Russell Westbrook ran around the court like a whirling dervish. For once in his life, Tony Parker was more scared when he had the ball than when Westbrook had the ball.
Kevin Durant rose above the San Antonio horde to score via a variety from his bag of trick shots.
Serge Ibaka kept swatting away Spur shots and kept them inbounds, ala Bill Russell, and the shot-blocking was contagious.
And suddenly, but most certain explicably, these Western Conference Finals feel exactly like the 2012 West showdown. Tied 2-2, headed back to San Antone, but all the momentum and all the advantage save homecourt resting with the younger Thunder. Bigger, stronger, faster is trumping smarter.
The Thunder routed the Spurs 105-92 Tuesday night to even the series and conjure memories of 2012, when the Spurs won the first two games only to lose four straight to the precocious Boomers. Two years later, the Thunder still has the fresh legs advantage, only this time, the Thunder is hungrier. Hungrier and armed with the knowledge that the Spurs’ success in this series came with Ibaka sidelined.
With Ibaka these last two games in OKC, the Thunder has ruled.
“You know, when we left San Antonio, we didn’t feel good,” Scotty Brooks said. “It wasn’t a good feeling. We were disappointed in ourselves. I was disappointed in myself. I was disappointed in that we didn’t play the way we’re capable of playing.”
But there is no disappointment now. The Thunder is locked in defensively – the Spurs shot under 40 percent (39.8) for the second straight. Durant found his shooting touch (11 of 22, 31 points). Westbrook had a game for the ages – 40 points, 10 assists, five steals, five rebounds. That’s a Michael Jordan-type game – not since Jordan in 1989 has a player achieved those levels in a playoff game.
The Thunder has the Spurs on the run. And speaking of run, that’s what the Thunder did to San Antonio, outscoring the Spurs 21-0 in fast-break points. San Antonio didn’t even have a fast break, much less score on one.
The Thunder’s big edge in this series – young legs – is starting to take over the series.
“You’ve got to play smarter against such great athletes … small margin of error, and you’d better be smart the way you play,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, upset that his squad kept challenging Ibaka in the paint. “And I think we have to play harder. I think they’re playing more physically than we are. They’re still getting more 50-50 balls and playing with more determination than we did.”
This is scripting like 2012, when the Thunder came home down 0-2, only get to huge games from Ibaka (Game 3) and Thabo Sefolosha (Game 4), then went to San Antonio rejuvenated and stole homecourt advantage.
“We gotta make (our game) travel,” Westbrook said. “We gotta win one there if we’re gonna win the series. We’re going to go in with the same mindset.”
The mindset Tuesday was aggression. Aggression on offense, where the Thunder again attacked the paint and was rewarded with 31 foul shots. And aggression on defense, where Westbrook darted all over the court to make life miserable on Parker, and where Westbrook’s teammates didn’t let the Spurs sharpshooters roam free.
“Everybody chipped in,” Brooks said. “The defensive mindset was outstanding. The thing I love about our group is we’ve always had that bounce-back ability, and that’s showed. We played with toughness, we played with energy and we played together.”
The Thunder is indeed resilient. The Thunder has a chance to join the 2001 76ers as the only team to make the NBA Finals after trailing in each of their first three series.
Of course, it’s easy to bounce back when you add Ibaka to the recipe. And the Thunder returns to San Antonio knowing it has defeated the Spurs seven straight times, and 12 of 14 times, with Ibaka in the lineup. Which is where Serge will be come Thursday night in a series that is feeling an awful lot like 2012.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at . He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.