In Game 3, Serge Ibaka limped through pain to inspire his teammates. Then down went Reggie Jackson. With two-fifths of their starting lineup gimping their way through Game 4, it'd be hard to blame the Oklahoma City Thunder for thinking this wasn't their year.
The Thunder stars soared offensively, Ibaka again led a rejuvenated defense and Oklahoma City pulled away in the second half to score a 105-92 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of their Western Conference Finals series.
The best-of-seven series is tied, 2-2, with each team sweeping games on their home floor. The Spurs and Thunder return to San Antonio on Thursday, where the stats say a conference champion will be crowned.
If Tuesday night is any indication, the Spurs have a long way to go in 48 hours.
This trip to Oklahoma City echoed themes of the teams' playoff series two years ago, where sage San Antonio took the first two games before succumbing to the athletic wiles of the young Thunder. These Spurs are different, equipped with better veteran depth and Kawhi Leonard, one of the most promising young forwards in the game. The Thunder are worse on paper, with James Harden in Houston and Ibaka and Jackson toughing their way through injuries.
But the result is looking eerily similar.
Westbrook, as locked in as he's been all season long, scored 40 points and had 10 assists. He also picked up five steals, overwhelming Tony Parker and Danny Green with relentless quickness. Parker had 14 points and was not able to control the paint the way he did early in the series. Green, a hero in Games 1 and 2, managed only three points on 1-of-4 shooting.
"I think that's to my advantage," Westbrook told reporters of his speed before the game. "At my position, my advantage is my size, my quickness and being bigger than my opponents, so I've got to use it to my advantage. Be smart about it, but use it to my advantage."
Taking cues from their frenetic All-Star, the Thunder held San Antonio to 39.8-percent shooting, including 9-of-27 from three. In two games at Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Spurs failed to consistently knock down long-range shots after unleashing a 45-percent barrage from deep at home.
Manu Ginobili struggled his way to five points after single-handedly keeping the Spurs in Game 3. San Antonio also got off-nights from Leonard and Tim Duncan, the latter of whom uncharacteristically showed demonstrative signs of frustration with teammates and Gregg Popovich. While they battled back for a respectable finish, the Spurs were down by as many as 27 in the second half and Popovich went to his bench lineup for the entire fourth quarter.
The Spurs' issues weren't only on the offensive end. Oklahoma City shot 48.7 percent overall and got to the free-throw line 31 times compared to San Antonio's 22.
Jackson scored only three points as he hobbled around with a sprained ankle and Ibaka had nine, concentrating mostly on rim protection. Jeremy Lamb, Caron Butler and Steven Adams chipped in a bit, as the bench totaled 20 points.
But when you have Durant and Westbrook going like they were Tuesday, there is no better one-two punch in basketball.
Westbrook may have played his best two-way game of the season. Getting out in transition and resisting the urge to take the ill-advised shots frequently characteristic of the first two games, the playoffs' most polarizing figure finished with his second-most points in a regulation playoff game and a double-double to boot. He assaulted the San Antonio defense with a series of pick-and-rolls and isolations, getting easy shots near the rim or firing bullet passes to teammates.
This was the very best version of Westbrook, wild and uncontainable, flying all over the floor in ways impossible to predict. Westbrook is a basketball blitzkrieg when he's this engaged.
So good was Westbrook that he somehow overshadowed the league MVP who had a brilliant outing of his own. A night after LeBron James flexed and loudly reminded everyone he's the world's best player, Durant put on a shooting tour de force in the first half.
Twenty-two of Durant's 31 points came in the opening 24 minutes, as he made nine of his first 11 shot attempts. Durant and Westbrook played as solid of a two-man game as they have in these playoffs, with Scott Brooks finally acquiescing to all the calls for pick-and-rolls between his two best players. The result, as expected, was pretty great.
Durant largely took a back seat in the second half as his stroke cooled, but still had his first 30-point game of the series. Leonard had done a stellar job of locking Durant down for the first three games, keeping his scoring totals even lower than Tony Allen did in Round 1. It will be interesting to see when the series shifts to Texas whether Leonard gets back into a groove or if Durant has recaptured his rhythm for good.
The Spurs in general will need to hope heading back to San Antonio yields a return to form. Throw all the cliches about "veteran leadership" out the window. Everyone in that locker room sees the glaring parallels between 2012 and this year—it's impossible not to. The Spurs have lost nine straight times in Oklahoma City, the longest such streak of the Popovich era.
With the specter of Game 6 back in Oklahoma City, expect a lot of "must-win" talk coming into Thursday night. Another loss for the Spurs may foreshadow the parallels morphing from conjecture to reality.
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