Oklahoma City Thunder solve Spurs’ puzzle, end 20-game winning streak


May 31, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (left) and forward Nick Collison (right) watch late game action against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half in game three of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The Oklahoma City Thunder were frustrated. Frustrated with their inability to defeat the San Antonio Spurs, frustrated with the preposition of defending Tony Parker, frustrated with the offensive brilliance they witnessed first hand. For their sake, it had to stop.

San Antonio turned the ball over 14 times in the first half of Game 1 and entered the second half relatively unscathed, a mere one point deficit separating the two teams. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 88 points in Game 2 to no avail. Nothing seemed to work. Oklahoma City’s athleticism wreaked havoc on the perimeter and in passing angles but the Spurs rectified their mistakes by creating favorable passing angles and space for Parker and Manu Ginobili to roam.

Everything Gregg Popovich touched turned to gold while everything Scott Brooks touched turned into stone. Kendrick Perkins’ mobility on the perimeter, an area of his game that isn’t his strong suit, was exposed and so too were the Thunder’s deficiencies. The Spurs are talented enough to exploit even the most minute flaws. Derek Fisher made a couple of timely shots but his lack of athleticism and rebounding prowess made him a liability. Harden and Westbrook couldn’t find space in the teeth of San Antonio’s defense and because the Spurs are notorious for avoiding fouls, they couldn’t get to the line to alleviate their shooting qualms either. Even Durant was stifled by the voracious defense of Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard.

Brooks made his share of mistakes, too. He was hesitant to instate Thabo Sefolosha into the rotation even though his rebounding and 3-point percentage best Fisher by a noticeable amount. When the Thunder went small, Brooks also misguidedly trusted Perkins as the primary interior defender even as the Spurs were peppering the defense with a litany of screens, pin-downs, misdirection and ball movement. The very things, you know, that require lateral movement and athleticism. Serge Ibaka has enough athleticism to support the Thunder defense while Durant, Westbrook and Harden attack offensively. Perkins does not.

Mistakes are inevitable in a playoff series especially against a team like the Spurs. They tend to be a rather difficult team to prepare for and adjustments are simple in theory but exceedingly difficult to accomplish in practice. If Game 3 is any indication, the Thunder have regained their confidence and some semblance of hope.

They began the game on an 8-0 run. San Antonio fought back and reclaimed the lead shortly after. But it was not to be. Oklahoma City was determined. They needed this win. There was going to be no missed defensive rotations, no break downs at the point of attack, no disarray.

This time Brooks’ adjustments were perfect. He instilled his trust in Thabo early on by giving with the daunting task of defender Parker. His 6’7″ frame and lateral quickness made it very difficult for Parker to find the necessary openings to utilize his speed and mid-range jumper, two facets of his game that tormented the Thunder on Tuesday night. Parker finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting and he added four assists. In that battle, Sefolosha won. Oklahoma City outscored San Antonio by 15 points in his 36:42 minutes, the second highest total on the team other than Durant. Sefolosha’s six steals propelled the Thunder transition break and took the Spurs out of their rhythm. They never seemed to reclaim their patented ball movement. For the game, Oklahoma City scored 20 points off 21 Spurs turnovers and Thabo’s omnipresence on the perimeter attributed to that more than anything.

Unable to run the offense through Parker, the offense stagnated. Tim Duncan isolations become more prevalent which played to Perkins’ strengths exactly. He didn’t garner 28 minutes like he did in Game 1 but he was effective in his time on the court. Duncan couldn’t square up before unleashing a deadly 16-footer, instead forcing up a couple of off-balance fadeaways that were very unlikely to fall.

Brooks doesn’t have a deep bench to work with but he utilized their skills in a way that maximized their ability without detracting from his underlying goal: making it easier for his superstars to operate. He solved the Spurs’ puzzle, albeit temporarily.

As you probably know, not all puzzles are created equal. Some are decidedly easier to decipher. Some are much more difficult and require methodical concentration and attention to detail.

Oklahoma City solved their toughest puzzle yet. But will they be able to do the same on Saturday night, when the pieces are rearranged?