I had no idea what to really expect tonight.
In a series with two tremendously terrific teams, for three straight games it was garbage time units finishing up the evening. After the Thunder’s ambush in Game 3, it seemed to me as if Game 4 was set up to be something special. A game of punches and counterpunches, a back-and-forth slugfest with two titans going for knockout blows.
Instead, the Thunder straight up ran the Spurs.
The game, though, started all Spurs. They opened on an 8-0 run, spacing out the Thunder with a couple 3s and a driving layup from Tony Parker. It seemed as if maybe, all that magic of Serge Ibaka’s return had worn off and reality might be setting back in. The Spur machine was humming, and the Thunder were disjointed.
But like Game 3, Ibaka put the Thunder on the scoreboard first, finishing a transition layup. Then Kevin Durant hit a soft runner in the lane. And then Reggie Jackson rolled the crap out of his ankle. He tried to stay in, but it was clear Jackson was in a significant amount of pain, with him eventually taking a foul to get out. Seemed just about right, didn’t it? The Thunder had finally gotten whole again, they were finally looking like themselves, and bam, bad luck again.
Jeremy Lamb checked in and immediately made a positive impact. He seemed to finally discover that he has long arms that would make him an effective defender, picking up three first half steals. The Thunder started piecing together stops and scores, eventually overtaking the Spurs for a 26-20 first quarter lead.
We didn’t know it at the time, but the game was pretty much over right there. Durant lit the Spurs for 22 in the first half on 9-of-12 shooting, while Westbrook added 17 with seven assists. Lamb even punctuated things with a 3 right before the horn. The Thunder opened up a 15-point halftime lead, and didn’t slow down.
With 5:33 left in the third, Gregg Popovich had seen enough. The Thunder led 76-49. Westbrook was strutting around, Kendrick Perkins was blocking shots — for real — and Thunder were entirely suffocating the Spurs.
The Spurs’ scrubs pieced together an 18-7 finish the period, keeping things not just moderately interesting, but also forcing the Thunder to play their starters. The game was never entirely out of hand, with San Antonio getting it to 12 twice. Back to that in a minute, though.
Because let’s talk about Russell Westbrook. In 45 minutes of scorched earth, he poured in 40 points on 12-24 shooting, 10 assists, five rebounds, five steals and a block. He’s the first player to register a line like that in the playoffs since Michael Jordan in 1989. He was a menace on the defensive end, bullying Tony Parker and making things like dribbling and passing turn into achievements. Relentless is a popular word to use in describing Westbrook, but it’s the best fit for Game 4. He started, and never stopped. When Westbrook gets rolling like that, he can just straight up ruin your sh**.
“Russell does a great job every single game of just playing with that fire and that force,” Durant said. “And I just try to do the same things and have our teammates follow behind us.
With Jackson’s injury and a less productive game from Serge Ibaka (nine points on 4-8 shooting), the Thunder got similar non-Westbrook and Durant production from the other three starters as Games 1 and 2 (14 total points). But this was a different team than those nights in San Antonio. The defense was electric, but more than anything, Westbrook and Durant were unstoppable. Ibaka’s offensive presence has added so much to the rhythm and flow, opening space for Durant and Westbrook operate. The Thunder’s superduo piled up 71 for the game, with Westbrook outscoring the Spurs himself, 40-39.
The Spurs did come mildly back, though, making things a little harder than maybe they should’ve been. Popovich was asked about why he held out his starters the way he did, he answered, “Thursday.” The Spurs basically packed it in for Game 4, turning their minds to Game 5. The Thunder on the other hand, possibly out of overwhelming fear of a collapse, played it out.
“Our job is to worry about us,” Westbrook said. “We’ve got to win the game, regardless of who they have on the floor, regardless of if they’re worried about the next game. We’re worried about tonight’s game. We’re young, we’re going to recover, take care of our body and be ready to play.”
Because he’s Scott Brooks and not even a huge 13-point win is good enough, a lot of people were upset at the fact the Spurs were able to rest their starters while Brooks rode Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka for the majority of the fourth quarter. Seeing the end result, it’s easy to be critical, but you know you were squirming when the Spurs cut it to 12 a couple different times. The Thunder have blown postseason leads before — Game 4 against the Clippers should ring a bell quickly — and Brooks wasn’t about to risk this.
Things are squared away now. It’s a best-of-three with the Thunder healthy, and the Spurs shaken. Memories of 2012 are popping all over, but in order for the Thunder to complete the picture, they need a performance in San Antonio. They didn’t have Ibaka in those first two games, but they also didn’t have much anything else. They’re back in the series, and things are way up in the air. Someone is coming back to OKC with a chance to move on to the Finals this Saturday. And if the Thunder can take this show on the road, it should be them.
- The Thunder have now won nine straight in OKC against the Spurs, plus seven straight overall and 12 of 14 with Ibaka.
- Manu Ginobili on the Spurs struggles in OKC: “I think they are pretty good. What should I say? They have been one of the best teams in the league. I don’t see that as a crazy thing. Many teams haven’t won here. It happens.”
- Here’s a stat: The Spurs scored 66, then 54 points in the paint in Games 1 and 2. They scored 40 in Game 3, then 36 tonight in Game 4. Seems that Ibaka fellow is pretty relevant.
- Pop is worshipped, but his stubbornness not to bring his starters back in was confusing. I understand his situation to play the long game and keep his guys ready, but down 12 with 10 minutes left against a team with a history of blowing leads, and you don’t even consider it? If this is any other coach, we’re killing him right now, right?
- Wild number: The Thunder had 21 fast break points to the Spurs’ zero. And even more, the Spurs didn’t have a single fast break attempt.
- Two things: 1) Where has Kawhi Leonard gone, and 2) where has Tiago Splitter gone?
- I saw some issues with playing Ibaka deep into the fourth tonight. Thing is, with his injury, it’s actually better for him when he’s loose and warm. His big problem is when it tightens. He’s not at risk of injuring himself more severely, but it’s just a matter of pain and swelling.
- Scott Brooks with a super insightful quote on beating the Spurs seven straight with Ibaka: “That’s the question. We were just — no one really knows. We play well with Serge. Serge is a really good basketball player.” Sometimes I feel like Scott Brooks is doing his own Saturday Night Live skit.
- Pop: “We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis, and all of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They’d know who Serge was. But really unwise basketball all of a sudden. Instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots.”
- Pop: “This has got nothing to do with adjustments, it’s about playing smarter and harder for more consistent minutes.”
- Jackson came back to start the second half and played a few minutes, hitting a 3. But he’s going to be in for some serious treatment after that ankle roll. I’d expect him to play in Game 5, but he could be battling against some discomfort.
- Durant was asked if this is the best he and Westbrook have ever played together: “I don’t know to be honest. We’ve played so many games together. But we were just so focused on bringing that energy for our teammates. We’re the leaders, we set the tone, and they follow us. Russell does a great job every single game of just playing with that fire and that force, and I just try to do the same things and have our teammates follow behind us. I don’t know about the best game we’ve ever played. I think we have another level we can go to.”
- Big offensive difference right now for the Thunder: They’re attacking space. Especially Durant. He had so much more room to operate, isolating on defenders and getting a full head of steam to take them off the dribble.
- Perk quietly played a really nice game — two points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
- Pretty sure Russell Westbrook was wearing the Fresh Prince’s school jacket postgame.
- Durant’s misfired alley-oop to Westbrook in the third, I have a theory that KD intentionally threw it terrible in an effort to produce the most ridiculous oop you’ve ever seen.
- Everybody going to make a huge stinking deal about Tim Duncan griping at Danny Green? No? That’s just for the Thunder? Gotcha.
- Via J.A. Adande: “Joey Crawford giving handshakes and apologies to the OKC scoreboard operator he berated in the Memphis series.”
- Crazy stat: The Spurs turned the ball over 13 times; 12 of those were Thunder steals.
- Steven Adams with excellent minutes once again. Deserves a shout out.
- Jeremy Lamb deserves some big credit for being ready and answering the call when needed. He defended, he rebounded, and he made a couple shots.
- Amazing how quickly the Spurs have gone from looking completely unstoppable, to looking old and slow.
- The Thunder all seemed to be on the same message tonight. They did their job, they defended home court. But they don’t have a reason to be happy yet.
Next up: Game 5 in San Antonio on Thursday