The San Antonio Spurs left Texas with a 2-0 series lead and visions of an NBA Finals rematch with the Miami Heat dancing in their heads, but the Oklahoma City Thunder delivered a pair of counterpunches at home to knot the best-of-seven tilt at 2-2.
|5||Thursday, May 29||9 p.m. ET||TNT||San Antonio|
|6||Saturday, May 31||8:30 p.m. ET||TNT||Oklahoma City|
|7 (if necessary)||Monday, June 2||9 p.m. ET||TNT||San Antonio|
In Game 2, no one other than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook generated any offense, and OKC got routed after allowing a 43-14 run as Danny Green nailed seven three-pointers. Green told the Associated Press after the game, "Manu [Ginobili] said it's a dangerous win but I believe in our group. I believe that we have the maturity, the character and the experience to stay focused and not take this win to head."
Evidently, they did not have the character and experience sufficient to account for the return of OKC starting power forward Serge Ibaka, who injured his calf in Game 6 of the conference semis. Without Ibaka, the Thunder looked like toast in San Antonio, getting outscored 120-74 in the paint through two games.
|1||May 19||Spurs||122-105||San Antonio|
|2||May 21||Spurs||112-77||San Antonio|
|3||May 25||Thunder||106-97||Oklahoma City|
|4||May 27||Thunder||105-92||Oklahoma City|
Thunder coach Scott Brooks had insisted to reporters that Ibaka was done for the remainder of the postseason, stating on May 19, via Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski: "He's not coming through those doors. … He's not coming back."
Perhaps Ibaka possesses a superhuman pain threshold, or the Thunder pulled a rope-a-dope. Regardless, the result is undeniable, and—while the old adage holds true that no series starts until the home team loses—the Thunder have now seized all the momentum, plus they still have the league's MVP and leading scorer in Durant at their disposal.
Ibaka's presence effected a sea change over OKC's offense in Game 3. He poured in 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 30 minutes. In the first two games, starters other than Durant and Westbrook had combined for just nine points between them.
Not only did Ibaka's abilities from the mid-range space the Thunder's offense and stretch the Spurs defense, but Tony Parker could no longer proceed to the rim with ease. It's no coincidence that OKC scored more points in the paint in both wins, the only two games Ibaka played in the series.
Thunder have won their last 7 games against the Spurs in which Serge Ibaka has played.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 28, 2014
However, the remainder of the series will be about more than just Ibaka's presence. The Spurs must pull themselves off the canvas after getting stunned in Game 4.
As noted by USA Today's Sam Amick, a debate began on press row during the third quarter of Game 4. The subject: "Has Gregg Popovich ever looked so mad?" The unrelenting coach pulled his starters off the court for good midway through the third quarter, and those venerated Spurs watched Westbrook put the finishing touches on one of the finest games of his career: 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, five steals.
Even the Spurs' experienced veterans appeared variously disconsolate and unhinged. Parker stared catatonically at the blowout from the bench, while Tim Duncan nearly blew a gasket in the third quarter following yet another defensive lapse for San Antonio.
As Amick phrased it, the Spurs "had every reason to be angry, not to mention worried."
The worry on the mind of every Spurs fan is a repeat of 2012, when the Thunder and James Harden's beard stormed back from an 0-2 deficit to win four straight and claim the conference title.
Who will win the series?
It's now a best-of-three series, and two of the games come in San Antonio. Of the Spurs' six losses this postseason, only one came at home, and they went 32-9 at AT&T Center during the season. Not to mention, the Spurs owned the NBA's best road record at 30-11.
However, the Thunder pose serious matchup problems for San Antonio, as proved when they swept the season series by controlling the pace with their faster, younger players.
The Spurs' team assist total has steadily declined in each game: 28, 27, 22, 17. They have to move the ball better in Game 5 and play hot potato to generate the high-percentage looks their offense thrives on. They must also limit OKC on the fast break after getting dominated 21-0 in that category in Game 4.
Popovich will surely excoriate his charges during the travel day, and another home victory would put them back in the driver's seat. The series appears destined to go seven games, and the Spurs will prevail by an eyelash thanks to their experience, greater depth and superior coaching.