The adjustments are in, and the resulting decisions can be treated as sound ones with the game in the bag. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich went small with his team in anticipation of its Game 5 pairing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the result was a spirited 117-89 win that resembled some of San Antonio’s best play spread out over the first two games of this series.
The Spurs had struggled to stay with Oklahoma City on both ends in ways that went beyond just being able to adapt to the re-emergence of a suddenly healthy Serge Ibaka. Upon his return in Games 3 and 4, Ibaka blocked seven Spurs shots and altered three times that many either by contesting shots, or convincing Spurs guards and big men not to venture into the paint at all. What once looked like a San Antonio runaway series after the first two contests was tied up as the teams suited up for Game 5.
Popovich responded by starting shooting big forward Matt Bonner ahead of Tiago Splitter up front, and while Bonner struggled in his first start to the season (playing well enough defensively, but missing all four shots from the field), his teammates seemed to reacquire the rhythm needed to hang with a younger, if not necessarily fresher, Thunder crew.
Guard Manu Ginobili sprang off the Spurs bench to score 19 points (on only nine shots) mostly on Kevin Durant, while dishing six assists. Tony Parker relocated his touch from the perimeter, scoring 12 points, while Tim Duncan went right back at Ibaka, challenging the forward to counter his bankers and wily moves in the paint, finishing the night with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
The Thunder seemed to be able to match San Antonio’s play, at least early on, as the contest was tied at 32 after one period, but waves and waves of new Spurs seemed to wear at coach Scott Brooks’ team. Guard Reggie Jackson had to leave the contest as his ankle woes persisted, forcing young Jeremy Lamb into action he didn’t seem confident in approaching. Kevin Durant (25 points on 21 shots) and Russell Westbrook (21 points on 12 shots, seven assists) put up approximations of their averages in limited blowout minutes, but the Thunder seemed a little more than gassed in the second half.
Whether this is a result of their heavy minutes in Tuesday’s comfortable win over San Antonio is anyone’s guess. Westbrook (45 minutes) and Durant (41) played deep into the Game 4 win despite being up double-figures down the stretch, and though both laughed off the insinuation the big minutes would affect them some 48 hours later while talking on Tuesday night, their Game 5 appearance in the second half should leave Brooks prone to criticism.
The problem with that sort of further inspection is that four full days off before Game 5 may not have mattered for Oklahoma City. Bonner’s starting nod didn’t produce much for him personally, but the shift to always pair a shooter alongside Duncan opened so many things up for San Antonio, and it forced Durant to try to follow the quicker Ginobili around the court. Boris Diaw started the second half in place of Bonner, and he continued his fantastic play carrying over from Game 4, when Popovich went with Diaw, Marco Belinelli (who appears to have been demoted in the rotation) and Cory Joseph (who was never going to play much anyway) down the stretch of a bench-led comeback.
Diaw managed 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting, six rebounds and three assists in the win, giving the Spurs another attack option offensively that left OKC on its heels. Meanwhile, Danny Green and Patty Mills shot out of their respective slumps in order to hit 7 of 12 from long range, and Kawhi Leonard continued to fill in all the holes while tossing in 14 points on seven shots, even posting up a few times as Ibaka attempted to mind Bonner and Diaw off to the side of the stage.
The Spurs looked whole again, and you don’t get the feeling that Splitter (who made 6 of 8 free throws in nearly 12 minutes of bench action) is the sort of guy who is going to get unduly cross over temporarily losing his starting slot.
The question here is whether it can carry over to Game 6 on Saturday night in Oklahoma City. This was the first 2013-14 victory in seven regular-season and postseason tries that the Spurs accomplished against OKC with Ibaka in the lineup, and it’s not as if the Thunder we came to know and love in Games 3 and 4 were completely absent – this was anyone’s game for the first 14 minutes.
Both teams need to rely on their own blend of playing freely and reacting properly in the moment if they want to pull out a victory, and San Antonio has yet to showcase that sort of movement and aplomb in Oklahoma City. With no games left to give and its back against the proverbial wall, the Thunder have no choice but to let things loose in a Game 6 that could be the final contest of their 2013-14 season.
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