Those deja vu feelings are starting to haunt San Antonio Spurs fans. The Oklahoma City Thunder tied the series on Tuesday night with a 105-92 victory against Gregg Popovich's typically well-oiled machine.
Thunder Roll! OKC wins Game 4, 105-92 to even series with Spurs. Russell Westbrook drops 40 w/ 10 Ast + 5 Stl. pic.twitter.com/wYS95YC6uM— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 28, 2014
Thunder beat the Spurs 105-92 to even the series 2-2. Westbrook 40-5-10 and 5 steals, Durant 31-5-5 and 3 steals, Ibaka 9-8 and 3 blocks.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) May 28, 2014
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 71 points, 15 assists and eight steels. It was hard to tell which one was the MVP in Game 4. This was the Thunder at its very best, a one-two punch that's good enough to knock out any contender.
Meanwhile, the Spurs again struggled to get their offense rolling. After scoring 122 and 112 points in Games 1 and 2 respectively, San Antonio posted 97 and 92 points on the road in Games 3 and 4. Serge Ibaka's return may be one of the chief difference-makers, but there's little doubt Oklahoma City's overall defensive effort has been much-improved.
The opposite could be said of San Antonio's.
The Spurs held the Thunder to just 77 points in Game 2, but have given up an average of 105.5 points over the last two games. Popovich has openly lamented his team's defensive output, telling media after Game 3, "I thought our defense in the first half was the poorest we've played all year."
Can the Spurs return to form in time to regain control of the series? Or, will the Thunder continue to storm past the team it once trailed 2-0?
Seeds: Oklahoma City Thunder, No. 2; San Antonio Spurs, No. 1
Series: Tied, 2-2
Schedule: Game 5, Thursday, May 29, 9:00 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 6, Saturday, May 31, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 7*, Monday, June 2, 9:00 p.m. ET (TNT)
*= if necessary
Key Storyline for Oklahoma City Thunder
Serge Ibaka has changed the complexion of the series in short order. San Antonio dominated the painted area in Games 1 and 2, but Oklahoma City has flipped the script in Games 3 and 4. Playing in Oklahoma might have had a little something to do with the reversal of fortune, but the more obvious factor is Ibaka.
The 24-year-old has seven combined blocks since returning to the playoffs in Game 3.
During that span, he's also tallied a combined 24 points and 15 rebounds. On the offensive end, Ibaka helps space the floor with his ability to strike from mid-range. At his best, he's also capable of serving as the Thunder's third option and taking some of the pressure off Durant and Westbrook to do all the damage.
More importantly, though, Ibaka has been a difference-maker on the defensive end. Beyond his blocked shots, he's altered others and generally served as a deterrent in the paint.
Ibaka's presence was felt immediately in Game 3. After averaging 60 points in the paint through Games 1 and 2, the Spurs scored just 40 in Game 3. That trend continued in Game 4, with the Spurs collecting just 36 points in the paint.
If the Spurs can't solve their Ibaka problem, it may be awfully difficult for San Antonio to post the kind of offensive numbers it put up in Games 1 and 2. It's still too soon to count Popovich's team out, especially with Game 5 in San Antonio. Nevertheless, the odds have changed significantly on account of Ibaka's return.
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
With or without points in the paint, the Spurs may live or die by the three-pointer in this series. In Games 1 and 2, shooting guard Danny Green made a combined 11-of-15 three-point attempts. Since then, he's been just 4-for-16 from the field.
Though Manu Ginobili initially picked up the slack with a 20-point first half in Game 3, San Antonio's famed sixth man was just 2-for-8 from the field in Game 4.
Something's got to give for San Antonio to pull this out. The shooters will have to find their range sooner rather than later. They could use some help from Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli, two deep threats who were kept under wraps in Oklahoma City.
The Spurs made 39.7 percent of their three-point attempts this season, the best mark in the league. Though there's little doubt Popovich would like to see the offense flow inside-out, OKC's stiff interior defense may alter that formula.
San Antonio's hit-or-miss bombers must be firing on all cylinders in Game 5.
It's entirely possible that Durant and Westbrook could yield more explosive output in Game 5, but the supporting cast will remain a pivotal insurance policy. OKC needs someone to continue stepping up. That could be Ibaka. It could be Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and/or Derek Fisher. Whether it's having a big game or getting an assortment of timely buckets, the Thunder need everyone pitching in.
Though it might seem otherwise, this team can't live on Durant and Westbrook alone.
OKC also needs continued defensive contributions from rookie Steven Adams. He's outplayed starter Kendrick Perkins, racking up four blocks and nine rebounds in Game 3.
Meanwhile, San Antonio's X-factor is Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental dropped 27 points in Game 1, and he may be the Spurs' best chance of getting easy baskets going forward. Though Ibaka has made his life more difficult, Duncan's skills in the post are San Antonio's best hope of getting OKC's bigs into some foul trouble and opening up the paint a little bit.
Just as importantly, San Antonio needs Duncan to really exert himself on the glass. The same goes for Tiago Splitter. San Antonio was out-rebounded by a 52-36 margin in Game 3.
Key Matchup: Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker
Westbrook's 40 points in Game 4 made him the man to watch going forward. Durant's contributions have become a given, but containing Westbrook has proven equally difficult. The Spurs will have to defend him collectively, keeping him away from his preferred spots and—more importantly—keeping him out of the paint.
That job is too big for Tony Parker, so look for plenty of help from Danny Green and other perimeter defenders.
Parker, meanwhile, has yet to have a signature game in the series. His 22 points in Game 2 marked his best outing thus far, but he's only averaging 14.8 points in his four postseason games against the Thunder.
The last two games are the real cause for worry. Parker didn't get to the free-throw line in either contest. Though we was solid in Game 4, he was just 4-for-13 from the field in Game 3.
Parker's production is key, but his aggressiveness also sets the tone for San Antonio's offense. His ability to penetrate is unmatched on the roster, and he's also the key to the team's ball movement. Since his 12 assists in Game 1, Parker hasn't had more than five assists in any of the three subsequent games.
The Spurs came away with two big wins at home, and that's where they'll be playing for in Game 5. But the Thunder have a couple of things going for them now: Serge Ibaka and all the momentum. The Spurs will be looking at this at a must-win situation, so they should come out strong.
But right now it's hard to see how San Antonio's offense can recover against a physical, more athletic foe. The Thunder are long, quick and full of energy. The Spurs have been on their heels, overwhelmed in Game 4 by transition buckets and star power.
All signs are pointing to Game 5 being the closest game of the series. Both sides will have had ample opportunity to make adjustments. Both sides will be awfully hungry for a win.
In the end, the Thunder may just be too good. Impressive as San Antonio's system has been for the last several seasons, the reliance on ball movement can be dangerous against a team so adept at shutting down passing and driving lanes.
San Antonio's ensemble basketball has been a thing of beauty to watch, but it may have met its match in the MVP and his oh-so valuable sidekick.
Prediction: Thunder defeat Spurs, 99-94