Scott Brooks comes to the realization that he has to do this all over again on Saturday (Getty Images)
Oklahoma City Thunder 102, San Antonio Spurs 82 (Spurs lead series, 2-1)
There is a risk that you run denigrating both sides, two proud and driven and talented squads, by pointing out that one of the teams kind of gave up on what made it great, making it easier for the other side to win. But San Antonio's lack of in-game adjustments in Game 3 allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to force their way back into this series, taking the Spurs out of their pick and roll bread and butter (delicious), forcing bad spacing, gagging the paint when necessary, and taking advantage as the Spurs more or less let the Thunder dictate the terms of engagement.
Which wasn't a bummer, because it was fantastic to watch the Thunder come alive in front of that home crowd. Mind you, it wasn't the finest of nights offensively for Oklahoma City, piling up 102 points and nearly doubling the Spurs up in the paint mainly because they had so many misses to run out on after the Spurs clanged away, but the team's dedication to aggressive defense was enough to make the difference, and leave you giddy for a Game 4 full of adjustments to the adjustments to the adjustments spurred on by a thunderous batch of adjustments.
It was reminiscent of Oklahoma City's strong start to this series, a Game 1 attack that saw the team force 14 first half turnovers against a Spurs team that was coming off of a week of rest and two weeks of relatively less than stellar competition from the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. Forcing the Spurs into far more isolation sets after picked up dribbles and initial options that went nowhere, Oklahoma City this time caused 21 turnovers in total as San Antonio more or less conceded with its starters in the third quarter, and its reserves in the fourth.
Not a knock on the Thunder, but after a while it looked like even the proud and focused Spurs seemed ready to lose. Ready to wipe that silly slate clean, and get back to one game at a time. Ready to hunker down to see where it all went wrong, and make up for it. Pray for Oklahoma City, friends.
Finally, after begging that was in place even before the series started (when most assumed that this would be the smartest move for the Thunder, just not confident in the idea that Scott Brooks would sign off on it), long-armed defensive guard Thabo Sefolosha (who played nearly 37 of the game's first 43 minutes before the benches were emptied) switched over to guard Tony Parker, and finally nearly doubled Derek Fisher up in minutes played. We have no idea why it took until the third game in the series for Brooks to adopt a strategy that was a clear game-shifter from the outset, but the results were fantastic — five turnovers for Parker, who made half his shots but struggled to find clear looks at the hoop. Six steals and a whole lot of defensive havoc that went behind the box score (I hate it when movies do that) for Sefolosha.
Just as significant but perhaps without as much potential for permanence was the way Oklahoma City switched, instead of just showing and recovering, on most screen and rolls. This left the Thunder bigs to deal with San Antonio guards quite a bit, and while it worked well in Game 3 (Kendrick Perkins was in some sort of angry zen mind-meld of a state) we're not entirely sure this is a strategy OKC should continue employing as a rule.
Chat shows might look at Russell Westbrook's nine assists and the fact that he took nine fewer shots in Game 3 than he put up in Game 2, but this really was all about the defense. San Antonio made just 39 percent of its shots, the spacing was gone, those 21 turnovers and heaps of missed looks made it so Westbrook had his pick of the litter in transition, and it should be noted that OKC's offense wasn't exactly crisp in the half court. Or even in transition.
Often times, Kevin Durant was missed as the ball swung around the perimeter, and he forced a few shots after finally collecting the rock. Overall, the team missed 16 of 22 shots from long range, Westbrook missed 10 of 15 looks and Fisher is 4 for his last 20 over the last nine quarters of action he's taken part in. There's still quite a bit to be worked on that end, though I'm not exactly clear what it is, outside of quicker and smarter decisions with the ball as they move it around.
Scarily, San Antonio knows exactly what to do.
Tim Duncan missed 10 of 15 shots and had just two rebounds (OLD) but blocked five shots (NOT OLD) and mainly clanged all those looks because he was forced into a few bailout shots from the perimeter at the end of the shot clock. Kendrick Perkins also played some terrific defense on the Spurs center, but he was forced into isolation that just isn't San Antonio's forte despite the team's brilliant offense. Probably because the isolation offense isn't their "brilliant offense." Gary Neal and Manu Ginobili won't attempt to break OKC down by their lonesome again in Game 4, which means they're not likely to miss 12 of 16 shots as they did on Thursday night. Twenty-one turnovers, sorry Oklahoma City, just won't happen again — though we enjoyed a desperate Thunder team taking chances.
Which means, once again, the onus is on Scott Brooks. We know that the Spurs, possibly even irrespective of coach Gregg Popovich's instruction, will rebound on their own. They'll find that spacing, they'll re-embrace patience on the offensive end and put the onus on the referees when it comes time to clear the Thunder out with sprightly screens. Which means Brooks, and his young team, will have to figure out a way to both approximate that defensive tenacity we saw in Game 3 and for parts of Game 1, while finding its place within its half court offense.
Even after a 20 point win, one that resulted in extended garbage time in the fourth quarter, all of the pressure is still on Oklahoma City. Something about it being San Antonio's world, as they take in their first loss in 50 days, with all of us just having to live in it.
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