Fans have been waiting all series long to see an instant classic in the Western Conference Finals, but it was all worth it after Saturday night's thriller between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs in Game 6. The Spurs prevailed, 112-107, in overtime to win their sixth Western Conference title.
The game was competitive throughout, but it's the last minute of regulation and overtime period that will be remembered the most.
With 58 seconds to go, Kevin Durant hit two free throws to tie the game at 97-97.
ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton thought the officials should've erred on the side of caution, because a goaltending call at that stage of the game would've been reviewable:
Referees have to call a close play like that a goaltend, because it's only reviewable if called on the floor.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) June 1, 2014
After a Durant layup gave the Thunder a 99-97 lead with 32 seconds left, Ginobili answered back with a three-pointer, putting the Spurs up, 100-99.
Ginobili then had a chance to make it a three-point game at the free-throw line but sunk only one of his two foul shots. That allowed Russell Westbrook to tie the game with two free throws at the other end.
With the game knotted at 101-101, Ginobili took the final shot of regulation, but his jumper hit back iron and bounced out. Tim Duncan tipped the ball back in, but it came well after the buzzer.
That pushed the game into overtime, which was the Thunder's fifth overtime game of the postseason. They were 1-3 heading into Saturday, per ESPN Stats and Info:
This is the 5th OT game the Thunder will play this postseason (1-3 thus far)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 1, 2014
OKC's stars started showing major signs of fatigue in OT. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Reggie Jackson had played most of the game up to that point, and they simply ran out of gas.
This game simultaneously illustrated the Spurs' biggest strength and the Thunder's biggest weakness.
San Antonio can spread the wealth so well that even when Duncan and Ginobili aren't at their best, the next guys in line step up. Tony Parker even missed the whole second half with a nagging ankle injury, but the Spurs surged over the final two quarters and arguably should've wrapped the game up in regulation.
Duncan played well, scoring 19 points and grabbing 15 boards for the 155th postseason double-double of his career, ESPN Stats and Info noted puts him close to all-time playoff greatness:
Tim Duncan (SA): 155th career playoff double-double, 2 shy of tying Magic Johnson for most all-time (ELIAS)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 1, 2014
The night really belonged to Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard, though. Diaw led the Spurs in scoring with 26 points, while Leonard added 17 in the absence of Parker. Leonard also made key stops on the defensive end late in the game.
The Thunder, on the other hand, got precious few contributions from outside their key four players. Other than Ibaka, Durant, Westbrook and Jackson, the only OKC player to score was Derek Fisher, who had five points.
Durant finished with 31 and Westbrook added 34, but in the postseason, that kind of concentrated scoring won't cut it, as ESPN's Bill Simmons posited:
OKC is basically trying to make the Finals with 4 guys because they can't count on anyone else. I'm gonna say this can't work.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) June 1, 2014
Things were looking good for OKC in the first half, but it also had its fair share of warning signs.
Defensively, the Thunder had one of their best halves of the playoffs. They held the Spurs to 42 points, which was their lowest first-half output of the postseason.
Leonard led the team with nine points, while Duncan and Parker had eight points apiece.
As a team, San Antonio shot 14-of-38 from the field, including 4-of-18 from three-point range. Starting Matt Bonner wasn't working out as planned. The veteran forward missed four of his five shots in the first half.
CBSSports.com's Matt Moore singled out Westbrook for his often overlooked contributions on the defensive end. There's no question that when the Thunder star puts his mind to it, he can be an elite perimeter defender:
Tenth time this postseason, ill say it again. We need to talk more about Russ' improvement on defense.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) June 1, 2014
Despite everything that went right, OKC's offensive performance raised plenty of red flags.
A total of four players combined to score the team's 49 first-half points, per Royce Young of the Daily Thunder:
All 49 of the Thunder's points came from Durant, Westbrook, Jackson and Ibaka.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) June 1, 2014
Against a team as good as San Antonio, that kind of star-heavy scoring output is unsustainable.
The entire bench only attempted (and missed) four shots, shown here by NBA on ESPN:
It was only the fourth time all season that a team finished the first half without a single bench point, per ESPN Stats and Info:
Thunder: 0 bench points at halftime. 4th time this season a team had 0 bench points at halftime (1st by the Thunder)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 1, 2014
Westbrook and Durant are two of the best players in the league, while Jackson and Ibaka are solid complementary players. But sooner or later, the Thunder needed to have somebody else step up. The Spurs were bound to improve offensively, and when that happened, OKC risked getting left behind.
Oklahoma City received a big boost to start the second half, though, when it was announced that Parker would be out with left ankle soreness. That forced Cory Joseph to take on more minutes, which represented a severe downgrade at the point-guard position for San Antonio.
Coincidentally enough, Joseph spoke before Game 6 about how he was ready to step up at a moment's notice if necessary, per Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News:
It’s very important. I’ve been doing it basically all year, you know, just preparing myself behind the scenes, doing stuff for myself, you know, working out, staying ready for whenever my name is called because Pop is known to call on guys, going deep into his bench whenever things aren’t going right and whatnot. I just try and be ready.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is no stranger to resting his players whenever the opportunity arises, and he likely weighed the long-term benefits of sitting Parker against the short-term risk of possibly aggravating the ankle injury and hurting San Antonio's chances in a potential Game 7.
SB Nation's Mike Prada wondered, though, if making a move like that made sense in what was still a very close game at the time:
It’s a seven-point game. If Parker is somewhat playable, why not play him?— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) June 1, 2014
It all worked out in the end.
Of course, with the Spurs being the Spurs, they found a way to stay competitive without their All-Star point guard. Leonard stepped up, scoring eight points in the third quarter. Diaw also started finding his shot.
Before you knew it, a dunk from Leonard with 8:48 to go in the third tied the game at 51-51. Diaw gave the Spurs a 56-54 lead with a three-pointer a little over a minute later.
Making matters worse, Westbrook picked up his fourth foul with 4:10 to go and the Thunder holding on to a 63-62 advantage, per NBA on ESPN:
Thunder are up 63-62, but Russell Westbrook just picked up his 4th foul with 4:10 left in the 3rd, followed by a T on Scott Brooks.— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 1, 2014
Over the next four minutes and 10 seconds, the Spurs outscored OKC, 17-6, to grab a 79-69 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The third culminated with a four-point play from Danny Green.
Durant committed the foul, closing out what had been an awful third frame for the reigning MVP, which Bleacher Report's Howard Beck pointed out:
Kevin Durant had 5 turnovers in the third qtr, in addition to that foul on Green's 3-ptr. Spurs lead 79-69 going to fourth.— Howard Beck (@HowardBeck) June 1, 2014
San Antonio's ball movement was spectacular in the quarter and all the more impressive when you consider it didn't have the services of Parker. Spurs players were moving the Thunder all over the floor with quick passes and penetration. In turn, Diaw, Bonner, Green or Leonard got excellent open looks at the basket.
As a result of that great ball movement, the Spurs long-range shooting did a complete 180, per ESPN's J.A. Adande:
After Spurs shot 4 of 18 on 3s in 1st half they made 4 of 6 in 3Q— J.A. Adande (@jadande) June 1, 2014
The Spurs did just enough to keep a sizable cushion between themselves and the Thunder for most of the fourth quarter. San Antonio was particularly having a lot of success with its high screens:
Thunder are switch high screens, and the Spurs are welcoming the mismatch of Fisher on Diaw.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) June 1, 2014
In the final six minutes, though, OKC slowly chipped away at what was a 91-82 deficit.
Fisher hit a three to make it a six-point game, and after two more points from Diaw, Ibaka, Westbrook and Durant each hit a bucket to close the gap to two, 93-91, with 4:01 left in the contest.
Westbrook is known as a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of player, and for the majority of Game 6, he was very, very good. But as the Thunder were looking to take their first lead of the fourth quarter, his two turnovers cost the team dearly, essentially canceling out his effectiveness during that stretch, as noted by Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
Russ follows two great defensive plays with two turnovers.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) June 1, 2014
Westbrook made up for it a few possessions later when he picked off a pass by Green that led to a fast-break bucket, which cut the Spurs' lead to 97-95 and was a precursor to the frantic final minutes.
The Spurs will meet the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals for the second year in a row. Last year's Finals were classic, so nobody outside of Oklahoma is going to complain about seeing a rematch. San Antonio was one Ray Allen three-pointer away from winning, too, so Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Co. will like their chances of bringing home the Larry O'Brien Trophy this year.
For the Thunder, the future is very much uncertain. Head coach Scott Brooks has come under considerable criticism in the postseason, so he may not keep his job much longer. What's at least known is that Durant and Westbrook need a better supporting cast. The Thunder can't win a title when only four players are contributing meaningful minutes.