The fifth time's the charm.
After being swept during the regular season, the San Antonio Spurs solved the Oklahoma City Thunder puzzle at the right time, taking Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals with a 122-105 victory on Monday night.
With Serge Ibaka sidelined, Tim Duncan scored 27 points, and the Spurs outscored the Thunder in the paint, 66-32.
The Spurs take Game 1! Tim Duncan scores 27 points and grabs 7 rebounds as they beat the Thunder 122-105 pic.twitter.com/dVYTKSuSIX— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 20, 2014
Prior to the game, Tony Parker, who scored 14 points and dished out 12 assists, told reporters the Spurs had to be perfect:
"Ball movement and execution," Parker said (via Fox Sports' Art Garcia). "We have to execute a lot better, because against them you can't go half-speed. We have to go full speed and we have to be perfect because they're younger than us and more athletic than us, so everything has to be more perfect."
Offensively, they were close. Gregg Popovich's squad shot 57.5 percent from the field and tallied 28 assists to just nine turnovers, finishing with a sweltering 126.5 offensive rating.
Kevin Durant (28 points, nine rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (25 points, seven assists) did everything they could to keep Oklahoma City close, but an inability to get stops ultimately doomed the Thunder, who allowed the opposition to shoot 50 percent for just the second time this postseason.
The first half was an offensive slugfest. Behind 21 points from Duncan, the Spurs shot a scorching 61.7 percent from the field, while the Thunder responded with 60-percent shooting from beyond the arc to stay close.
San Antonio was able to increase the margin to 15 at one point, but a Kendrick Perkins three-point play and a couple of Reggie Jackson buckets trimmed the lead back down to 67-59 at the half.
As NBA.com noted, the fast start of the first half was a continuation of what we've been seeing from the Spurs over the last two weeks:
.@Spurs are now a +100 in the 1st half of their last 7 games (+14.3 per 1st half). They've shot a blistering 56.5% over those 7 1st halves— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 20, 2014
Of course, the absence of Ibaka had a lot to do with that. Sixteen (on 8-of-8 shooting) of Duncan's 21 came inside the paint, and The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater noted another statistical oddity sans the dominant defensive big man:
With Serge Ibaka, the Thunder gave up 40 points per game in the paint this season. Without him, the Spurs had 40 in the first half.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 20, 2014
An assertive Westbrook quickly brought the Thunder back, though. The electrifying point guard pushed the tempo and got to the hoop with ease, scoring or assisting on OKC's first 17 points of the third quarter.
Twitter's favorite Bill Walton parody account summed it up...sort of:
When Westbrook effortlessly gets in the lane I picture Luke pushing away his target finder and using the Force to destroy the Death Star.— Not Bill Walton (@NotBillWalton) May 20, 2014
A jumper by Westbrook at the 5:09 mark gave the Thunder their first lead since it was 5-4, but from then on, it was all Spurs, who responded with a 10-0 run to take an 89-82 lead into the final quarter.
Oklahoma City looked tired in the final period, as San Antonio continued to pound it inside, and Kawhi Leonard took over on both ends of the court. The Spurs held a double-digit lead for most of the quarter, eventually turning it into a blowout in the final minutes.
With Game 2 on Wednesday night, Scott Brooks better make some adjustments—and fast. His small-lineup experiments weren't working, and the Spurs were able to get pretty much whatever they wanted on the interior. As ESPN's Kevin Pelton suggested, a combination of Steven Adams and Nick Collison, who combined to play just 33 minutes in Game 1, could be a solution, at least defensively:
The Collison/Adams frontcourt won G6 vs. the Clippers. Hasn't played a minute tonight. Nor has Collison at the 5 spot.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 20, 2014
Either way, a strong case for Ibaka as the best defensive player in the league was made on Monday night. And while it's a long series, and the Thunder will undoubtedly bounce back, Ibaka's absence has to have the Spurs feeling confident about a return to the Finals.