Thunder Grab Control, Take Game 5 In San Antonio

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.

Manu Ginobili was masterful, but it wasn’t enough for the Spurs.

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.

Westbrook has struggled with poor shooting and turnovers so far. Will it matter in Game 6?

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.

Since Kevin Durant wasn’t getting looks, James Harden stepped up as OKC’s clutch player for the night, giving them control of the series.

Spurs Rally In Fourth To Take Game 1

It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t convincing, but Manu Ginobili and the Spurs edged Oklahoma City in a 101-98 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio extended their winning streak to 19 and took a 1-0 lead on the series, but the Thunder played uncharacteristically lackluster down the stretch and still ended up within one basket of what could have been a crucial road victory to start the series.

Ginobili led the Spurs with 26 points off the bench, hitting big baskets down the stretch to help San Antonio come back from a nine point deficit to start the fourth quarter. Tim Duncan finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds while Tony Parker had 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists. The Thunder were outscored 39-27 in the game’s final period after allowing just 62 points through three quarters. Gary Neal pitched in 12 points and Stephen Jackson, who ended up with only five points, hit a back-breaking 3-pointer down the stretch to stop the rolling Thunder from stealing Game 1 on the road. But despite getting the victory in the series opener, I still like OKC in this series. In a highly competitive game in San Antonio, the Thunder only lost by three points after Ginobili played out of his mind and James Harden and Russell Westbrook had awful performances. The likelihood of all three of these things happening at once in a single game again is extremely little. Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, was completely outplayed by Ginobili, who shot 9-of-14 from the field and played an outstanding game. Not that Ginobili isn’t capable of doing so again, but Harden won’t shoot 7-of-17 again (two 3-pointers came him garbage time) while committing four turnovers and five fouls. Russell Westbrook was even worse, finishing with 17 points on an appalling 7-of-21 shooting. That shouldn’t happen again. Tony Parker is a solid defender, but Westbrook has nowhere to go but up after such a disappointing Game 1 performance.

Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with a huge performance off the bench.

The series opener between these two high-octane teams revealed a few things to keep an eye on in the next few games. First of all, role players will be a deciding factor throughout this series. James Harden failed to make an impact until the game’s waning seconds, which the Thunder cannot afford to happen in Game 2. On the plus side though, Derek Fisher made a huge and unexpected impact with 13 points off the bench. For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal also made an impact off the bench, but Stephen Jackson’s defense swayed momentum in San Antonio’s favor. Meanwhile, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka all failed to have significant impacts on the offensive end. The big three on each team is the biggest factor, but how the role players perform on each side will make the difference. Another key factor will be how each team performs down the stretch. Last night, the Spurs got the best of the Thunder in the fourth quarter, which is entirely uncharacteristic of how the Thunder have played so far in the postseason. Defense another key point of impact in this series; the Thunder held the Spurs to just 62 points after three quarters but San Antonio still ended up getting to 100 points. For Oklahoma City, or any team with a nine-point lead entering the final quarter of a huge Game 1, getting outscored like that to lose this very winnable game is completely unacceptable.

Despite the fact that the Spurs pulled out the win, all of these factors lead me to believe that the Thunder will be just fine in this series. Barring that fourth quarter meltdown by the Thunder and Manu Ginobili’s prolific night, Oklahoma City was in good position to win on the road. However, they still have Game 2 to improve and steal a game on the road before the series shits back to OKC. All the Thunder really need to improve is getting more out of Westbrook and Harden, playing defense for a full four quarters, and hoping that Ginobili doesn’t have such an incredible performance again. I think that all three of these things are entirely possible and the Spurs’ Game 1 victory doesn’t fully impress me just yet. Credit San Antonio for taking care of business at home, but if the Thunder can sneak in a win in Game 2, this series is still completely wide open. We could be looking at a long series and despite the fact that neither team played particularly well in the series opener, the Thunder have more upside after this loss than the Spurs despite playing so poorly.

I still like the Thunder in this series, but James Harden and Russell Westbrook will need to pick it up offensively.

Spurs Win Game 1 Over Clippers

The Clippers played even with the Spurs through the first half, but San Antonio’s offensive onslaught was too much for Los Angeles in the second half and Gregg Popovich’s squad took a 1-0 series lead last night with a 108-92 victory in Game 1. Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 26 points and 10 rebounds, dismantling the Clippers interior defense, while San Antonio’s perimeter shooting gave LA no chance as they knocked down 13 3-pointers and shot over 52 percent from beyond the arc.

Eric Bledsoe had a breakout playoff performance with 23 points, five rebounds and four assists off the bench, but it wasn’t enough for the Clippers to contend after a brutal third quarter extended San Antonio’s lead to 15. Los Angeles got everything it needed out of its bench and even Blake Griffin played well considering that he was playing through an injury, but the one player whose lackluster performance really hurt was actually their superstar point guard, Chris Paul. Paul went 3-for-13 from the floor and finished with just six points and ten assists. Although Tony Parker only put up seven points and 11 assists, the Clips have no chance in this series with their best player producing such underwhelming numbers.

The Clippers’ bench came to play, but they can’t win without Chris Paul playing well.

Just as I anticipated in the Spurs-Clippers preview, the Spurs’ depth gave the Clippers a lot of problems. Although Bledsoe and Nick Young combined for 36 points off the bench and Kenyon Martin chipped in seven, Manu Ginobili’s 22-point performance was a killer. San Antonio also couldn’t miss from 3-point range as Ginobili, Daniel Green and Kawhi Leonard each nailed three shots from downtown to keep their distance from the resilient Clippers in the second half. Los Angeles was much more competitive than I thought they’d be (specifically in the first half), but then the Spurs woke up in the second and were too much to handle. Duncan absolutely destroyed the Clippers in the paint, Leonard and Green had surprisingly above-average offensive nights and Manu Ginobili played his second quality game in a row. So despite any concerns about the Spurs being rusty after sweeping the Jazz in the first round, if anything, they looked well-rested.

There’s really not much the Clippers can do if the Spurs keep up these high shooting percentages, especially from behind the 3-point line. Los Angeles has struggled with giving teams wide open looks from long range this year, which is definitely something they can’t afford to do against a team with so many efficient 3-point shooters. Chris Paul can’t afford to have such an underwhelming night from the field but he also really hurt his team with five turnovers. Other than Paul’s performance, the Clippers really did everything they needed to in order to be competitive. Unfortunately for Lob City, this series looks like it’s going to be entirely determined by the San Antonio Spurs.

Los Angeles had no answer for Tim Duncan and the Spurs’ perimeter shooters.

Spurs Sweep Jazz

Al Jefferson and the Jazz gave San Antonio everything they could handle, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid elimination by the top-seeded Spurs thanks to Manu Ginobili’s breakout performance on the offensive end. Utah fought hard to get the Game 4 win at home and put together a late rally, but the Spurs kept their distance and finished their sweep of the Jazz with an 87-81 victory.

Manu Ginobili, who had been virtually non-existent in the scoring column through San Antonio’s first three playoff games, finally had a productive offensive night, leading the Spurs with 17 points. The Jazz stayed in the game due to Al Jefferson and Devin Harris, but also because Tony Parker and Tim Duncan had poor shooting nights, finishing a combined 8-for-24. In fact, San Antonio’s starting five all struggled from the field, but their bench picked up the slack, outscoring Utah’s bench 57-10. Jefferson had 26 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Jazz while Devin Harris chipped in 19 points and seven assists. Derrick Favors, who moved into the starting lineup, had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Paul Millsap helped take care of the boards with 19 rebounds, but could only put up 10 points on the offensive end.

Al Jefferson led a late Jazz rally, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Utah from being swept by the balanced San Antonio Spurs.

It was San Antonio’s balance that overwhelmed the Jazz in Game 4, as Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal all reached double digits in scoring off the bench. The timing of Ginobili’s offensive burst was impeccable, as he hit consecutive 3-pointers to silence Utah’s rowdy crowd after the Jazz had cut the lead to three in the third quarter. From there the Spurs built up at 21-point lead that proved to be insurmountable despite Utah’s late rally. But the Jazz were extremely close to extending the series and sending it back to San Antonio for Game 5 behind that late run, putting themselves in position to win by doing almost everything they needed to. They outrebounded the Spurs 57-43. They only committed 12 turnovers. And they had eight blocks compared to San Antonio’s four. But in the end, three major factor prevented them from coming out on top.

First of all, they missed nine free throws. If you want to unseat the top seed in the West, you need to take advantage of free points when you have the chance. Second, they got absolutely nothing out of Gordon Hayward, who basically disappeared from this series after Game 1. Hayward made the Jazz a potentially dangerous matchup entering the postseason, but he had zero points on 0-of-7 shooting in an elimination game. And speaking of poor shooting, the Jazz’s third blunder was failing to make a single 3-pointer at home in Game 4, finishing 0-for-13 from downtown. Utah has struggled with their 3-point shooting all season, but this area really hurt them as San Antonio shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of their 22 attempts. So while Utah was able to exploit the Spurs down low, their inability to convert from long range prevented them from getting a win.

Looking ahead, the Spurs will face either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. At this point, LAC has a 3-1 series lead and will likely be San Antonio’s next opponent. If the Clippers advance, the key matchups will be obviously be Tony Parker against Chris Paul and Tim Duncan against Blake Griffin, but the series will ultimately come down to the two benches. The Spurs have a clear advantage in their bench production over the majority of the league, but if LA can get something out of their reserves and Paul and Griffin outplay Parker and Duncan (which isn’t out of the question), it could be a close series. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies somehow come back from a 3-1 deficit and advance to the next round, the Spurs should beat them pretty handily. This isn’t the same dangerous Memphis squad as last year, Zach Randolph is still up and down, the Grizzlies are having problems getting anything out of their bench and San Antonio will want revenge for last year’s upset. Fortunately, the Clippers should advance barring a complete meltdown over the next three possible games, so we should be treated to a high-octane second round matchup between the top-seeded, experienced Spurs and the dangerous, entertaining Clippers.

If the Clips advance, we have a good second round matchup on our hands. But if Manu Ginobili plays like he did in Game 4, San Antonio will move on easily.

San Antonio Spurs: Best In The West?

The Spurs made their intentions of sweeping extremely clear in a complete 114-83 rout of the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz yesterday. Utah looked like a dangerous team entering the postseason, especially when one recalls that the Spurs were in the same position last year before falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. But so far, San Antonio has been absolutely dominant. So now the question stands: does Utah have any chance in this series against the Western juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs?

To get to the point, the answer is “no.” But let’s take a more in-depth look at why the Spurs have been so dominant this far. Aside from Utah not having any guards that are an offensive threat and playing pretty poor basketball, there have been three main factors in San Antonio dismantling the Jazz so far:
1) Tony Parker has been playing like an MVP candidate
2) Manu Ginobili is healthy and is playing with energy
3) The Spurs bench makes this team truly unstoppable by consistently contributing every night.

Tony Parker is the biggest reason why the Spurs are steamrolling the Jazz so far.

Tony Parker has been able to pick Utah’s defense apart so far. He’s getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line and when the Jazz’s interior defense actually does prevent him from scoring, Parker has been able to find open teammates like Tim Duncan on the inside and a plethora of 3-point threats on the outside. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili finally looks like himself again after struggling with injury problems for the majority of the season. Ginobili is attacking the basket and in two home games, his ability to fire up the crowd with some flashy passing and drives to the rim is priceless. But Ginobili’s injury actually was a blessing in disguise; when he was out, the Spurs’ role players all had to step up. They haven’t stepped down since. The Spurs have nine active players who averaged at least 7 points per game during the regular season: Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Patrick Mills, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Daniel Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. And that number would be 11 if you include the injured Tiago Splitter and Richard Jefferson before he was traded away. Utah has had a hard enough time defending Parker and Tim Duncan, but you throw in another full lineup of guys who can score, play defense and launch 3-pointers and it’s no surprise this series has been a blowout so far.

The Jazz are struggling with their own problems of course. Devin Harris and
Gordon Hayward haven’t played like the guys who made this team so dangerous just a few weeks ago; Al Jefferson hasn’t had a standout game; Paul Millsap disappeared in Game 2; and Utah just doesn’t have enough depth to contend. But this has been a case of the Spurs asserting their dominance and imposing their will rather than the Jazz failing to show up; San Antonio is just too good and they’ve played like it so far. Who knows? The Jazz might have been able to compete in a different Western matchup, but the Spurs have too much experience, talent and depth for this to be anything other than a massacre so far. The Thunder have looked extremely good against an experienced Dallas team and the Lakers are a threat in the West as well, but the San Antonio Spurs are playing extremely well and definitely have to be one of the top candidates for the title of Best in the West.

Stephen Jackson is one of many role players who does his part night in and night out for San Antonio.

Streaking Spurs

As a Suns fans, I’m compelled to hate the San Antonio Spurs for all the years they’ve knocked Phoenix out of the playoffs, but I have to respect Greg Popovich and his team for their ability to play at such a high level every year even with old age starting to take its toll (see “Tim Duncan” for the definition of old).

I'm just kidding, Tim. I respect you. I don't like you, but I respect you.

While teams like the Knicks, Heat and Thunder have been making headlines, the Spurs have quietly won 12 of their last 13 games. And the one game they lost was a blowout loss to Portland when Popovich rested Tony Parker and Tim Duncan (and Manu Ginobili was still out with an injury). In that stretch, San Antonio won games they were supposed to against lesser competition while also besting more competitive teams like the Thunder, Clippers, Philadelphia and Denver.

Tony Parker’s All-Star season is a big reason for the team’s success. He’s leading the Spurs in scoring at 19 points a game and is also averaging 8 assists per game. Duncan’s numbers aren’t terrific (14.1 ppg and 8.6 rpg), but San Antonio has 10 players who are averaging at least 7 points a game. This collective effort has helped the team keep winning even without Ginobili. Tiago Splitter was a huge addition in 2010, but after having injury problems at the end of the year, he is finally emerging as a decent scorer. Rookie Kawhi Leonard’s hustle and effective rebounding makes him a great role player who can also chip in a few points. Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal, Daniel Green and Matt Bonner similarly don’t have flashy numbers, but they have bought into Popovich’s system and the role they each have, which makes for a very competitive squad.

The Spurs have a lot of good role players, but this guy is the big reason San Antonio keeps winning

The Spurs have a knack for streaking during the regular season and this year is no different. They have climbed all the way to the 2nd spot in the West with a 24-10 record after starting the season with an underwhelming 12-9 record, which is especially impressive considering that Ginobili has been on the bench for most of the year. Last season, the Spurs had an incredible regular season record of 61-21, only to fall short to the surprising Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Although this was an extremely disappointing outcome for San Antonio fans (personally, I thought it was hysterical and awesome they lost in the first round as the #1 seed), the Spurs look like they’re back to their winning ways so far this season. Time will tell if they can stay injury-free for the postseason and actually make a run in the playoffs this year, but for now, keep your eye on this team in the West. Because even though winning regular season games isn’t the main objective, if Ginobili blends well with the Spurs’ current rhythm, they could be dangerous.

Popovich is going to keep developing his role players like the promising Kawhi Leonard