at Oklahoma City 102, San Antonio 82 (San Antonio leads 2-1)
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 116.1, San Antonio 93.2
On the 50th day, the San Antonio Spurs lost. More than a month and a half since their last defeat on April 11, and a game away from going through the entire month of May undefeated in playoff games, the Spurs' run came to an end Thursday in Oklahoma City. Honestly, I think it ended like we expected--to the extent we ever expected San Antonio to lose again. As nearly happened in Game 3 against the L.A. Clippers, the Spurs fell behind and Gregg Popovich pulled the plug early, removing Tim Duncan for good with 4:15 left in the third quarter. Believe it or not, San Antonio's margin of defeat (20 points) was larger than all but one of the Spurs' victories in their 10-0 start to the postseason.
What changed the series, besides the shift in venues, was the Thunder's decision to cut off the head in the hopes the snake would die. For the 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs, Tony Parker is the head. Scott Brooks and his coaching staff adjusted by moving stopper Thabo Sefolosha onto Parker, giving him more defensive responsibility against a San Antonio starting lineup whose wings create relatively few shots. Sefolosha responded brilliantly at both ends of the floor. After playing just 15 minutes in Game 2, Sefolosha was on the floor for 37 minutes Thursday before getting a rest once the game was decided. He followed Parker everywhere, using his length to smother passing lanes and creating a remarkable six steals. Sefolosha was also energized on offense, knocking down four three-pointers and scoring 19 points.
Without Parker creating as much offense as usual - he still scored 16 points, but had five turnovers and just four assists - the Spurs' starters struggled after halftime. In the first 7:41 of the third quarter, they managed just eight points as the Thunder pushed a 16-point halftime lead to 20, effectively ending the game. If he was putting all his emphasis on a comeback, Popovich surely would have gone quickly to Manu Ginobili, putting another creator on the floor. Instead, San Antonio's first subs were Matt Bonner and Stephen Jackson and Ginobili did not get in the game until late in the third quarter. That might not have mattered anyway since Ginobili struggled aside from drawing five free throw attempts.
In the past, Tim Duncan might have stepped up to lead the Spurs' offense, but he was incapable of doing so against a motivated Kendrick Perkins. After struggling badly against the pick-and-roll in Game 2, Perkins improved his play on the perimeter with help from Sefolosha's presence against Parker. Down low, Perkins continued to do yeoman's work against Duncan, who missed 10 of his 15 shot attempts and was a non-factor on the glass.
As a team, Oklahoma City also packed the paint more tightly than in the first two games of the series, daring San Antonio to win from the perimeter. That sounds risky, given the Spurs' shooters, and indeed San Antonio made 11 three-pointers in 26 attempts. However, the Thunder was so dominant in the paint (outscoring the Spurs 44-24) that the perimeter disparity did not matter.
Oklahoma City's other starters also picked up their offensive play. In addition to Sefolosha's unexpected contributions, Serge Ibaka knocked down the midrange jumper when left open on pick-and-rolls, scoring 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting. And Perkins was able to deliver a modicum of efficiency, splitting his four shot attempts and committing just one turnover. The result is that, even without a dominant performance from any of its top three scorers, the Oklahoma City offense was more than good enough to win.
For the first time in this postseason, the onus is on San Antonio to make adjustments. The Spurs shouldn't--and surely won't--go overboard in reacting to one loss, especially one in which so many key players struggled. Still, Popoviich and his coaching staff need to deal with the Parker-Sefolosha matchup. The simplest possibility is to run the offense through Ginobili and not Parker, though that might require starting Ginoblii, a major shift at this point of the postseason. Another option, as suggested by Doug Eberhardt on Twitter, is to use guard-guard screens to try to get the Thunder to switch Russell Westbrook back on Parker. San Antonio could even run the kind of 1-2 pick-and-rolls--with Ginobili or Danny Green screening for Parker--the L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat often use with Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Point guards like Westbrook aren't used to defending the screener, which makes teams reluctant to do anything but switch these screens, creating more favorable matchups for the offense.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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