May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) handles the ball against San Antonio Spurs guard Cory Joseph (5) during the third quarter in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
With the Spurs getting steamrolled in Oklahoma City, San Antonio looks to head back to the (hopefully) safe confines of the AT&T Center in order to regain control of this series.
With the media, fans, and possibly even some Spurs players (although they wouldn’t publicly admit it) calling this déjà vu from the 2012 series between these two teams, the Spurs face a Game 5 that is a must win for them.
May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forwardSerge Ibaka
(9) defends as San Antonio Spurs forwardTim Duncan
(21) looks to pass during the second quarter in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
In order for the Spurs to get their mojo back, here are three keys that can turn the tide for the battle-tested Spurs.
Who Will Represent the West in the 2014 NBA Finals?
1. Start Boris Diaw
May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forwardNick Collison
(front) and San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw (back) go after a loose ball in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City won 105-92. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
With Serge Ibaka back on the floor, the entire Spurs mechanistic and precise offense has seemingly gone MIA. All the rhythm and offense fireworks from Games 1 and 2 are out the window just like some of Ibaka’s blocked shots. Ibaka truly does cause some problems for individual Spurs mentally, namely Tiago Splitter.
Although Tiago has had a masterful playoffs up until this series shifted to Oklahoma City, he just doesn’t stand a chance against the athletic Ibaka. Most of Tiago’s points come from offensive rebounds and second chance points and against the frontline of the Thunder headed with Ibaka, Tiago can’t get his lay-ups with the same ease.
Due to Tiago’s no-show in Game 4 (3 points and 1 rebound in 19 minutes of action), Pop opted to give Boris Diaw more minutes in order to spread the floor and get some kind of production. As a result, Boris had the best game of anybody in a Spurs uniform with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds on 5-11 shooting. Many Spurs fans were calling out Pop for playing Boris so much in Game 3 when he wasn’t shooting well (3-10 from the field and 0-3 from three), but an aggressive and productive Diaw could really help counter the Thunder’s athleteic defense.
When Ibaka guards Boris, Boris hangs out on the perimeter in order to pull Ibaka away from the paint and give the Spurs the proper spacing they love. In Game 4, Boris shot decent from three (2-6), but he didn’t get much help from any of his teammates. When Kevin Durant is matched up on Boris, Boris uses his girth and post skills to move KD and get some easy buckets down low. A lot of these shots are contested due to Ibaka’s help defense, so Boris needs to continue to look for open teammates on the perimeter when the help shifts to him.
Going into Game 5, I expect Popovich to at least flirt with the idea of starting Boris or at least giving him extended minutes. The Spurs could really use an efficient and aggressive Land Walrus to shift the momentum back to the guys in black and white.
2. Play with a “foot-in-the-neck” mentality
May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder centerSteven Adams
(12) tips the ball away from San Antonio Spurs guardMarco Belinelli
(3) and San Antonio Spurs forwardAron Baynes
(16) during the third quarter in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Gregg Popovich used this phrase after their Game 3 loss, but the Spurs definitely did not heed his advice in Game 4. The Spurs played sloppy, they were careless with the basketball, and they often weren’t on the same page with each other.
As big of an impact that Ibaka has had on defense, much of the Spurs struggles have come from them beating themselves. In Games 3 and 4, the Thunder scored a solid 106 and 105 points respectively. While those are good offensive numbers, they aren’t numbers that should blow an elite team like San Antonio out of the gym.
However, due to San Antonio’s inability to consistently produce on offense and precisely execute their game-plan throughout the entirety of games, the Spurs aren’t giving themselves a chance. With the series now tied at 2-2, the phrase “foot-in-the-neck” mentality can be viewed as dead since the series is now a best of three.
However, I think that the phrase actually still holds merit. If the Spurs want to stomp out the seemingly creeping demons from the 2012 series and regain momentum, they have to treat Game 5 as a must-win and play the brand of basketball that they are known for.
3. Utilize home-court
May 27, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder fans celebrate during a break in action against the San Antonio Spurs in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Heading back to the AT&T center, the Spurs need to feed off the energy of their passionate and dedicated fans.
Although this is a generalizing statement to make, it still holds true. As seen by other NBA teams when playing at home – Oklahoma City, Golden State, Portland – the Spurs need to harness the fans’ energy and use it as a weapon to defeat the Thunder. As much as that sounds like some weird combination of Back to the Future (flux capacitor anybody?) and some Sci-Fi movie, it really is a factor in Game 5.
The Spurs worked all season long to earn home court advantage throughout the playoffs, and this is a moment where it has to pay dividends for the good guys. Although the Spurs shouldn’t solely rely on the fans’ energy, it still should provide the team with the extra spark they need to turn back on the Spurs team we all know and love.