For a series that has featured exactly zero games decided by less than nine points and one that actually finished as a 35-point San Antonio Spurs victory, the Western Conference Finals has been something of a roller-coaster ride for NBA fans.
The back-and-forth nature of the first four games between the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder has left us with a 2-2 tie and a game of hot potato with the overall momentum.
Here is a look at the remaining schedule for the thrilling series:
|Thursday, May 29||Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs, Game 5||9 p.m.||TNT|
|Saturday, May 31||San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder, Game 6||8:30 p.m.||TNT|
|Monday, June 2||Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs, Game 7 *||9 p.m.||TNT|
ESPN.com (*if necessary)
The Spurs won the first two at home, and the Thunder responded by holding serve and answering with two home victories of their own. Russell Westbrook absolutely dominated Game 4 on Tuesday with 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals, and NBA on ESPN captured the highlights:
However, more than just the location and Westbrook's efficiency numbers have changed during the third and fourth games as compared to the first two.
Serge Ibaka, who was originally ruled out of the playoffs due to injury, returned for the two contests in Oklahoma City and posted combined totals of 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks on 10-of-15 shooting from the field. His presence alone has helped the Thunder tremendously on the defensive end, as he has altered even more shots than he blocked.
With Ibaka in tow, Oklahoma City suddenly looks like the team that won all four against the Spurs in the regular season.
If recent history is any indication, the Thunder will ultimately prevail, via SportsCenter:
Thunder are 4-0 in playoff series when tied 2-2 since 2011, including the 2012 Western Conference Finals vs. Spurs. pic.twitter.com/WlGGVhx0Zn— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 28, 2014
Still, it is worth keeping in mind that even though the Thunder look completely dominant right now, the Spurs actually don't need to win a single game in Oklahoma City to capture this series. As long as they take care of business in Games 5 and 7 in San Antonio, they will return to the NBA Finals for a likely rematch with LeBron James and company.
In order to do that, though, San Antonio needs to find a way to deal with Oklahoma City's athleticism and speed, which has allowed the Thunder to convert on plenty of easy transition opportunities because of their stifling defense. ESPN Stats & Info and Cassidy Hubbarth of ESPN pointed out just how bad the first half of Game 4 was in this department for the Spurs:
Transition points: Thunder 22, Spurs 0— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 28, 2014
Per @ESPNStatsInfo the Spurs have not had a single transition PLAY... Not just points...they haven't even had a play in transition— Cassidy Hubbarth (@CassidyHubbarth) May 28, 2014
However, there is reason for concern along the athleticism front for the Thunder, as Kevin Ding of Turner Sports noted:
OKC's Reggie Jackson (ankle), while inching toward postgame shower, literally had to reach for cameraman's stepladder to keep from falling.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) May 28, 2014
Health may start to be a concern for Oklahoma City between Ibaka and Reggie Jackson as the series progresses and continues to take a physical toll.
For the Spurs' part, they are already looking ahead, as Tony Parker noted in the aftermath of Game 4, according to the Yahoo Sports: "We're just going to have to play better, bottom line. We didn't play well here. Now all we can control is Game 5."
This veteran-laden group understands what it has to do. Between Parker, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the Spurs, they will figure out a way to attack the Thunder defense that has locked down the paint with Ibaka.
Expect the Spurs to look for some open threes early in Game 5 just to get some initial momentum. Parker can create with penetration and suck Ibaka and wing defenders in, which will open up shooters on the outside. If nothing else, the familiar shooting backdrop of San Antonio will help Thursday.
We are talking about two of the best home teams in the entire league. San Antonio finished 32-9 in front of its fans in the regular season while the Thunder countered at 34-7. Each squad has proven itself at home time and again, and the pattern will continue as the Spurs make the necessary adjustments in Game 5 and the Thunder respond with an emotional performance in Game 6.
How does the series end?
That will force a decisive Game 7, which seems like the appropriate way for this series to end.
The veteran leadership, home-court advantage and health concerns from the Thunder front will be just enough to carry the Spurs to the Western Conference crown. They know how to move on from one game to the next better than almost anyone in sports, thanks to Popovich, and the eggs they laid in Oklahoma City will ultimately not matter.
The Spurs will in all likelihood need to win on the road in the NBA Finals at some point, though, to capture the crown.
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