Little by little, it's starting to feel like 2012 all over again.
It's a familiar feeling for Spurs fans, confidence long since having given way to a feeling that's one part dread and another part cautious optimism. Very cautious optimism. To be sure, there are reasons to be hopeful. There are always reasons to be hopeful when talking about a Gregg Popovich production.
Spurs-Thunder tied at 2 games apiece. The Spurs are 10-3 in best-of-7 series when the series is tied 2-2 in the Gregg Popovich era.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 28, 2014
But the momentum that carried San Antonio to wins in Game 1 and 2 is no longer. With Serge Ibaka's return came a flood of collective energy in Oklahoma City.
The Spurs are now in recovery mode.
By now, the difference between wins and losses has less to do with adjustments and more to do with implementing certain elements of the game plan that's existed all season long. It's always possible that Popovich will insert Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup—always a chance he'll mix up defensive looks against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
But by and large, the differences won't be tactical.
The Spurs know how to win. They did it twice already and by wide margins each time. The question is whether they have the fortitude to do it again. This is a team that has to dig deep now, one that can't forget the four straight losses it suffered to this same OKC team in 2012.
Its fans certainly haven't forgotten.
Remembering the Alamo
Over the last three seasons, you could make a pretty good argument that San Antonio has played the best basketball in the world. From regular-season dominance to deep playoff runs, the results largely speak for themselves.
Except for the fact that there's something missing, namely a title.
San Antonio didn't have the killer instinct it needed in 2012, forfeiting a 2-0 series lead against Oklahoma City in the conference finals and watching the Thunder win their next four games en route to an ill-fated confrontation with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
The Spurs may have had that killer instinct a year later, but they got unlucky at the wrong time, ultimately giving away Game 6 of the NBA Finals on account of a missed defensive rebound in the waning moments.
A pessimistic outlook suggests that San Antonio's best opportunity to win Tim Duncan a fifth ring was last season. The Miami Heat were all but beaten. The celebrations had all but commenced. Duncan could have retired a happy—and victorious—man.
Sources of motivation abound for these Spurs.
And yet they somehow flirt with disaster once again. Popovich has no doubt communicated to his troops that now is the time for some more of that "nasty." The biggest remaining question is whether they respond—and how they respond.
San Antonio played with effort in Games 3 and 4, but it also appeared to be pressing. Point guard Tony Parker made three straight turnovers during a crucial second-quarter juncture of Game 3. Shots were rushed in both contests, and the offense became stagnant as the Spurs looked to score individually rather than via the club's vaunted ball movement.
It's not just time to remember the failures that make this opportunity so special. It's time to remember the successes that got this team so far. Replicating those successes will be more pivotal than any single adjustment.
Controlling the "Others"
There's no stopping Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That doesn't mean they'll combine for 71 points again (as they did in Game 4), but there's really nothing San Antonio can do about that other than contest shots and hope for the best.
They can do something about the rest of the Thunder. The Spurs are almost certainly the league's deepest team, a factor that was decisive in the second round against the Portland Trail Blazers. Thus far, however, the supporting cast's contributions against the Thunder have been uneven.
Those contributions shouldn't be measured in points alone. The real test is whether guys like Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills can impact the game on the defensive end as well, getting the better of OKC's "others." The Spurs have the tools to make life difficult for personnel like Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler.
Doing so just became a necessity.
It may even be worth seeing a little more of what Aron Baynes can do against rookie center Steven Adams. Adams had a combined five blocks and 15 rebounds in Games 3 and 4. The Spurs have to match his physicality, and Baynes may be their best chance to do so.
Though he was slowed by a sprained ankle in Game 4, Reggie Jackson has become another factor with whom the Spurs must contend. He had 15 points in Game 3 after being inserted into the starting lineup to replace shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha.
Danny Green is one of the league's better perimeter defenders, but he's fundamentally outmatched by the combined quickness of Westbrook and Jackson. Just as Baynes may be the answer on the interior, it would be interesting to see a few additional minutes of Patty Mills in the backcourt. His quickness and aggressiveness may be the best anecdote against the Thunder's smaller backcourt.
Popovich isn't fond of adjusting his rotation on account of matchups, but he certainly has the assets to do just that.
Taking Better Shots
It's taken the Spurs some time to notice that Serge Ibaka is back in the lineup. It also may not have registered that Steven Adams has a big, active body in his own right. The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater observed the following about the opening moments of Game 3:
In the first half of the first quarter of his first game back from a calf injury, Serge Ibaka rose up and tossed away a Tim Duncan short hook.
But the ball went right back to the Spurs, who swung it around the perimeter and found Danny Green with an open lane to the hoop. Green drove into the teeth of OKC’s defense, spotted Ibaka closing and errantly flung a moonshot finger roll that clanged off the backboard and the side rim.
Statement made. Ibaka was officially back, doing what he’s paid to do: Block shots, alter others, patrol the paint and shield the rim.
San Antonio has the human resources to overcome a dominant interior defender. Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green all have versatile in-between games, replete with floaters and mid-range jumpers. This is a team that can score in a lot of different ways. It just needs to choose the right ones.
The Spurs' system has long been premised on the belief that you have to pass up good shots in order to find great ones. OKC's defense is now putting that conviction to the test. Tony Parker and Co. can't just trust in teammates in some abstract sense. That trust has to manifest itself in crisp, timely passes—just as it has all season long.
It's easier said than done when a number of long arms are trying to disrupt those passes, but it's a foundational element of this club's offense. Without movement of the ball and personnel alike, the Spurs' offense will continue to stagnate for stretches at a time.
The Little Things
San Antonio has always been known for its attention to detail, but the last two games have been characterized by mental lapses and—at times—a general lack of effort.
The Spurs were vastly out-rebounded in Game 3 by a 52-36 margin.
They lost the turnover battle in Game 4 by a 13-7 margin.
But the biggest difference-maker of all has been the free-throw line. In the last two games, the Thunder's attempts outnumber the Spurs' 62-38. The Spurs can't control the officiating, but they certainly know the difference between fouling and playing physically. This team has successfully avoided the former all season long. Now is no time to get lazy defensively.
On the other side of the floor, the Spurs have to be more aggressive—even with Ibaka lurking around the rim. With Ibaka looking to block shots, all it takes are a few well-timed pump fakes to draw fouls on the 24 year old. That may be the best way to mitigate his impact on the game, and it will require Parker and Ginobili to consistently take the ball to the hoop and create contact.
These are the little things that win huge ballgames.
They decide who goes on runs, who maintains momentum and who dictates the tempo of the game. Though the Spurs may be outmatched athletically and on the wrong side of momentum, they're still capable of doing all those little things.
They still have a very real chance to prevent recent history from repeating itself.