The home team has dominated in the Western Conference Finals this year, leaving a lot of doubt as to whether or not the Oklahoma City Thunder had any chance of advancing with two of the series’ final three games in San Antonio. After Kevin Durant and James Harden willed their team to victory on the road in a 106-103 win in Game 5, that might be all but assured.
Durant led Oklahoma City with 27 points, Harden chipped in 20 off the bench and the Thunder withstood a furious rally from Manu Ginobili and the Spurs to take a 3-2 lead with the series shifting back to OKC for an elimination Game 6. The Thunder have now won three straight and will look to close out San Antonio at home, where they are 6-0 in the postseason so far. Ginobil led the Spurs with 34 points, seven assists and six rebounds and he and Tony Parker went on a tear in the second half, but the Thunder will able to cling to a narrow lead after a 13-point advantage dwindled to just two with 50 seconds to play. Parker had 20 but was once again corralled all night by Thabo Sefolosha’s tremendous defense. However, Ginobili’s insertion into the starting lineup for Daniel Green almost proved to be deadly for the Thunder, as the Spurs’ sixth man was nearly unstoppable all night, drilling five 3-pointers and willing his team back into the game in the third and fourth quarters.
Despite foul trouble for Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and James Harden early on, the Thunder build up a 14-point lead in the first half. Daequan Cook had valuable minutes off the bench with Sefolosha and Harden in foul trouble, knocking down all three of his shots to score eight points in just four minutes of play. However, Ginobili and company stormed back, by minimizing their turnovers during a critical stretch to cut it to eight right before halftime. San Antonio continued their run into the third quarter, taking advantage of sloppy offense and numerous turnovers from the Thunder to take a four-point lead after Ginobili hit back-to-back threes. Unfortunately for San Antonio, just like in Game 4’s masterful performance, Kevin Durant saved his best for the second half, once again warming up in the third and taking control to put his team further ahead. Durant had only five points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, but helped his team weather the storm and eventually a 15-4 run overcame a stretch where Ginobili scored 13 of San Antonio’s 15 points. Good defense and a solid shooting stretch from Russell Westbrook (including this mammoth alley-oop) characterized the critical third quarter run, which was capped off by a Durant buzzer-beater that extended OKC’s lead to nine heading into the fourth quarter.
Now the Thunder had built up a nine point lead on the road heading into the fourth before; in Game 1, Oklahoma City was in the exact same situation before allowing Parker and the Spurs to storm back and steal the series opener. And although San Antonio threatened to do the same in Game 5, Harden’s brilliant fourth quarter performance prevented a full on collapse and gave the Thunder the pivotal victory on the road. Harden scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth, draining three 3-pointers. These included a four-point play that extended the Thunder’s lead to 13 with five minutes to play and the shot of the game, a long-range bomb and dagger three that was the definition of clutch, putting the Thunder up five with 28 seconds to play and effectively sealing the win. But Westbrook turnovers and OKC’s sometimes annoying tendency to not put the ball in the hands of the NBA’s leading scorer resurfaced as the Spurs made a last-ditch effort to comeback. Westbrook had 23 points, 12 assists and big bucket down the stretch to give OKC a four-point advantage when the Spurs looked like they were about to take over, but he also had six turnovers and didn’t get the ball to Durant down the stretch. Some of the blame should lie with Scott Brooks, but the Thunder will need to do a better job of getting the ball to their clutch closer in tight games in the future if they want to advance and win an NBA championship.
After Harden’s critical 3-pointer, Ginobili was able to score a quick layup before the Spurs set up a half court press. Another coaching error was committed by Brooks, who should have called a timeout to draw up an inbounds play. Instead, Durant was trapped and threw the ball to Sefolosha, who lost it out of bounds because of great pressure from Kawhi Leonard, giving the Spurs a chance to hit a 3-pointer with 15 seconds to go. Unfortunately for San Antonio, Ginobili couldn’t hit the one that mattered and Durant iced the game with two free throws before Stephen Jackson knocked down a last-second three that didn’t matter.
With Game 6 in Oklahoma City, the Spurs playoff hopes are steadily dwindling. The Thunder have now won three straight and are undefeated at home in the playoffs this year. Switching Sefolosha onto Parker has made a huge difference in the series and the Thunder’s role players have learned how to step up and contribute. In fact, the depth that was one of the Spurs’ greatest assets has begun to fade as Oklahoma City’s bench outscored San Antonio’s 40-22. Without Parker creating havoc in the lane and the Spurs’ bench knocking down threes, Gregg Popovich has had to rely fully on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to carry the load. Ginobili and Duncan (18 points and 12 rebounds) had great games last night, but it wasn’t enough to overcome OKC’s balanced play combined with great games from their big three of Durant, Harden and Westbrook. Now the Spurs face elimination in a hostile road environment, and history isn’t on their side. The last time the Spurs went up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals, they lost four straight to fall to the Los Angeles Lakers in six. With a youthful and championship-hungry team led by such a high-caliber superstar in Kevin Durant standing in the way, the aging Spurs have little chance now. The Thunder need to finish them off at home (because they certainly don’t want to mess around and let this go to a Game 7 in San Antonio), but I think they will understand the gravity of winning Game 6 at home and my prediction that OKC would advance in six games is looking like it’ll be right on the money.