Oklahoma City, led by the brilliance of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, ties its series with San Antonio

Kelly Dwyer
May 28, 2014

San Antonio can blame itself for letting the Oklahoma City Thunder tie the Western Conference finals. It can point to the absence of ball movement and cutting, the inability to communicate properly on both ends, and coach Gregg Popovich can lament his team’s lack of “physicality.” Look in the mirror all you want, guys.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are winning games, here. The team won on Tuesday night, taking Game 4 of the conference finals by a 105-92 score, evening the series and making the Spurs look both old (sounds about right) and discombobulated (sounds completely unlike them) in the process. The Thunder’s ability to force the Spurs into over-dribbling and harried finishes around the rim led to an endless series of transition scores for OKC, led by perhaps Russell Westbrook’s finest game as a pro.

Russell has scored more, dished more, rebounded more and stolen more basketballs in an NBA game, but considering scene and the stakes, this was something special, with the only thing coming close being his 43-point, seven-rebound Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals in a loss. The oft-criticized guard had 40 points in 45 (!) minutes in the blowout win, totaling 10 assists, five steals, five rebounds and just three turnovers despite having to act as the lead guard in an unending series of Oklahoma City pushes.

Westbrook managed to mine that fine line between acting as either dangerous to his opponents or dangerous to his own team, repeatedly looking to push the action on both ends, acting as the biggest component in Oklahoma City’s 17 fastbreak points. The continued presence of forward Serge Ibaka, back for a second straight game after missing the first two Thunder losses of this series with a calf injury, paid dividends as San Antonio seemed unsure of its offensive cuts and curls in the first half. Ibaka has registered seven blocks in two games, but once again it was his ability to dissuade San Antonio from its pass-pass-pass-past-layup offense that played the biggest role in the win.

Ibaka and Westbrook were so prominent that a gorgeous outing from Kevin Durant went just about overlooked. Durant tossed in 31 points while making half his shots, adding five boards and five assists, while declining to turn the ball over in nearly 42 minutes of play. The Thunder only coughed it up seven times as a team, in spite of the squad’s breakneck pace; and while San Antonio’s 13 turnovers weren’t the end of the world, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich probably doesn’t think it’s that far off from a Thunder-rich Armageddon.

Popovich rightfully threw in the towel midway through the third quarter, going with an active bench lineup featuring Cory Joseph, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Marco Belinelli and Aron Baynes down the stretch in anticipation of a Game 5 pitched some 48 hours from Tuesday night. The group played well, with both Diaw and Belinelli tossing in some needed confidence-boosting shots from the field. Joseph, Bonner and Baynes may not see any action in a potentially-close Game 6, but the Spurs badly need Marco and Boris to let this carry over until Thursday night.

The Spurs’ coaching staff doesn’t like the fact that the team’s ball movement has gone away, with shades of San Antonio’s 2012 collapse dotting each of the court’s corners, but one has to credit the stellar play of the Thunder for wresting this one away. Oklahoma City may not be able to rely on steals and pell-mell transition forays for the entirety of this series, for however long it goes on for, but the team does have several counters the Spurs can’t match.

San Antonio can’t stop Westbrook when his jumper, footwork, and timing are on.

San Antonio can’t stop Durant both on and away from the ball.

San Antonio has yet to figure out how to attack Ibaka and use his aggressiveness against him with extra passing and better finishing.

And San Antonio does have a history here. James Harden might be gone, and we’re two years removed from 2012, but the Spurs have watched it crumble before, and they can’t go out in a blaze of over-dribbling and complaining between teammates.

This isn’t to discredit the Thunder’s abilities, nor the team’s acumen in putting a sound gameplan together, and executing. This wasn’t a lucky win – Oklahoma City’s talking on defense was superb, it found the extra man on offense during a killer third-quarter run, and the team didn’t lose this contest because San Antonio screwed up. The Thunder took this.

Still, you get the feeling – if you’ll pardon the terrible, unintended pun – that the Thunder sometimes blow great teams out by catching lightning in a bottle with their all-out play. That sometimes these chances won’t sustain into positive endings. That sometimes those flickers of OKC brilliance will be, eventually, countered.

Lightning sometimes strikes the same place twice, though. Sometimes, it might even strike four times in seven chances. The Spurs have a series on their hands, mainly because the Thunder took the ball right out of their mitts.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!