Temporarily America’s Team

We open, because it fits, with a quote from Roger:

I GOT to root for the Spurs, especially against the HEAT.

He is not alone in his sentiments:

See what I mean?

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And it’s spiked

Early in the fourth quarter, Sports Illustrated jumped the gun just a hair:

With four minutes remaining, the Thunder had closed the gap to two points — 93-91 — but didn’t get any closer until the last minute, when Serge Ibaka blocked a Tim Duncan layup, Kevin Durant dropped in a pair of free throws to tie it at 97, Ibaka then blocked a Manu Ginobili layup, and Durant knocked one down from just off the rim to put OKC up 99-97. Ginobili then sank a trey to give the Spurs a 100-99 lead; the Thunder turned it over; Manu got one of two free throws; Russell Westbrook hit two of them to tie it at 101; Ginobili went for the last shot and didn’t get it. Five blowouts in this series, and finally a game went overtime.

And then, of course, it all went to pieces. Halfway through the overtime, Westbrook slammed down a layup for a one-point Thunder lead; sphinxlike Tim Duncan got the next four points to put the Spurs up three with 19 seconds left, and Boris Diaw added two more to ice the deal. San Antonio 112, Oklahoma City 107, and that’s it: Spurs in six, and the dubious privilege of facing the Miami Heat (again!) in the Finals.

There are several Telltale Statistics to choose from, but I’m going for the most obvious one: the Spurs bench scored 51 points, the Thunder bench five — all from Derek Fisher, no less. To some extent, this was to be expected: when the chips are down, OKC relies on the superstars to carry the load, and Fisher took only four shots in 33 minutes, hitting two. Still, we saw only 12 minutes of Steven Adams (two rebounds, no blocks) and six of Jeremy Lamb (one assist, one steal). Even the absence of Tony Parker, who left the game in the second quarter due to an ankle injury, should have provided at least some kind of opening for these guys. The heroes did what they could: Westbrook punched in 34 points (some of them literally, it looked like), Durant 31, Reggie Jackson 21, Ibaka 16.

And despite all that, the Thunder actually outshot the Spurs, 42 percent to 40, and went 29-33 from the line. (The Spurs were 25-34 on freebies.) Neither side was particularly proficient from outside: 62 treys were put up, and only 19 made. San Antonio had a small edge on the boards — 49-45 — until you look a little closer and see that the Spurs scraped 16 of them off the offensive glass. And that’s what they did best tonight: wangle second chances, while the Thunder were too often one-and-done. Diaw, expected by no one to be a major factor in this series, continued to be a major factor in this series, leading the Spurs with 26; Duncan had 19, Kawhi Leonard 17, Ginobili 15.

So it’s “Wait ’til next year” time once again. And Dr. Pants says it best:

Yep.

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And it all goes south

Very little went right for the Thunder tonight, and the most visible sign of that might have been just inside the 2:00 mark in the third quarter, with San Antonio up 17, when Kevin Durant drew a foul from Manu Ginobili, and missed both free throws. If desperation hadn’t set in before that, it certainly did afterwards: at the end of the third the Spurs were up 20, and things would only get worse. Pop, always experimenting, had started Matt Bonner in the middle in place of Tiago Splitter, and sent Kawhi Leonard out to pester Russell Westbrook. After a 32-32 first quarter, Pop decided none of this was working, posted Boris Diaw at center, and the Spurs could seemingly do no wrong thereafter: five minutes into the fourth quarter, San Antonio was up 30, the Thunder having scored a big two points in those five minutes. The final was 117-89, and the Spurs are within one game of the Finals.

All sorts of anomalies bedeviled the Thunder. Reggie Jackson, who scored 11 in the first quarter, went scoreless thereafter. OKC couldn’t rebound worth a flip: the Spurs owned the boards, 48-35. The Thunder couldn’t hit the long ball, going 6-24. (San Antonio was 13-26.) But take out those failed treys and Oklahoma City is shooting 51 percent, half a percentage point behind the Spurs. Perhaps worst of all, OKC was 13-20 from the stripe. (San Antonio made twice as many: 26 out of 30.) Still, Durant scored 25 and Westbrook 21, though no one else but Jackson hit double figures.) If there’s a moral victory here — hint: there isn’t — it’s that Bonner, vanishing after the first quarter but returning in the fourth, missed all four of his shots.

Meanwhile, Tim Duncan proved that he’s not too old to put up a double-double, scoring 22 and gathering 12 rebounds. Ginobili led the bench with 19; Leonard and Danny Green each had 14, Diaw 13 and Tony Parker 12. And if Pop didn’t get everything he wanted, he got the most important thing.

Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City. Will the Spurs wrap it up there? How many times have they won there recently? Exactly.

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Something resembling even

Gregg Popovich, we may assume, was not a happy man tonight. Just before the first half ended, he drew a technical; halfway through the third quarter, with the Spurs down twenty, he pulled his starters and turned the bench loose. If the Thunder read this as a white flag, they were sadly mistaken: over the next couple of minutes, OKC ran their lead to 27, but San Antonio cut that to 13 before the quarter was over, and attempts by the Thunder to leave the Spurs in the dust were at best marginally successful. Pop didn’t bring back any starters until halfway through the fourth. Was this a strategic move, or just an effort to “glare at some starters on the bench for a moment”? Pop isn’t talking. The Spurs pulled within twelve several times, but never got any closer: the Thunder won it 105-92, and it’s a 2-2 series.

Reggie Jackson, again starting at the two, sprained his ankle after three and a half minutes and was seen only sporadically the rest of the night. Russell Westbrook took up the slack. In fact, Westbrook took up just about everything, playing 45 minutes, scoring 40 points (12-24, 14-14 at the stripe), serving up 10 assists and executing five steals. And where he wasn’t, Kevin Durant usually was; KD knocked down 31 points in 41 minutes and collected five boards. (OKC had a narrow rebounding edge, 42-41; Kendrick Perkins snagged ten of ‘em.) The reserves didn’t score much, but they kept up the defensive pressure, and that was probably enough.

With the starting Spurs on the pine, Boris Diaw ended up with 30 minutes and 14 points, tied with Tony Parker for team-high, plus ten rebounds. Kawhi Leonard, assigned to hit the midrange jumpers and keep Durant at bay, wound up with 10 points (3-9) and Westbrook more or less constantly on his tail, freeing up KD. Tim Duncan finished with nine. But it may not be so much what the Spurs didn’t do but what the Thunder didn’t do: OKC turned the ball over a mere seven times, versus 22 assists. (SA had 17 dimes and 13 turnovers.) And Pop, as noted, was not happy.

Game 5 is Thursday night in Alamoland. It will be loud and boisterous. And loud.

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Ibakalypse now

Earlier this weekend, as reported by the Spurs guy from the San Antonio Express-News:

Well, he didn’t say when. Number 9 was out there for the tip, and while he got shuttled in and out of the game for occasional calf maintenance, Serge had a very Serge-like line: 6-7 for 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 30 minutes. Halfway through the fourth quarter with the Thunder up 17, the Spurs conceded the matter, and the reserves, eventually including (yes!) Hasheem Thabeet, mopped up, giving Oklahoma City its first win in the series, 106-97.

Brooks, who never screws with his starting lineup, screwed with his starting lineup, installing Reggie Jackson on the other wing in lieu of Thabo Sefolosha. Jackson, who got more minutes (37) than anyone, tossed up a few too many errant treys (1-6), but he turned in a solid performance otherwise, with 15 points and five assists. The KD and Russ Show was worth watching, with Westbrook knocking down 26 points and Durant 25, and 18 rebounds between them. The Thunder dominance of the boards was total: 52-36, with Steven Adams grabbing nine of them. Both Sefolosha and Nick Collison, who had been fairly well throttled by San Antonio in the first two games, drew DNP-CD, suggesting that Brooks is trying to make a point.

Certainly the Spurs got the point. Manu Ginobili was his usual seemingly unstoppable self, six of nine from beyond Boerne to lead San Antonio with 23, and Tim Duncan plucked 16 from wherever it is he keeps them, but Kawhi Leonard (10 points), Tony Parker (nine) and Danny Green (eight) were all below par, knocking the Spurs’ shooting percentage below 40. And while the Spurs still have the advantage in ball movement, it’s shrunk a bit: 22 assists and 16 turnovers versus 17 and 18.

Game 4 picks up Tuesday night in OKC. The crowd will want a repeat of what they saw tonight, and I suspect they don’t care what Scott Brooks wears.

(Title by Spencer Ackerman.)

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And the earth swallowed them whole

If nothing else, we learned tonight that the one starter the Thunder cannot do without is not Kevin Durant, not Russell Westbrook, but the wounded-in-action Serge Ibaka. Royce Young called it correctly: “[T]he Thunder have developed bad habits in their on-ball defense because of the safety blanket Ibaka provides.” Scott Brooks, long before the end, saw it coming; he pulled both Westbrook and Durant with 1:47 left in the third. At the time, it was 87-58 Spurs; the planet shuddered in response. (Maybe a 3.6 earthquake is more than just a shudder. This time, you make the call.) On the upside, something this horrendous to behold tends to end quickly, and losing 112-77 to the Spurs is pretty horrendous.

We also learned this: Jeremy Lamb apparently didn’t get enough minutes in recent weeks to develop those bad habits. In the fourth quarter, he hit six of eight shots, none of them from farther than two feet from the rim. With 13, Lamb was the leading scorer on either bench. To emphasize the point: take out those 20 three-point shots, 18 of which the Thunder missed, and they’re shooting 33-69, a reasonable 48 percent. (The Spurs hit exactly 50 percent.) Look at these lines. Durant was 6-16 for 15 points. Westbrook was 7-24 for 15 points. The rest of the starters contributed four points. If nothing else, this is an argument for playing Hasheem Thabeet: he makes few buckets, but few get past him either.

Tony Parker led San Antonio with 22; Danny Green chunked in 21 on seven treys; the Old Man of the Mountain, Tim Duncan, collected 14 points, 12 rebounds, and one technical foul. The Spurs had a 53-38 advantage on the boards, and missed only two free throws out of 23. (OKC missed five — out of ten.)

Game 3 isn’t until Sunday. At that time, we should see if the Thunder are completely, or only partially, demoralized. If I’m Scott Brooks, and you should probably be grateful I’m not, all previous rotation schemes are null and void.

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Geezers rule

A scribe for Sports Illustrated was ready to predict the Thunder in seven, until the word came down that Serge Ibaka wouldn’t be available for the series; he then amended his prediction to the Spurs in six. In vain will you point out that the Thunder are younger and, Ibaka aside, healthier: Tim Duncan, who once drew a DNP-OLD, calmly knocked down 27 points in 29 minutes, and Tony Parker, playing through a hamstring strain, turned in a double-double (14 points, 12 assists). The Spurs treated the paint like it was their own, and the Thunder led only twice: at the very beginning, and with 4:44 left in the third quarter, after which it would be more than four minutes before they made another shot. At 2:13, with the Spurs up by 21, Scott Brooks waved the white flag, and San Antonio claimed Game 1, 122-105. Sixty-six of those 122 points, you should know, were scored in the paint.

This is the pair of numbers that jumped hardest from the box score: the Spurs had 28 assists and 9 turnovers, the Thunder 19 and 16. Clearly OKC was moving the ball, but not moving it particularly well. And while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook accounted for just over half the Thunder scoring (28 and 25 points respectively), the only other starter to score was Kendrick Perkins with 5. Derek Fisher, who is probably almost old enough to have dated Tim Duncan’s babysitter, led the bench with 16. Nick Collison, who started in place of Ibaka, missed three shots, snagged two steals, and bled from two different locations. Reggie Jackson, usually viewed as the Mighty Spur-Killer, turned in a decent, if hardly lethal, 13 points.

“How did the Spurs do?” is usually easily answerable just from two lines, those of Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili. (You already know what the Senior Citizens can do.) Both turned in solid work, Leonard knocking down 16 points and collecting two steals, and Manu going 7-12 in his capacity as Sixth Man of Your Dreams. The Spurs shot 50-87 for 57 percent, more than ten percent percent better than the Thunder.

Game 2 is Wednesday in San Antonio. The guy who said “Spurs in six” might have been off by one.

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Nemesis unbound

Oklahoman sportswriter Anthony Slater came up with this startling statistic this morning: “Since the Thunder flipped the script back in late May 2012, San Antonio is 2-9 against OKC and 129-41 against everybody else.” Narrowing it to this season? “0-3 versus OKC and 59-13 against the rest of the league.” And yet the Spurs are still perched semi-comfortably on top of the Western Conference. The Thunder’s job, of course, is to make that perch less comfortable, and starting late in the second quarter, they did superbly well at doing exactly that, outscoring the Spurs 32-20 in the third quarter and keeping San Antonio off balance the rest of the way. The final was 106-94, and you have to figure Pop is relieved that the Spurs are in the Southwest and some years only have to play the Thunder three times.

How thwarted were the Spurs? Tony Parker wound up 3-10 for six points. Tiago Splitter, a good shooter for a big man, was 1-5 for two. Some slack was picked up elsewhere — Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan turned in 17 points each, and reserve guard Patty Mills came up huge with 21 on 8-13 including 5-7 from out by the canal. And the Spurs did enjoy a slight advantage rebounding, 42-39.

But San Antonio still has no answer for either Russell Westbrook, who stayed in for 31 minutes and knocked down 27 points, or for Reggie Jackson, who paced the bench with 14. And then there’s that Durant fellow, who came up with 28, the 39th time in a row he’s had at least 25. (There were a few “MVP” chants from the crowd, but not enough, if you ask me.) Kendrick Perkins was back, vacillating between stony silence and exercising the jawbone: he and Duncan got offsetting technicals early on.

Tomorrow night in Houston. Westbrook is supposed to have the night off. Patrick Beverley’s torn meniscus will keep him out, though he won’t be needing surgery, and Dwight Howard is sidelined with ankle issues. This could go all sorts of ways, though the scoreboard ultimately will show one of two.

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A study in grey and black

You go to San Antonio with two expectations: that your fouls will be called and theirs won’t, and that the Spurs will always find a way to foil your defense even when fouls aren’t involved. There were instances of both this evening, though not as many as the stereotype might suggest — and not enough to allow the Spurs to walk away with it. And with the fourth quarter winding down, Kevin Durant, who’d been fairly quiet for the last few minutes, tossed up a pair of treys. With the Thunder up 108-100 and 38 seconds left, there was a ridiculous little contretemps which for all the world looked like a wrestling match between Derek Fisher and Patty Mills. Offsetting T’s were assessed and a jump ball was called. That was the last of the drama, and the Thunder head off to the dreaded (or dreadful) East with a 111-105 victory in hand.

San Antonio started down a couple of players: Danny Green and Tiago Splitter were in recovery mode. Then Kawhi Leonard exited at halftime with a hand injury, and there was some brief concern when Tony Parker, just coming off a bruised shin, took a trip to the locker room. Not to worry; Parker carried a great deal of the load tonight for the Spurs, with a game-high, almost Durantesque 37 points (14-22), while the ageless Tim Duncan came up with his twenty thousandth double-double, 14 points and 13 boards.

KD himself hit for 36 on 12-22 shooting, though he turned the ball over a very unDurantesque eleven times. And anyway, the real story for OKC was Reggie Jackson, who has gone for 20 points or more in all three games against the Spurs: this time he knocked down 27, tying his career high, and served up eight assists. Serge Ibaka had 14 points and five blocks, in what is starting to seem normal for him. In the Battle of the Benches, the Spurs won, 35-30. (The Steven Adams Foul Report: three in 14 minutes.)

Travel day tomorrow, followed by a Friday night in Beantown and a Saturday in the City of Brotherly Fisticuffs. The Celtics and the Sixers between them have 27 wins; the Thunder just got their 33rd. Despite that, no predictions will be made from this desk.

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Balmy in Bexar

The high today in San Antonio was 76. But the reception at the AT&T Center is always a bit chilly, and the Spurs/Thunder first quarter was downright frosty, though it ended in a 21-all tie. OKC warmed up the joint in the second, 40-29; the Spurs clambered back to within three with ten minutes left, but seven minutes later were down 12 again, and a minute after that, Pop, who’d already been T’d up tonight, conceded; the Thunder walked away with a 113-100 win, the first time they’d won a regular-season game in Alamo City in four years.

It didn’t help the Spurs that they were missing Kawhi Leonard, who was scratched with dental problems. Then again, the Spurs have seldom lacked for depth, and Marco Belinelli, who got the start in place of Leonard, hit his first five treys. Belinelli wasn’t much of a factor in the second half, though, and finished with 17. Stalwart Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23; ageless Tim Duncan collected 17, and Boris Diaw led the bench with 14.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant was having an off night: 17 points on 6-14 shooting. Fortunately, Russell Westbrook wasn’t: he torched the Spurs for 31. Reggie Jackson, strengthening his case for Sixth Man of the Year, collected 21, just two short of his season high, achieved against the, um, Spurs. And Serge Ibaka picked up 14 points, 14 boards, three blocks, and just for the heck of it nailed two treys in the fourth quarter. But this was a night when the bench would shine, contributing 44 points and most of the plus over minus. (Nick Collison, at +20, led all; Jackson was +19.)

Then again, the Thunder had motivation to get this done in a hurry: they have to take on the Raptors tomorrow night in OKC, where the forecast high temperature is 31. Not that this will impress anyone from Toronto.

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You shall not shoot

If you yell DEFENSE! loud enough — and they do that routinely in Loud City — eventually the Thunder get the message. After trailing much of the first half, OKC cranked the lid shut on the Spurs, holding them to 15 points in the third quarter and long stretches of scorelessness in the fourth, abruptly ending their win streak at 11 and sending them back to San Antonio with a 94-88 loss.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that while Batman and Robin were on hand to do their thing, it was the rest of the Justice League that did the heavy lifting. To borrow a comparison made by Darnell Mayberry, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb went 15-21 (3-5 on treys) for 35 points, while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were 12-39 (1-10 on treys) for 30 points. The Caped Crusaders aren’t exactly ready to be replaced yet — Westbrook, while stuck in Brick City most of the night, made some fairly startling plays and improved on his assist average, serving up eight, and Durant still had a double-double (game-high 24 points, 13 rebounds) — but you gotta cheer for the new kids. Serge Ibaka, who with Lamb took the Spurs apart in the third, finished with 17 points and 11 boards.

San Antonio’s Usual Suspects were deployed in the usual manner, but to less effect than usual: they shot less than 40 percent, hit only seven of 27 treys, and missed five of 14 free throws. Five Spurs made double figures, led by Tony Parker with 16. One thing they did well was steal the ball: 11 instances, four by Kawhi Leonard. However, they blocked only three shots, two fewer than Ibaka. (Leonard had the only San Antonio double-double, with 14 points and 10 boards.) And one truth seems indisputable: tonight the Spurs’ sixth man — Manu Ginobili — was not quite as good as the Thunder’s Jackson, who tied his career high with 23 points.

Maybe it’s karma. In the second quarter, Derek Fisher collected three fouls in less than twelve seconds, mostly the result of Jeff Ayres poking at him; once Ayres got caught, the momentum seemed to shift just a hair. Or maybe that’s me being pleased about it.

The Warriors will be here on Black Friday, perhaps without Andre Igoudala, who killed the Thunder with a buzzer-beater in Oakland not so long ago.

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Like Berle, if Berle could rebound

About fifteen months ago, which in NBA terms is about a quarter-century, Tim Duncan didn’t suit up for some Spurs game because he was old. Really. Said so in the box score.

I have to figure, though, that Methuselah Jr. shrugged it off; the man clearly has a sense of humor. Jeff McDonald, on the Spurs beat for the San Antonio Express-News, sent this up yesterday:

Tim Duncan explains Spurs’ game plan vs. LeBron this way: “We’re guarding him with five guys.”

Also yesterday, Royce Young of Daily Thunder tweeted this:

Tim Duncan was asked what he would hate most about the spotlight the Heat get, the second-guessing, the over-coverage, etc. Answer: “Yes.”

I hope I’m that funny when I get that old.

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Jingle jangled

“Who are you, and what have you done with Tony Parker?” I mean, two points in 25 minutes, and not a trace of him in the fourth quarter. Which isn’t why the Spurs, after pulling to within three with four minutes left, wound up losing by 12 to the Thunder — that was OKC hustle, pure and simple — but apparently this was a night for short rotations: Scott Brooks played only nine guys, Gregg Popovich just eight. (Manu Ginobili was out, but Pop still issued five DNP-CDs.) And the 100-88 win puts OKC only half a game back of the wicked Texans.

Fearless forwards Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan — I swear, Duncan is getting younger despite being older than God, if not older than Derek Fisher — turned in stellar performances anyway: both bagged 24 points and double-digit rebounds. However, Tiago Splitter, previously a thorn in the Thunder’s side, was more of a vague, inchoate itch tonight, held to four points and six boards.

Speaking of Fisher, he got his usual 15 minutes; however, he got a highly unusual 17 points, including five of seven from the Crystal Bridge. (I’m waiting for Brooks to issue a single-word statement: “Nyah.”) And it’s a good thing Fisher did that, because Kevin Martin disappeared nearly as thoroughly as Tony Parker. Which means most of the rest of the offense, as usual, was Russell Westbrook (27) and Kevin Durant (25). The Thunder shot a nothing-special 46 percent, but with the Spurs failing to break 40, it was good enough. (How can the Spurs fail to break 40? Might be those thirteen OKC blocks.)

So the season series is split 2-2, but the bigger news is the in-conference record. A team plays 52 games against members of its own conference. The Thunder are 35-13; the Spurs are 32-15. If these two teams finish with an identical overall record, OKC gets the nod. But first, there’s a little obstacle called the Indiana Pacers, who have won five straight and will be happy to start off the Thunder’s weekend with a loss tomorrow night. The Pacers are, um, 29-8 at home.

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Would you like a turnover with that?

I swear, the Thunder were coming up with turnovers faster than Arby’s at lunchtime. Seriously. The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry, livetweeting from San Antonio: “I can’t type fast enough to keep up with OKC’s turnovers.” I assure you, Darnell is no slouch. And this debacle occurred in the absence of Tony Parker, mind you; stepping up with great vigor was Tiago Splitter, a punch line last year, a hero in Spurville tonight. San Antonio, down double figures early on, wound up outscoring OKC 35-18 in the second, and the Spurs never looked back, pocketing a 105-93 win that put them up two games over the Thunder in the West.

And really, the Thunder didn’t have to hand the ball over that often: the Spurs were shooting exceptionally well, and none of them better than Splitter, who shot 9-11 for a team-high 21 points while gathering ten rebounds. Splitter didn’t put up any treys, but Danny Green tossed up four and hit them all. San Antonio shot over 50 percent almost all night, finishing a hair above 52; OKC scraped in with just under 43, Russell Westbrook trying his best to move things along but winding up 11-27 for a very hard 25 points. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant collected 11 of his 26 at the free-throw line. (Much was made of Terrible Officiating tonight, but the Spurs got called for more fouls than did the Thunder, and OKC got ten more foul shots.) And the Thunder’s +8 in rebounding was more than offset by their +5 in turnovers.

The Spurs now have a 2-1 edge in the season series, with one left to play (at Oklahoma City on 4/4). If Pop is worried, he isn’t acting like it.

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Spurs rotated

I suppose the big question tonight was whether Gregg Popovich was going to pull the starters early, what with the Nuggets on the schedule for tomorrow night. And with the Spurs down 82-64 after three quarters, you could hardly blame Pop for saving those precious droplets of dinosaur DNA. But into the fray marched the San Antonio reserves, and even without Manu Ginobili, they more than held their own against anything Oklahoma City could throw at them — for a while, anyway. The Spurs cut the lead in half and then some, but by the 1:16 mark, when Scott Brooks called off the big dogs, matters were no longer in doubt, as the Thunder wrapped up a 5-0 homestand with a 107-93 win over Deep Grey.

The man of the 4/5 hour was undoubtedly Serge Ibaka, with a game-high 25 points and a game-higher 17 rebounds. (With Nick Collison grabbing 10 boards, OKC rather handily outrebounded San Antonio 49-37.) Russell Westbrook, despite indifferent shooting (6-18), piled up 22 points and served up nine assists, and when Westbrook wasn’t making plays, Kevin Durant was. KD finished with 19, one less than Sixth Man of This Year Kevin Martin.

The Spurs landed four players in double figures, but none of them broke 15. (The ageless Tony Parker and the youthful Nando De Colo each played about half the game and scored 14 points.) San Antonio’s three-point prowess was not in evidence: they went 6-20, marginally better than OKC’s 4-14. Even the return of Stephen Jackson (5 points) didn’t make much of a difference.

So: twenty and four. A happy place, the ‘Peake. But it’s time to hit the road, and the road has its way of hitting back. Wednesday: Atlanta. Thursday: Minnesota. Tuesday: Miami. Not a pushover in the bunch. (And the Hawks have already beaten the Thunder once, in the third game of the season.) Brace yourselves.

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Coming up empty

Based on last season, it might have been reasonable to expect the Spurs and the Thunder to be rattling the heck out of the scoreboard. Surely I wasn’t anticipating an 86-84 grinder with fifteen lead changes; but that’s what we got, with Tony Parker floating a trey at the 28-second mark to tie it up, and then popping a jumper right at the buzzer to give San Antonio the win.

Of course, what everybody wanted to know tonight was “How well does Kevin Martin play the role made famous by James Harden?” The answer, at least for this evening, is “Not bad at all”: 15 points, five assists, and only one turnover. In fact, K-Mart was +6 for the night, higher than anyone else on the team. Still, the Thunder shot only 38 percent for the night and turned the ball over 18 times, and not even a Kevin Durant double-double (23 points, 14 rebounds) and darn near from Russell Westbrook (18 points, eight rebounds, five assists) would push OKC over the top. Still, that 70-footer by Eric Maynor at the third-quarter horn was pretty, wasn’t it?

The Spurs landed five in double figures, led by the iron horse Tim Duncan, who at the age of 92 (or whatever) still can get 20 points and eight boards in 34 minutes. Parker was no slouch either, with 14 points and 11 dimes. And somehow Pop got 35 good minutes out of Boris freaking Diaw, with ten points, seven boards, and a game-high +11. It must be in the water down there or something.

So 82-0 is out. And 0-1 will last for only one night; tomorrow the Thunder return home, and the perhaps-improved Trail Blazers will be waiting for them. I’m not even going to make a prediction, despite the fact that Portland has already beaten the Lakers. (As Tramel said this morning, both Kobe and Steve Nash are over the hill, having been born in the Seventies, fercryingoutloud. Thanks for nothing, Berry.)

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Nun of that

“It’s not like we’re playing the Sisters of the Poor,” Gregg Popovich had said. The first half tonight might have persuaded him otherwise, with the Spurs leading by as many as 18 and by 15 at the half, as the Thunder managed to exhibit almost every one of their bad habits. (“Uncontested,” said radio guy Matt Pinto entirely too often.)

Then the roof fell in. OKC outscored San Antonio 32-18 in the third and opened the fourth with an 11-6 run. With 24 seconds left, Kendrick Perkins, who’d not had a great night, dunked to put OKC up by six; the Spurs got a second chance, a third, a fourth, and finally James Harden took it away. The Spurs had to foul, the Beard nailed both free throws, and it was an eight-point game — and it stayed that way, with Kevin Durant clearing the last Spurs miss and dribbling it out. Oklahoma City 107, San Antonio 99, and that’s how the West was won.

What happened? Answered prayers, maybe; change of pace, definitely. Tony Parker, who had gone 8-14 and snagged a double-double in the first half, was held to 4-13 in the second. Manu Ginobili, who started again, had to sit for much of the fourth with five fouls, most of which he actually committed in the fourth. Tim Duncan worked hard for his double-double (25 points, 14 rebounds), and Parker still made a good showing (29 points, 12 assists); Stephen Jackson, seventh man, carried most of the load for the bench and delivered three-pointers practically on demand. But here’s the key: the Spurs got 34 points in the first twelve minutes — and 36 in the last twenty-four. Were they tired, or just damned?

Still, we must have a telltale statistic, and here’s tonight’s: Durant played the entire game, every second. (He once said that he’d play two games a day if they asked him to.) During those 48 minutes, he rolled up 34 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, dished up five dimes, and took away the ball on the last play of the game. I’m surprised he’s not offering to clean up the arena after hours. Russell Westbrook — remember him? — was fast as always, and more accurate than usual, finishing with 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists. The Beard ended up with 16 and a big smile. But it was Derek Fisher, the Old Man of the Mountain, who perhaps best exemplified this team, this series: yes, he shot a creditable 4-7 in 23 minutes tonight, but more important, he knew it was actually possible to climb out of a 2-0 hole and still win a series. He’s been there, perhaps more often than anyone else.

To the Finals, where it will be — aw, who cares? We’ll beat them too.

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And the fortress is showing strain

Pop had this one figured out before tipoff: start Manu Ginobili, and make the Thunder sweat the matchups. And Manu, you may be sure, was up to the task. (Downside: Danny Green, reasonably effective when he was a starter, came up empty as a reserve.) With 5:17 left, the Thunder were up by 13; over the next four minutes, the Spurs gradually eroded that lead to two. With OKC up 103-101 at the 29-second mark, James Harden lofted a trey right over Kawhi Leonard’s head. The Spurs weren’t dead; Ginobili duly bagged a layup, and then a bad pass gave them the ball back with 15 seconds left. Manu was in position, but his attempted trey clanked, and at the 0.8 mark, Kevin Durant sank two free throws to ice it. San Antonio got a perfectly useless trey at the horn, which was eventually waved off: Thunder 108, Spurs 103, and what was an 0-2 series is now 3-2.

Still, Manu remains Manu, and there is still no consistent way to shut him down. Ginobili bagged a game-high 34 points on 11-21 shooting, including five treys, and the ancient Tim Duncan merely hit 7-10 and pulled in 12 rebounds. His mere presence gives hope to us classmates of Methuselah. Tony Parker was a bit more himself, with 20 points. With Ginobili starting, though, the bench had to fight for scraps: only 22 among them, with Stephen Jackson getting 13. The Spurs seriously outrebounded the Thunder, 42-34, and shot a decent 46 percent.

But the Thunder shot 50 percent, forced 21 Spur turnovers while giving up only 16, and somehow got Russell Westbrook out of his three-game funk. He didn’t shoot all that well — 9-24 — but 12 assists to go with 23 points is worthy. Durant, a slow starter in the first half, ended up with 27; Harden, just as slow, still found his way to 20. I suspect a tracking device in the beard. Kendrick Perkins drew a tech early on, and then fouled out inside the two-minute mark; he hadn’t done much offensively, but he pulled down ten rebounds.

This is the first game of the semifinals that was not won by the home team. This means — well, damned if I know what it means, except that Game 6 will be back in the OKC on Wednesday, and the Thunder will have every incentive to make sure they don’t have to go back to San Antonio.

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On the road to Eldorado

If coffee is for closers, Kevin Durant deserves the tallest latte anyone’s serving: he rolled up 18 of his 36 points in the last quarter. And while you’re at it, pour one for Serge Ibaka, who didn’t miss a shot all night — and he took eleven of them, plus four free throws, for 26 points. The Thunder dominated most of the numbers: 41-31 in rebounding, 27-17 in assists, 56-50 percent shooting, 76-63 percent free throws, and the one that actually matters: 109-103 at the horn, evening the series at 2-2.

You have to wonder who’s out there wearing Tony Parker’s jersey; the guy wearing #9 for the Spurs went 5-15 from the floor and drew exactly one foul. Tim Duncan looked more like himself, scoring 21 despite clanking four of seven from the stripe; Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs’ most reliable last-minute threats, both fouled out in the waning moments. And tonight’s telltale statistic: rookie forward Kawhi Leonard, who hit for 17 points, including two three-pointers from exactly the same spot twenty seconds apart with time running out, finished -12 for the night, worst of anyone on the court. Talk about frustration.

Better yet, talk about Kendrick Perkins, offensive force. Perk hit seven of nine (no, not that Seven of Nine) for 15 points. In fact, everyone shot well except Russell Westbrook (7 points) and Derek Fisher (scoreless in 16 minutes). Evidently it wasn’t a good night to be a point guard.

I am deeply suspicious of the concept of momentum, especially to the extent that it is believed to exist over multiple games. Nonetheless, if I’m Gregg Popovich, I’m stocking up on steak knives, just in case.

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Take this streak and shove it

It ain’t working in the Peake. The Thunder went 8-0 to start the game, fell behind for a couple of minutes either side of the end of the first quarter, and then went into Total Destruction Mode. With five minutes left, the Spurs were down 25 (!), but Pop knew it was a done deal long before that: neither Tony Parker nor Tim Duncan played in the fourth quarter. Oklahoma City 102, San Antonio 82, and the Spurs locomotive is at least temporarily derailed. “Now it’s a series,” said radio guy Matt Pinto.

The difference? Loud City, for one, of course. And for another, Thabo. In a wholly expected move, Scott Brooks decided to put Sefolosha on Parker; in a totally unexpected move, Sefolosha played 36 minutes, about as many as he’d played in the first two games. In those minutes, he bagged six rebounds, pulled off six steals, and scored 19 points, second only to Kevin Durant (22). Those six steals contribute to this telltale statistic: the Spurs turned the ball over 21 times, the Thunder only seven. With Thabo doing more of the dirty work, Russell Westbrook was content to move the ball around, pulling down seven rebounds and serving up nine dimes, not to mention ten points and four more steals. Oh, you wanted another telltale statistic? OKC put up twelve more shots than San Antonio, and hit ten more.

The Spurs, mostly due to Stephen Jackson’s sharpshooting in reserve, actually shot better from outside the circle than from within; they put up 26 treys, 11 of which went. (The Thunder went 6-22 from Out There; Thabo hoisted ten by himself, making four, and Durant missed all four of his.) And inexplicably, Manu Ginobili had an off night, by Ginobili standards anyway, collecting five of his eight points from the foul line. Jackson and Parker shared the scoring honors with 16 each.

“We will not be swept!” was clearly the message tonight. It won’t be that on Saturday night, obviously — but it has to be just as emphatic.

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