Oklahoma City Thunder 108, San Antonio Spurs 103 (Thunder lead series, 3-2)
Confidence is such a strange thing. And it's at its absolute weirdest when you observe those sterling silver gods you had previously trumped up lose it almost completely, in just a few days' time. The San Antonio Spurs look like a team that expects its opponent to win, they're not bowing out and they're certainly not beaten, but they also barely resemble the sort of squad that blew us away with that quick hit offense in the first two games of this series.
Even before that, we knew that the first two rounds didn't count. Lacking Utah and Limpin' Los Angeles were barely worth the seeds stuck next to their respective names, and San Antonio responded as it should. Against Oklahoma City, though? After working through that tough first half in Game 1, full of turnovers after a week off, the Spurs put together a brilliant run of offensive basketball. All quick and mindful decisions, risk-taking and freedom mixed in with touch and sound muscle memory. It was a style that seemed to scream "that's all?" after you reminded it that it was in the midst of a 20-game winning streak.
Now the style's gone, and the three-game losing streak results. San Antonio looks hesitant on offense, and has no hope that the team's defense (never all that great, merely NBA-average on average) can save the day. In less than a week the Spurs have gone from dominating the NBA with its derring-do to daring to consider that its season might end on Wednesday, in the blued-out confines of Oklahoma City. In a turnaround like this it's OK to claim whiplash, when they ask.
The Thunder created this sudden stop, this jerk forward and swift pullback. The team's defensive resurgence has the Spurs thinking twice on every possession, especially when that initial screen is set, working out of fear in an area that used to see them taking chances and trusting that things would eventually end up with the net snapping. Not only is Kendrick Perkins burning six-figure calorie counts each night, but Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha are making life hellish for Tony Parker with their length, and the Spurs have shortened their ball movement as a result. Bad choice, bad result.
On the other end, flush with their own brand of confidence, Oklahoma City is taking advantage of San Antonio's step slow rotations (somewhat) and their own significant cadre of offensive talent (mostly) to pile up the points.
It's why Daequan Cook hits for eight points, out of nowhere in the second quarter. Because he was open. It's why Serge Ibaka, after sitting for 14 game minutes (by my Tivo's count, 44 real-time minutes between when he took his seat, and when he took Russell Westbrook's pass), didn't hesitate for a second to pull up for an 18-footer to put his team up nine. It's why Russell Westbrook, eh, takes some of those shots. It's why James Harden decides that the only thing left is for him to do, in the time allotted, is to stick a 3-pointer in Kawhi Leonard's eye. And it's why Kevin Durant wowed us all with that ridiculous Larry Bird-esque shot to put the Thunder up double-digits with half a quarter to go in the biggest game of their lives.
It is confidence, and it's a strange and imperceptible and ultimately defining thing. You wouldn't be around to read this if someone else on your family tree hadn't showcased some, at some point. Probably at a roller rink or a Shoney's or something. Gross, Dad.
Now that we're half a day removed from Monday's gorgeous batch of basketball, we're left to wonder if the Spurs can get back on track. It's hard to imagine a team like this going out after four straight losses in Game 6, but it's just as hard to imagine any team going into Oklahoma City and popping that balloon.
Actually, no it isn't.
Apologies for the fawning, again, but these are the Spurs. And as Johnny Ludden noted, the team's history is littered with series-turning quirks that either aided the team in its cause, or nearly knocked them out entirely. This isn't to say that the Spurs are unbeatable once things go sour — they had a Game 6 and potentially a Game 7 to come back against the Lakers in 2004, after Derek Fisher's miracle shot — but it also means that we're always one foot on the line or one jump ball gone batty away from things turning, again, and heading back to San Antonio for a Game 7.
We should all be so lucky.