During a timeout in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinal series between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, ESPN's cameras trained in on the Spurs' bench. In the heat of a nip-and-tuck battle that would break the tie the Thunder achieved by winning an insane Game 2, the man leading San Antonio's huddle wasn't legendary coach Gregg Popovich; it was point guard Tony Parker.
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"I just wanted to make sure everybody knows what we're doing," Parker said later. "[...] I just wanted to remind my team all the time of what we're doing defensively, offensively, if something happens, what we're going to do, and just make sure we're ready.
"Because it's all about details in the playoffs," he explained. "We know that one play, two plays can win you a game. Or lose you a game."
The Spurs made those plays down the stretch on Friday, and the Thunder didn't, and that's why San Antonio came away with a 100-96 win that wrested back home-court advantage from Oklahoma City.
With 5:36 left in the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 83. San Antonio got points on nine of its final 12 possessions, making 11 of 12 free throws and committing one turnover. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, scored on just six of its final 14 trips, took and missed four 3-pointers, and committed three turnovers that led to six Spurs points. In a four-point game played at this high a level between teams this good, a few possessions here and there can make all the difference in the world.
Had the Thunder been able to finish their defensive possession, they'd have had the ball and a chance to either tie the game or win it with the final shot of regulation. Instead, Leonard beat two men to the ball, somehow evaded Russell Westbrook's attempts to steal the ball from him, dribbled out of traffic and kicked it to Parker, who reset the offense, accepted the foul from Andre Roberson, stepped to the free-throw line and drained a pair to put the Spurs back up by four with 18.3 seconds remaining.
It might not have been the most impressive offensive rebound of Leonard's evening — ask Enes Kanter about that one — but it was the biggest, helping the Spurs slam the door on Oklahoma City's comeback bid and regain the upper hand in this best-of-seven series.
"Yeah, it was a backbreaker," said Thunder superstar Kevin Durant, who finished with 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting, five rebounds and three assists in 42 minutes. "We played good defense — we were down seven with a minute to go, we was able to cut it to two — and we made [Aldridge] miss a shot, and for the ball ... it just kind of fell in [Leonard's] hands. He was in a great position to get the rebound. That sucks. That sucks. Bad play by us. It was a tough break. He was just in perfect position to get that rebound."
Leonard often found himself in good positions on Friday. One day after Roberson said he felt he'd gotten "a better feel for" how to defend Kawhi, and that he had "kind of asserted [his] will" on the Spurs star in Game 2, Leonard resumed asserting his will on the proceedings:
The 24-year-old All-Star poured in 31 points (9-for-17 from the field, 3-for-4 from 3-point range, 10-for-14 at the line) to go with 11 rebounds and three assists in 39 minutes in the win. He spent time making life more difficult on Durant and Westbrook, fought hard on the glass, pushed the ball in transition, sprinted off cross-screens to establish good post-up position ... you name it, Kawhi provided it.
As good as he was, though, San Antonio remains a ensemble act, and Leonard had help. OKC finally found some success in cooling off Aldridge, who had been nearly unguardable through the series' first two games, but he still finished with 24 points on 8-for-21 shooting to go with eight rebounds in 44 minutes.
Parker orchestrated masterfully in the pick-and-roll and took advantage of the openings afforded him, scoring 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting with eight rebounds and five assists against just one turnover in 35 minutes of work.
"I thought Tony, he started out a little bit rough, but he kept his poise," Popovich said. "He kept his focus. He had a great second half. Really ran the show, scored here and there when he needed to, and did a wonderful job."
On one memorable instance in the fourth quarter, that job was made easier by all five members of the Thunder losing him in transition, suggesting that somebody else find him, and watching as Parker just stepped into and canned an unguarded jumper:
Everyone pointing for someone else to go get Parker. Spoiler: nobody got Parker. pic.twitter.com/zEbx5spJVZ
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 7, 2016
Westbrook (not pictured; he was out of frame on the far left) took the blame for that play, saying it was his responsibility to "get back and match up, especially when he's wide open like that." The All-Star took blame for more than that, actually.
Westbrook went just 10-for-31 from the floor, missing as many shots as Kanter, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and Dion Waiters took combined. After the game, he pointed the finger at himself for the kind of disproportionate offensive aggression that — while resulting in a team-high 31 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — at times bogged down and distorted OKC's offense, which generated and converted far fewer uncontested looks than their counterparts.
"Just too many shots," he said. "I've got to do a better job of getting guys shots. Steven got one shot. Got to get other guys involved, especially to beat this team. Even though I had some shots that I make, I've got to read and just find ways to get guys shots. I take the blame."
The gift and curse of Westbrook were both on display late. On one hand, there's the explosive attack in transition and putback dunk for an and-one that led Mike Breen to praise his "nuclear athleticism." On the other, there are the killer turnovers in the last 3 1/2 minutes that lead to San Antonio runouts for layups or trips to the line, and the stepback 3s that would probably seem ill-advised even if he wasn't a 30 percent career long-distance shooter. Without the former, OKC might not even be within hailing distance; without the latter, the Thunder might stand a better chance of finishing the job.
Those problems don't lie solely at Westbrook's feet, though. On the possession after Westbrook's second late turnover, Durant flung a cross-court pass out of bounds on a busted play that Thunder head coach Billy Donovan would later attribute to poor spacing and execution on the back side. The Spurs' next trip ended with David West eventually finding an opening to attack for a lefty runner that put San Antonio up seven.
Down four with 18.3 seconds left, Oklahoma City ran a play with multiple options on both sides of the court, only to see San Antonio's defense string it out, ragging 14 ticks off the clock before Waiters hit a leaning runner. Down two with 4.8 seconds left, the Thunder were unable to deny entry or create the kind of inbounding chaos San Antonio generated in Game 2, as Tim Duncan safely lobbed a pass over the top of the defense to Leonard, prompting a foul and two more made freebies that made the ending automatic.
Donovan cited such plays as emblematic of the issues that have plagued the Thunder in close-and-late situations all season long.
"This is kind of what I mentioned after Game 1, where there's things that we have control over that we've got to do a better job with," he said. "You know, we have control over our turnovers. We have control over our transition defense. We have control over correct spacing. Listen, it's not like we did it poorly the entire game. There was just moments in time that certainly hurt us that we need to be better at."
In the playoffs, though, those moments can mean everything. If the Spurs didn't understand that before, they did after Parker drilled it into their heads during that timeout ... and if the Thunder don't more fully grasp that before Sunday's Game 4, they might run out of moments sooner than they'd like.
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