OKC Thunder's Switch Forces San Antonio to Cough Up a Last Shot

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IJune 5, 2012

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 04:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder hitting a three point late in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on June 4, 2012 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With a chance to retain home-court advantage and salvage a sinking but brilliant season on the line, Manu Ginobili gave it his best shot. The spiraling Spurs were just firing a gun with fewer bullets and less space in the magazine. The Argentine’s wild, trigger-happy spree was no match for Oklahoma City’s dead aim.

The Thunder’s AK-47, it seems, never runs out of ammunition, and Derek Fisher keeps finding new ways to make fans in the Alamo City sick to their stomachs.

He did not attempt any shots in the final five minutes, nor did he touch the ball on the possession when James Harden’s latest crushing three-pointer turned OKC into a bona fide serial killer. Fisher was still in the building, and that was enough.

Ginobili trudged off the court after a heroic 34-point outburst, his right wing three to tie the regulation score skipping off the front rim, and wore his agony the way Russell Westbrook does flamboyant shirts. Ginobili knows now how this will end, and the all but certain Game 6 termination will not be kind to one of the greatest, fiercest competitors in sports history.

The Spurs will not lose Wednesday because they failed to play hard enough in these Western Conference Finals. They understood the stakes. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili embraced the idea that this opportunity might never come again, and that was long before this matchup took shape.

Thabo Sefolosha hounding Parker is just one problem.

This isn’t about a struggling Danny Green usurping minutes from teammates performing at a superior level. It has nothing to do with DeJuan Blair’s demotion from starting center to cheerleader. Where Gregg Popovich put Ginobili on Monday night was irrelevant. Bringing him off the bench and allowing Green or Jackson to start would not have altered the outcome.

This is about change, real change. President Barack Obama should take notes.

The Thunder sits one win away from the NBA Finals because it has made the most stunning adjustment possible. How many teams in any sport have switched identities in the tensest month, with the pressure mounting and the margin for error shrinking?

The squad now 48 minutes away from vanquishing a four-time champion once led the Houston Rockets by 11 in the last two minutes of a February contest that no one will remember in a few weeks. At home, with the crowd celebrating another sure-fire victory, and the clock serving as Oklahoma City’s ally, Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden reverted back to the iso-first, iso-always offense to leave the door ajar.

Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic threw in a barrage of long-distance bombs to help the undermanned Rockets shock the Thunder. Dragic appeared to frustrate Westbrook to the point of climbing inside his head. The UCLA product responded to the Slovenian’s physical defense with boneheaded fouls and incessant complaining.

The team that led the league in turnovers, averaged the fewest assists and hoisted contested, head-scratching, crunch-time shots had hacked up another triumph, stealing it from the jaws of victory to toss it somewhere in the landfill where losers live.

If Oklahoma City smells like a different squad now, it is different.

Poise and prudence have replaced predilection and petulance. The Thunder could now write the book on taking care of the ball in the postseason, and the key players share it as if they invented making the extra pass.

The OKC club prone to mindless jump-shooting spells and collapses didn’t show up enough in this series for San Antonio to have any chance to build on a 2-0 lead. Those guys said “peek-a-boo” long enough to give the Spurs some hope. Monday night should smother all optimism.

The Western Conference Finals version of Durant is better than the guy who finished second in MVP voting to LeBron James.

Forget the tired, hackneyed age axiom. The two challengers vying for a spot in the title round are just one year apart in average age.

The definition of Thunder basketball has changed, and that will cripple the Spurs more than a 36-year-old Duncan or a 34-year-old Ginobili.

If Brooks’ bunch wanted to play this way from the jump, managing the clock to perfection, forcing a sagacious, sage squad into deflating, inexplicable turnovers, it didn’t.

OKC coughed up the No. 1 seed and sported more cracks than a vase that just fell off a living room table. For most of this match, by contrast, San Antonio has done all the coughing.

Any team that can pull off the turnaround the Thunder has deserves to win it all. What began with a revealing sweep of the defending champion Dallas Mavericks continues now.

It seemed foolish, even after Durant’s dominant fourth quarter evened the series Saturday, to suggest holding serve at home meant the Thunder had figured out the Spurs.

My bad. The men, not boys, from Oklahoma have figured out a lot more than that.

Kawhi Leonard should know. The best defense a rookie can play did not matter. Nothing San Antonio could have done Thursday, Saturday or Monday would have made the difference.

Teams that redefine themselves in the moments where, “you are what you are,” as pundits would say, can become unbeatable.

A 20-game winning streak was no match for this.

Daequan Cook saw limited daylight in the first five contests, and he drilled all three of his shots in the first half of the biggest road victory in Oklahoma City’s brief history. He was ready and accurate when one-dimensional shooters with no rhythm aren’t supposed to succeed.

The Thunder came up with answers when the Spurs needed the unfazed opponents to respond with puzzlement.

OKC is a team of destiny now, and nothing and no one will stop it.

Those who decry Popovich’s supposed rotation mistakes or a lackadaisical effort in another paltry second period miss the point.

Effort counts for little when matched up against such a talented trio and cohesive supporting cast fixing their flaws in just the month the rest of the West was hoping to expose them.

Playing harder cannot compensate for a tough opponent becoming that much tougher.

A slog for conference supremacy that once seemed like anybody’s series is headed in one direction.

Why waste the jet fuel necessary for the merciless murder that looms at Chesapeake Energy Arena?

Play harder? The Spurs still might lose by 20.

If asking the Thunder to fold under intense playoff duress now looks more ridiculous than Jimmie Johnson wearing a rainbow wig, it didn’t when a less potent and decorated Dallas offense slammed the door shut last spring.

Oklahoma City has grown up, and San Antonio, as a result, looks like another group of kids shrunk by Rick Moranis.

Ginobili was built for clutch situations and for championship runs. El Contusion came out firing in Game 5 and sparked a furious third-quarter rally with 13 straight points.

The jubilation at the AT&T Center lasted about as long as Parker’s rap career.

When Durant bagged a fadeaway just before the end of the period with a hand close enough to his face to perform an ear, nose and throat examination, well, it was obvious Ginobili was operating with fewer bullets.

Last in the league in assists to first in the conference finals? First in the league in turnovers to ball care specialists? How can anyone, even the sputtering former juggernaut Spurs, beat that?

The Thunder danced back home with the Spurs on the brink, putting them on the ropes with deadeye shooting and devastating impudence.

Popovich prepared for this, but he had to hope OKC’s maturation would not take hold until next year.

Surprise, and not a good one for those in Central Texas: The ones coughing up the ball in this matchup wear silver and black.

If this was a last shot in the Duncan era, it wasn’t good enough to topple the Thunder.

The vomiting starts where faith in the Alamo City stops. Fisher induced nausea again by just being there.

Don’t blame the Spurs for a collapse before crediting the Thunder for transforming from a dangerous weapon with limits into one with a scope that reaches from the Riverwalk to both Boston and Miami.

A medical examiner's report would list the Spurs' cause of death as "multiple gunshot wounds to the head and heart." Even a hired hitman would bow to this display of sniper fire.

A harmless Stephen Jackson three that referees disallowed dropped through the net at the buzzer. Durant ran to hug his teammates, then his mom. This was dead aim. This was torture of the worst possible degree.

No one is beating the Thunder. Not Ginobili. Not anyone.


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