Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder was a huge shock for the extent to which the hosts dominated in a series most expected to be extremely close. Game 2 hewed closer to what most analysts thought would transpire, but it ended up just as surprising for the wild events of the final few seconds.
It's best to start with that finish, because it's sure to be a point of discussion in the run-up to Friday's Game 3 and perhaps an incident spoken of for years to come.
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Down 98-94 with 18 seconds remaining, the Spurs caught a major break when Serge Ibaka fouled LaMarcus Aldridge on a three-point attempt five seconds into the possession. Aldridge nailed all three attempts to cut the margin to one point, although the Thunder still looked in good shape with a chance to go back up three points after free throws. Billy Donovan called his team's final timeout to advance the ball for the ensuing inbound pass, and everything looked set to play out as a fairly normal late-game scenario.
Then all hell broke loose. Dion Waiters struggled to get the ball in against pressure from Manu Ginobili and finally lobbed a high-arcing pass for Kevin Durant, who lost his footing first and the ball second for a Danny Green steal. The Spurs had a 3-on-2 break that looked likely to finish in a go-ahead basket, but it was not to be:
The scramble for the ball in the aftermath of Patty Mills's three ate up the final seconds to help the Thunder grab a 98-97 win that evens up the series at 1-1. It was just the second loss for the Spurs in 45 games at the AT&T Center this season and registers as particularly incredible given their dominance in Saturday's Game 1.
Those were secondary concerns right after the buzzer, though, because all anyone wanted to talk about was Waiters's interaction with Ginobili right before his pass to Durant. As TNT commentator Chris Webber immediately exclaimed and replays showed, Waiters elbowed Ginobili near the top of his chest to create space. There are replays in the video above, but here's another look:
I have watched lots of basketball in my life and never seen a player push an opponent in this manner to get space for an inbound pass. Lead official Ken Mauer said the same and believed a foul should have been called if someone had seen it:
Lead referee Ken Mauer said a foul should've been called on Waiters. He also says he's never seen that play before. pic.twitter.com/LjWxEhCyJB— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 3, 2016
To be fair, the sideline view of the incident shows that Ginobili stepped on the sideline, which is a violation by the rulebook:
Obviously Waiters can't shove Ginobili, but Ginobili can't go over the line either. pic.twitter.com/9SY1UO8FLH— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) May 3, 2016
Dion Waiters sitting at his locker, scrolling through his phone postgame: "He stepped on the line anyway"— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 3, 2016
On the other hand, it's tough to argue that shoving an opponent is a suitable response to that infraction. Ginobili and others have stretched the rules in this fashion many times before without such a response. A few of the involved parties seemed confused, too — Gregg Popovich responded to a press-conference question by saying "something certainly happened" (perhaps to avoid a fine), Billy Donovan played dumb, and Ginobili said something wrong had occurred but didn't know exactly what kind of whistle should have blown on Waiters. (The rules state it should be a turnover on Waiters and perhaps also a technical foul for unnecessary contact, though the latter is up to the referees.)
What seems certain is that this play will be discussed at least until Friday's Game 3 and will receive some kind of response from the league. That official answer might not involve a fine or suspension for Waiters — it could just be a note in the "Last Two Minutes" officiating report — but there will be something.
What we know for sure is that the Thunder's series-tying win will not be reversed. Ginobili seemed most focused on that fact, specifically lamenting that he and his teammates had not taken advantage of the turnover that followed Waiters's curious action. He's probably right to note that San Antonio mistake, because we've grown accustomed to the Spurs succeeding in moments like this one. Just look at the scoring chance they had:
the Spurs obviously got shafted in a weird way but I can't shake the thought that they had OKC in *this* position pic.twitter.com/i6v1v8neIs— adam figman (@afigman) May 3, 2016
On the other side, the Thunder should feel relieved that they escaped Monday night with the win. A team known for late-game execution errors made several crucial mistakes in the final 20 seconds — some called, some not called — and very easily could have handed the Spurs a 2-0 lead.
Instead, the OKC win gives them home-court advantage and new life in a series that began Saturday with an overwhelming performance by San Antonio. It looked clear early that Game 2 would be very different, in part because the Spurs offense looked decidedly less crisp in the minutes following tipoff. Saturday's 43-point first quarter was followed by 21 in Monday's opening period, although that figure alone does not communicate the Spurs' early struggles. They began the game making just one of 13 field goal attempts, a very poor conversion rate caused by both their own decision-making and a much-improved effort from the Thunder.
OKC's energy boost also appeared at the offensive end, especially as evidenced by the play of Russell Westbrook. The hyper-athletic point guard was stifled by Kawhi Leonard and several others in Game 1, but he returned with a clear attack mindset and a willingness to create plays when none presented themselves. He put up 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the first quarter to announce himself as a matchup problem for the Spurs. He was the biggest reason OKC held a 29-21 lead after one quarter.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Spurs bounced back fairly quickly and took their first lead since 2-1 a little more than five minutes into the second quarter. OKC held strong and managed to build up a 56-53 lead at halftime, but San Antonio's ability to get back into the game clarified a few keys to the series that will matter greatly as the action shifts locations for Game 3.
The first was one of the big stories of Game 1, as well — that LaMarcus Aldridge is serious matchup problem for Serge Ibaka and anyone else who tries to check him. It turns out that Aldridge's incredible Game 1 performance of 38 points on 18-of-23 shooting was not an outlier — he was arguably better in Game 2 in scoring 41 points on 15-of-21 from the field and 10-of-10 from the line.
Aldridge was particularly effective in the second quarter to put up 22 points on 9-of-11 FG by halftime, but he also adjusted to increased double-teams after the break and managed to score in a variety of ways. Ibaka often succeeds as a defender who can follow forwards onto the perimeter and into the paint, but he has struggled to combat Aldridge's post-up game and mid-range shooting. This has been the most impressive two-game stretch for the five-time All-Star since he decimated the Houston Rockets in the first two games of their 2014 first-round series.
The other issue for the Thunder is that their bench-heavy lineups look increasingly difficult to justify. OKC's reserve quartet of Enes Kanter (19 minutes), Anthony Morrow (15 minutes), Dion Waiters (25 minutes), and Cameron Payne (seven minutes) all finished with plus-minuses of minus-11 or worse, and San Antonio took clear control of the contest whenever a majority of the starters (and especially Westbrook) sat. It's not clear that Billy Donovan has a good solution to this problem, but he might need to extend the minutes of his best players to win the series.
On the plus side, Westbrook and Durant are good enough that the Thunder can commit a number of mistakes and still find themselves in a position to win. The former was especially great on Monday, finishing with 29 points on 11-of-25 shooting, 10 assists, seven rebounds, two steals, a block, and three turnovers (including none in the second half). This was the sort of performance most expected from Westbrook before Game 1 — he impressed himself upon the action and ensured that the Thunder would have an option every time down the court.
Durant was not quite as insistent as Westbrook — who is? — but he was also very good with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting, seven rebounds, and four assists. As ever, it looked likely that the Thunder could have created more open shots, played one-on-one less often (16 assists), and made better decisions (18 turnovers). However, this is how they play, and it tends to work often enough that criticism is often a matter of personal taste more than of the quality of the results.
It looks increasingly likely that the Thunder will have to rely on big games from Westbrook and Durant, strong all-around contributions from Serge Ibaka, points and rebounds from Kanter, and steady play from Steven Adams to win games against the Spurs. The calculus can differ from game-to-game — Adams was easily the third-best player in blue on Monday, with 12 points on 5-of-6 FG and 17 rebounds — but it's going to have to come from those players. No one else looks especially dependable in any area right now.
If OKC still feels like the underdog in this series despite gaining homecourt advantage, it's because that tendency to make key mistakes could loom large in a series that now looks as tight as it was supposed to be. Game 2 proved that San Antonio can make their own mistakes — bizarre Waiters push aside, the Spurs had a 3-on-2 break to win the game and didn't score — but they feel like the group more likely to optimize what they have on hand. The most impressive thing about the Thunder is that their immense talent could render that advantage insufficient.
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