Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 at 9:53 am  |  30 responses

Post Up: Thunder Power

Oklahoma City is one win away from the NBA Finals after holding off a late Spurs surge.

Thunder 108, Spurs 103 (OKC leads 3-2)

When two teams love to get up and down the court in the manner that is preferred by those in the Western Conference Finals, the defensive side of the court can often be ignored. Playing defense is about passion and effort, not schematics and execution. Defense is about talking with teammates, not screaming at your opponent after a made basket. Defense isn’t sexy and fun, it’s grimy and dirty.

The age-old adage in sport that “defense wins championships” can often be applied to the game of professional basketball. Hell, one of the teams involved in this year’s epic series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder won four titles over nine years with defense at the forefront of their collective team focus. While the Spurs have upped their tempo and gotten younger, the existing tenants taught by head coach Greg Popovich are still cemented in defense.

The first four games of this series were case studies in defense and effort. Game 1 was a tragically epic fourth-quarter defensive meltdown by the Thunder. The visiting team was better for much of the game, but allowed the home team to sneak back to steal the series’ first tilt. Game 2 was like that previous 4th quarter, only this time the Thunder didn’t discriminate. They were defensively awful for the entire game. The Thunder were flat- footed, lost, uncommunicative and were thoroughly destroyed. The taste in NBA fans’ mouths after was a sense that maybe the Thunder didn’t belong. Maybe they were overly outmatched.

The series shifted back to the lunacy that is the Chesapeake Energy Arena for Games 3 and 4 and instead of relying exclusively on their fast-paced offense, the team played with patience and were under control. The Thunder got their usual lift from their insanely partisan crowd and Russell Westbrook played like the pass-first point guard everyone has been trying to mold him into. The Thunder got back in the series, winning both with style and grace.

Game 5 was back near the Alamo and while the pace was to the liking of fans of 1970s ABA, the outcome was still decided by effort. It was determined by which team could focus their offensive energy in a positive manner, while unchaining their team’s defensive intensity.

Building off the past two games’ momentum, the visitors from up the I-35 were the more balanced outfit. Getting contributions from several bench guys, not relying on one guy and posing several defensive issues for the home team. Meanwhile, the Spurs were over-dependent on one guy, Manu Ginobili. The Argentine Wizard was magical and his 27 points through the game’s first 30 minutes (he finished with 34) enabled the Spurs to erase a double-digit second-quarter deficit.

But, again, it was defense midway through the third quarter that shifted the game’s momentum back to OKC. The Spurs had quickly flipped an 8-point halftime deficit to a 9-point mid-quarter lead. But, when the Spurs’ reliance on Manu stopped bearing consistent fruit, the Thunder flipped things back, spurred by a familiar face.

The NBA’s leading scorer, Kevin Durant, was exquisite in the final quarter of Game 4, practically willing his team to even the series. On this night, though, he was slow to get involved and assert himself. But during the last two quarters, KD was brilliant. His 22 second-half points pushed the Thunder not only back into the game but his stretch to end the third was the difference in a 108-103 win, thought to be an improbable win by many.

In the end, the team defense of OKC forced 21 turnovers and turned them into 28 points. Just a week after trailing the Spurs 0-2—with the weight of the NBA world on their shoulders—the Thunder are now one game from making their first-ever trip to the Finals since the franchise moved from Seattle.

Yes, there was some late-game drama with the Spurs shrinking a 13-point Thunder lead to just a single possession. But a pull-up jumper from Westbrook (23 points, 12 assists) and a ruthless 3-pointer from James Harden (20 points, 3-4 from three) silenced the AT&T faithful.

Make no mistake; this result was again about responsibility and accountability on the defensive end. And for the last three games, that team has been the OKC Thunder. —Cub Buenning (@cubbuenning)

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  • http://www.yahoo.com The Fury

    It’s tough to be a Spurs fan right now. Tough pill to swallow that Brooks is out-coaching Pop. ARGGHHH!!!!

  • ALD

    its time for the old head to retire… let your jersey hang and watch okc win.. or miami

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    I was impressed with the Thunder, and I must give props to all the folks who believed they could do this before the series began. Like Cub Benning and others.
    I honestly thought the Spurs would win in five. I didn’t see Brooks handling Pop and the Thunder getting buckets in the halfcourt. After the first two games, neither of those things has been an issue, and that’s a testament to both the coach and the players. They deserve to be winning, and that’s the best compliment you can give a team.

  • Heals

    I dunno if he is out-coaching Pop as much as it may seem. KD, WusselRestbrook, Harden and Ibaka are great athletes in addition to being excellent ball players. Once they get going or gain the sense that they’re every bit, if not better than their opponent it’s a lethal blend. If anything the Spurs depth is hurting them to a certain degree. When shht hits the fan they don’t necessarily have those 8 guys that are goning to play the whole 2 half (foul trouble early was a huge factor in setting OKC up early with an advantage) regardless of who else is on the court. The whole season they took advantage of other teams’ inability to match up with whatever 5 guys Pop ran out there. Now they’re facing a team that is every bit their equal in many aspects and OKC has 4 guys (is Thabo the 5th?) that are playing when things get most dire no matter what…

  • ALD

    honestly .. i had a feeling okc was going to at least tie the series up. IN games 1&2, the spurs were on fire and okc was playing bad d. They’re know for better play at defense than that.. I didnt believe that danny green and all those role players would hit every three. The series is NOT over but i hope ESPN would stop gassing team when their hott.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    I thought he was out-coaching him because in both games Brooks has run the same play over and over again and Pop hasn’t discovered how to stop it. That might not seem like great coaching, but it kind of is.

  • BlackStar

    OKC is amazing to watch. Those young boys were rather disrespectful to their elders last night … And it was fun to watch. They have so much confidence right now that it’s scary. Can’t wait till Game 6!

    Now imagine if the lockout didn’t end … We would be missing all this great basketball.

  • http://slamonline.com Datkid

    IMO scott brooks just has a vast advantage in personnel. I don’t think Pop can stop that play bc it’s complicated, or it exploits a key weaknesses within the spurs… I just feel like he can’t stop it, bc these are honestly some of the best ballers on the planet. they’re young they’re hungry, and popovich just doesn’t have the people to counteract that. Only the heat do. Y

  • http://slamonline.com nbk

    The Spurs aren’t a very good defensive team. They were productive as a defense against bad offenses in the regular season, but they weren’t any sort of defensive power. So the Thunder having a ton of offensive success against them doesn’t really surprise me at all. The 21 turnovers from the Spurs last night was what was really alarming. Scott Brooks has the Thunder doing more defensively then I expected him to do. And he has to get credit for implementing a strategy that pulls the Spurs out of their rhythm.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Exactly NBK
    Pop hasn’t figured out definitely how to deal with this Thabo versus Parker situation. He hasn’t figured out how to make Durant uncomfortable in isolation.
    He has made good adjustments in his rotation, but his team is still giving up crazy penetration.
    It’s not all his fault, the players have to play. But, if Brooks had failed to make these sort of adjustments in three straight games, he would be getting killed. Definitely true for Spoelstra.

  • http://slamonline.com nbk

    I don’t really think the Spurs have the ability to do anything about the Thunder’s ability to get in the lane. Parker is a defensive liability inside 25 feet from the basket. He can make Westbrook uncomfortable coming up the floor, but once Westbrook is in pick and roll or shooting range Parker becomes a minor speed bump. And Harden is too strong for Ginobili on defense. He just bowls through him. The best defensive lineup for San Antonio doesn’t include their best offensive players, and vice versa. So that’s a major issue that I don’t know if strategy can fix. But regardless of that, Scott Brooks is doing one hell of a job in this series, he should get a ton of credit.

  • http://slamonline.com LakeShow

    Russel had a great game last night(despite 37% shooting). He really makes them go with his relentless attacking. It works when it works. Durant is really impressive with his efficiency. 19 shots. 10 makes. Kobe needs to take a page out of the young guns book. Harden was deadly. He showed what he could do if given the green light as the main man. Dudes got skills.

  • permaculture james

    cosign allenp 1042am.The streak and the first 2 wins had this looking like a sweep rather than the 7 game I expected. I thought Cub was contradictory with his prediction of OKC winning: so many losses in first rounds vs Spurs’ sweeps. But OKC is legit. Awesome series. Pop couldn’t ‘get’ the post game question, “is OKC winning it or are the Spurs losing it?” I’d say OKC is winning it, right now.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    perma, “so many losses in the first rounds..” They lost one solitary game to the Lakers. I’ve been picking them since last summer, so….

  • Lee

    Di anyone else read Jason Whitlock’s piece on how NBA player’s from single parent households are less disciplined and less likely to win that guy’s from two-parent household’s? In his never-ending quest to slight everything Lebron and Durant accomplish, he proclaimed that it was why they wouldn’t make the Finals. It’s on foxsports.

  • permaculture james

    Cub: I stand corrected! I’m not watching as much as I’ve wanted to. Your instincts are really good if you are going back to last summer. I feel like I’m watching a team mature faster than any I can readily remember.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    It’s not LeBron and Durant Whitlock is trying to slight. He’s trying to attack a certain type of black person. That’s his niche.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Oh, and sorry for misspelling your name Mr. Buenning.

  • Bruno

    Kobe needs to take a page out of the young guns book??? what? hahaha

  • http://www.slamonline.com Cub Buenning

    Allenp, it has so rarely been spelled correctly, I don’t even notice anymore. Verbally spoken, everyone wants to add an “R” right after the “B.” There is no “R” in my name.

    Anyone, other than TD, think that SAS still has a chance? I feel it is all but over. That was why i tweeted yesterday that GM5 was more of a “must-win” for the Spurs.

  • davidR

    gotta give the thunder their props. they’re hungry.
    it’s not over yet, but it’s definitely looking bleak for the spurs. if they win this next game, who do you take for game 7?

  • Heals

    Totally see your point about the coaching Ap, I just lean towards Datkid’s perspective a little more…

  • Lee

    Whitlock is pathetic.

  • http://www.sportsgrid.com/media/shaq-kobe-highlights/ shutup

    I still think it can be pushed to a game 7, The Spurs defense has been lacking but they have also stiffened up on the offensive end, neal forcing bad shots and Green being almost invisible has really hurt them, I tip my hat to Cub, although Ibaka’s offensive outburst was not predicted by anyone. Tony Parker has got to step up next game if the Spurs have got a chance and the extras on the Spurs have got to outplay the extras on the Thunder, simple as that.

  • http://www.sportsgrid.com/media/shaq-kobe-highlights/ shutup

    Also gotta give credit to Westbrook after the first two games I really thought he hurt his team more than helped, he still has knucklehead moments but he has limited them and their team is all the more better because of it, switching him off Tony Parker and thus taking him out of the mindset he has to outdo Parker by himself was probably the key to this series. Would love to see this go 7. Some of the quarters between these two have been ugly but man when both teams are on and they are going back and forth it is by far some of the prettiest basketball of this shortened season.

  • permaculture james

    Cub: I still hold some hope for SAS … but can’t claim to know the way forward. I’m surprised how well Parker has been contained thus far … Love how SJax is defiant — in fact all the Spurs still sound really composed in the post game interviews. Wondering about all the comments of DBlair being the OKC killer but not playing this series. I thought Bonner shooting 3s would be a factor by spreading the floor.

  • http://cnbc.com JTaylor21

    I don’t think Brooks has done anything amazing or outcoached Pop. It has more to do with the Thunder putting more effort on defending the PnR and recovering out on the perimeter to cover 3pt shooters.
    Ever since his Game 2 showing, TP’s impact has been neturalized.
    The Spurs are not the same defensive juggernaut they were during their first 4 championship runs, so OKC has been getting whatever they wanted on the offensive end even during the first 2 games/losses, it was just that KD wasn’t making shots he usually makes. Those 2 home games in OKC were the turning point in the series.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Everyone should have known the Spurs were not the same defensive team, I mentioned it when discussing Miami’s chances if they should beat Boston. But, the Spurs typically got timely stops, particularly when the other team had an unimaginative offense.
    The Thunder deserve credit for amping their defense up with increased effort and small scheme changes, but also for being able to score consistently even when everyone knows what’s coming. I didn’t think Pop would allow that to happen, but the Thunder’s athletic ability has taken over. I gave Pop the benefit of the doubt and assumed he would find a way to neutralize Durant’s isolations and Westbrook’s high screen and rolls, but it still hasn’t happened.

  • http://cnbc.com JTaylor21

    So apart from the one adjustment SBrooks made during the series (Thabo on TP), what does he have to do with OKC being up 3-2? The series changed when OKC went back home and their role players regained their confidence off that home crowd. OKC won last night at SA because their 3 best players played well together for the first time this series. I’m not trying sell Brooks short but the man hasn’t shown me anything yet to proclaim he’s outcoaching Pop.

  • http://slamonline.com nbk

    He’s not out-coaching Popovich. Let’s establish that right away. He just has a much more talented team.
    But he is not being “out-coached” either. And nobody expected that. By not being “out-coached” Brooks is, in a way, winning the coaching battle.