Thunder Need Perfect Performance to Beat Dominant Spurs in Conference Finals

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2014

USA Today

They've done it with offense. They've done it with defense. After a lopsided 112-77 victory, the San Antonio Spurs have taken a 2-0 lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs haven't had a decipherable star in the series. Their advantage has been versatility, their ability to win with someone different taking the lead every night. In Game 1, Tim Duncan scored early and often, finishing with 27 points and establishing a decisive advantage on the interior.

On Wednesday night, the co-stars were Tony Parker and Danny Green, who combined for 43 points. The latter nailed seven three-pointers from all over the floor in a shooting display that was reminiscent of his explosions in Games 3 and 5 of last season's NBA Finals.

Head coach Gregg Popovich talked to reporters about Green after the game (per TNT's coverage), saying, "He became a little bit more aggressive so that he could play at the defensive end also, but I think his confidence grew shooting-wise, and he gets a lot of the credit for where he is right now."

The Spurs deserve a lot of the credit, too. The organization has turned an ensemble cast of solid players into perennial title contenders, and they currently stand in the way of a hungry, young and very talented team. The dominance they've displayed thus far has its roots in the foundation Popovich has laid, the fact that San Antonio plays a selfless brand of basketball that allows guys like Green to go off in any given game.

That much has been well-documented.

It certainly hasn't hurt that Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili have long set a tone for this franchise. Their win in Game 2 set a record for most playoff wins by a star trio.

This much is becoming increasingly clear: these Spurs aren't going to beat themselves. They're going to find a way unless Oklahoma City can string together four virtually perfect games. San Antonio is simply too deep and too well-oiled to succumb to anything less.

Easier said than done, of course.

But doable. 

The Thunder still boast an MVP. They still have one of the most dynamic point guards in the league. Even without power forward Serge Ibaka, this team is capable of knocking the Spurs off their game. It may take some adjustments, and it will certainly take a better effort.

But it could happen...right?

Can History Repeat Itself?

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks told reporters after Game 2 (according to TNT's coverage) that, "We're disappointed in our performance. We have to make a few adjustments and come back better." 

OKC will have to come back much better. And it has some experience to draw upon in the process, experience against these same San Antonio Spurs no less. 

Back in 2012, the Thunder were similarly down 2-0 to the Spurs before winning the next four games to take the series and advance to the NBA Finals. Kevin Durant's superstar credentials rose to the forefront in that series. 

He scored 36 points in Game 4 and another 34 in Game 6. He proved that he wasn't too young to put a team on his back and will it to an improbable series comeback. He proved that one of these days he would be in the running for that whole MVP thing.

And now here he is, with something more to prove still.

Durant scored 15 points in 29 minutes in Game 2, cashing in on just 6-of-16 field-goal attempts en route to a fourth quarter spent sitting on the bench. Give Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs' defense credit. They haven't made life easy for Durant.

But the bigger problem is that neither Durant nor sidekick Russell Westbrook is getting his points in the flow of the offense. More often than not, they're forcing up contested jumpers, hoping that their sheer collective talent will suffice.

It hasn't.

If the Thunder are going to repeat their 2012 series comeback, the ball will have to start moving. Durant and Westbrook should undoubtedly take the majority of shots, but they still have to let the offense come to them. If they get better looks, they could turn this series around—even without significant help from their supporting cast.

All the same, there are important differences between this series and its 2012 iteration.

Serge Ibaka is missing in action on account of a calf injury, and that puts a serious crimp in OKC's ability to shut down the paint without collapsing the entire defense. As Royce Young wrote in a special to ESPN.com after Game 1:

The Thunder have been an elite defensive team the past few seasons, largely by deploying a simple scheme that attacks pick-and-rolls aggressively, understanding that there's help waiting at the rim. Get beat? No problem. That's basically just a block assist for Ibaka, teeing him up to send one into the third row.

The Thunder are also missing James Harden this time around. That's nothing new, but it's a game changer in terms of this squad's ability to recover from a 2-0 deficit.

Harden made over 49 percent of his field-goal attempts during the 2012 series, serving as an all-important third scorer and easing the pressure on Durant and Westbrook to do it all. He made over 60 percent of his three-point attempts in that series, spacing the floor and sinking dagger after dagger.

The Thunder no longer have the luxury of overwhelming star power. They can't rely on talent alone this time. They have to instead utilize a team-oriented offense that keeps the Spurs off balance. Among all the adjustments Brooks makes in advance of Game 3, that will be priority No. 1.

Proof of the need for more ball movement? Just count the assists. Through the first two games, San Antonio has a combined 55 assists. The Thunder have just 37.

No Margin for Error

When it comes to mistakes, the Spurs are a model of sound execution. They don't make many of them, and they'll readily capitalize on those made by others.

The Thunder have turned the ball over 30 times in the first two games of the series. San Antonio has turned it over just 21 times over that span. The Spurs have been quicker to loose balls, too. They out-rebounded the Thunder 53-38 in Game 2 and again by a slimmer margin in Game 1.

The Thunder have to play harder, and they have to play smarter. More than any Xs and Os, this is a team that just has to be better about executing it's game plan—doing the little things that differentiate very good teams from those that are ready to win a title. 

You can rest assured Brooks will be hammering home that message between now and Game 3 on Sunday.

Per ESPN.com, he told reporters after Game 2, "It definitely doesn't feel good and it shouldn't. I hope our locker doesn't feel good. You shouldn't feel good. We got our butts kicked. But we have a good opportunity to come back and win Game 3."

It will take every bit of motivation Brooks can muster for this team to play a game of mistake-free basketball—much less four mistake-free games.

Teams are going to miss shots. They're going to turn the ball over, especially given the pace at which OKC likes to play. There's obviously no such thing as a perfect game.

But the Thunder will have to flirt with something very close to just that.

Thin as their margin for error may be, their ability to live without help from the supporting cast is even more tenuous. After combining for 30 inefficient points in Game 2, we're almost guaranteed to see better performances out of Durant and Westbrook.

It's everyone else's performances that will make the difference, though. Derek Fisher had four three-pointers in Game 1. He had just two points on Wednesday night. 

Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler have made contributions, but they haven't emerged as consistently reliable third and fourth scoring options. On paper, this team has enough depth to give San Antonio a run for its money. In theory, this team has more than enough talent to keep games close even without Ibaka around.

But in practice, the energy and execution just haven't been there. 

The Thunder were still very much in Game 2 halfway through the second quarter. But when it came to closing the quarter out, some combination of error and insufficient effort led to a 14-point halftime lead for the Spurs. 

The biggest mistakes of all have been on the defensive end, where slow or nonexistent rotations have allowed Danny Green to get whatever he wants on the perimeter. At this point, the Thunder should be watching tape of the Dallas Mavericks from Round 1. 

Green averaged just 7.1 points in the series and didn't break double-digits until Game 6.

Adjustment Period

Brooks and Co. will spend plenty of time searching for solutions for the remainder of this series. Some changes may indeed be in order. Perhaps inserting Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup will help. Maybe getting Steven Adams into the game a little sooner will raise OKC's energy level.

But it bears remembering that the Thunder led by two points after the first quarter. The problem certainly wasn't a slow start.

It's also worth remembering that this team won its four regular-season games against the Spurs doing business as usual. By all accounts, OKC had long ago discovered a formula for rendering San Antonio a merely mortal opponent.

So putting the onus on Brooks to solve this particular riddle may be premature. This team knows how to win. 

The question is whether it's proud enough to do so, whether it can put aside the Ibaka injury and two blowouts and focus on implementing that winning formula. It won't be easy.

Perfection never is.


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