As I watched Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, I was yelling at the TV for Oklahoma City Thunder wing player Thabo Sefolosha to be put in the game, as the San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker ran around screens and constantly scored with ease on defensively inept Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. To no surprise, my yells were not answered, and I felt awful picking the Thunder to win the series if this was going to be the squad's legitimate game plan.
Meanwhile, Westbrook decided to attempt a response at the other end. He dribbled down the court fourteen times (according to the count of Skip Bayless) and jacked up a jumper without passing. Although he finished 10-for-24 from the field, he was a defensive liability, and Sefolosha, despite his underrated value on that end of the floor, rode the bench for some reason.
Finally, in Game 3, Sefolosha was unleashed in a big way, and it's hard to imagine he'll be underrated---or underutilized---any longer.
The Thunder used an early 8-0 run to set the tone from the very beginning and relied on an incredible night from Sefolosha to run away with a 102-82 victory, cutting the series deficit in half. He hounded Parker, keeping him out of the paint and preventing the crafty guard from picking his spots.
It was clear the Thunder were not going to come close to winning this series without more defense. Although Parker was still able to shoot relatively well, Sefolosha nabbed six steals, and Parker had just four assists against five turnovers.
Typically not known for his offense, Sefolosha also poured in an astounding 19 points, including four three-pointers. The all-around brilliant game for the Thunder shooting guard allowed the team to spread the floor more, and Sefolosha, who shot 44 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season, was left with many open looks.
Who will win the Western Conference Finals?
The Spurs concentrated their defensive efforts on Kevin Durant coming off of screens and keeping Westbrook out of the paint. This isn't to marginalize the impact both those superstars bring to the table, but Sefolosha used this game to establish himself as arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA.
Sefolosha's 7'2" wingspan caused problems, as he repeatedly deflected passes by Spurs players, who relied on rapid ball movement and making the extra pass to roll over the Thunder and get easy, high percentage buckets in their first two games at home.
This day seemed to be inevitable when Sefolosha was taken as the 13th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2006 NBA Draft. The talent was apparent, but he was immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls, who then traded him to the Thunder in 2009.
With the emergence of explosive scorer James Harden, Sefolosha has found himself on the Thunder bench more often than not, especially in the postseason. In tonight's game, Sefolosha logged the most significant and productive minutes of his career.
Moving forward, if the Thunder want to win this series, they must keep in mind the cliche that defense wins championships. Keeping Sefolosha in the lineup and going small with Durant at the 4 provided more opportunities for the Thunder to run out in transition.
Entering tonight's game, three things were taboo: the Spurs losing the series, Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Marv Albert questioning Westbrook's shot selection, and the notion of playing Thabo Sefolosha more.
That's right—playing Thabo was taboo.