Post Up: Thunder Power

by June 05, 2012

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)