NBA Playoffs 2012: Thunder Must Embrace Small Lineup to Have Shot Against Spurs
The Oklahoma City Thunder got back into the 2012 Western Conference Finals with a resounding victory on Thursday night over the San Antonio Spurs. If head coach Scotty Brooks and the Thunder know what's good for them they'll try to make the momentum swing permanent by doing the same with the lineup change that propelled them to it.
The Thunder remain perfect at home in this year's playoffs with their 102-82 rout of the Spurs, pulling to within two games to one of San Antonio in their best-of-seven series. Oklahoma City was spurred on (pardon the pun) by a career playoff-high 19 points from shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, who saw his most extensive action of the series and liked what he heard from the partisan crowd according to the Associated Press via ESPN.
"We wanted to bounce back after two losses like that. We had to play better and we did that tonight," Sefolosha said. "We played with energy; we played with passion in front of our home crowd. They did a great job giving us a lift."
However, it was the smothering defense of the 6' 7" guard that was the real difference-maker in Thursday's game. Playing on the 6'2" Tony Parker much of the night, Sefolosha was relentless, pressuring Parker into five turnovers while racking up six steals of his own, including four in the game's opening moments that helped stake Oklahoma City to an early lead that they never really relinquished.
Brooks utilized a smaller lineup to get Sefolosha more minutes on Thursday, playing the shooting guard at small forward while keeping the Thunder's primary scoring threats (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden) on the court. This "small" lineup also seemingly kept the San Antonio offense out of sync all night long, a strategic move that paid off big-time according to Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe.
Sefolosha is a more balanced defender than Westbrook, more capable of sliding from one place to another without losing control of his momentum. (Seriously: Sefolosha is one of the most-balanced players in the league. He is like a ballet dancer on the court.)
Granted, the Thunder can't expect that sort of contribution every night from the fifth-year pro, who averaged just under five points and three rebounds in around 21 minutes per game this season, especially on the offensive end.
Also, the Spurs played their worst game in what seems like an eternity Thursday night, looking sloppy and out of sorts. This is a team coached by one of the best in the business that just had a 20-game winning streak snapped, so you can best your last dollar that the Spurs team that shows up Saturday night at Chesapeake Bay Energy Arena will be quite a bit sharper and angrier than when last they left.
It's also a San Antonio team that cruised in the first two games of this series, and one that will likely prevail in the end. However, by tinkering with his lineup Brooks and the Thunder (sounds like a band from the '60s) have at the very least stemmed the tide.
If Sefolosha and Oklahoma City keeps playing with that kind of intensity on defense, the Thunder may just yet turn it altogether.
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