feed it to Kevin Durant, who Spurs forward Stephen Jackson crowded in crunch time to prevent clean catches.
“We stopped moving the ball,” Harden said. “In that third quarter, we did a great job of moving the ball and getting their defense to move a little bit by hitting wide open shots and wide open layups. In the fourth quarter, we kind of slowed that down and they got a couple of easy transition buckets.”
To this point, the Thunder had been excellent this postseason at closing games. Oklahoma City came in 4-1 in games decided by three points or less and 5-1 in games decided by six points or less. The Thunder has battled back from seven-point, fourth-quarter deficits twice in these playoffs, as well as two other 13-point, fourth-quarter deficits.
But with the Thunder needing to win at least one road game in San Antonio to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time, Oklahoma City tightened up when it mattered most.
While the Thunder struggled to score, Spurs guard Manu Ginobili used the fourth quarter as his breakout game in the 2012 postseason. San Antonio's sixth man scored 11 points in the final frame, making all three of his field-goal attempts while working his way to the line five times, making all five.
Prior to Sunday night, Ginobili had scored more than 15 points only twice in the Spurs' first eight playoff games. He had reached the 20-point mark just once.
When the Thunder took a 71-62 lead into the final period, though, the Spurs got a spark from an unlikely source. Reserve forward Tiago Splitter scored four of his five fourth-quarter points on back-to-back layups in the first minute of the period. His inspired play immediately swung the momentum back to the Spurs, and things just snowballed for the Thunder from there.
The worse part of Sunday's loss was perhaps the wasted effort the Thunder received from its role players, who actually showed up and played terrific ball on the road.
Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison combined to score 25 points on 11-of-18 shooting with 12 rebounds and four assists. That trio had just two turnovers, while supplying solid defense and one timely shot after another.
Who knows if we'll ever see that routine reproduced from that bunch again in San Antonio?
It's all the more reason to think the Thunder let one get away.
“We had this game going into the fourth,” said Durant, who scored a game-high 27 points. “It's tough, but we can't hang our heads, man. It's a long series. We have to keep playing, try to get Game 2.”