The Oklahoma City Thunder defense seemed lost after Game 1 — a unit that struggled to make life even a little difficult for a San Antonio Spurs' offense that freely bombed away in the series opener. A little more than a week later, the Spurs can’t so much as signal for a play without the Thunder jumping all over them.
Against that vaunted San Antonio attack, Oklahoma City is ready for anything that comes its way.
“I think they’re doing a great job of scouting us. They take away the plays we are looking for, they know what plays are coming,” Danny Green said in a rare postgame podium appearance. “You can hear them yelling from the bench and communicating.”
Have the Spurs become predictable? Has their slower pace and post-up, mid-range-oriented offense shrunk the court and eliminated some spacing? Or is this simply a matter of, the guys who have led San Antonio through battle over the years are no longer the ones running the show. With Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge installed as the top two options — and given the age of the Big 3, they have to be — things are just going to be different.
The offense Gregg Popovich has built over the years, with ideas taken from different corners of coaching intelligentsia, has always relied on the element of creativity over outright athleticism. If a team like the Thunder, with all that size, length and explosiveness, has gotten a read on the Spurs’ best laid plans, it could be the only extra advantage they need. As if Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant weren’t enough.
Oklahoma City's two offensive monsters combined for 58 points and made several huge plays down the stretch.
“We got stops and Russ (Westbrook) was a maniac (Tuesday), keeping us in it. He hit a big 3 and got a big driving layup, missed a shot, got a rebound, threw it to Enes (Kanter) for a layup,” Durant said, identifying from memory a series of plays that truly did change the game. “We just kind of cruised and didn’t panic late in the game. We got stops and it was a good win for us.”
Oklahoma City’s 95-91 Game 5 victory at the AT&T Center — a dungeon in which the home team has now lost two times in eight days after losing only once over the course of the entire regular season — has pushed the 67-win Spurs to the brink of elimination and created a dramatic change in storyline not even the most gifted precog could’ve forecasted.
San Antonio has had its chances to take control in this series (it’s had double-digit leads in Games 4 and 5), but the Thunder have made a handful of massive, momentum-shifting plays that have altered the course of the conference’s semifinals, something none of us would’ve guessed would be the case after Game 1.
The Spurs’ disappearing bench
San Antonio’s reserve unit was, by several different measures, the best bench in the NBA. And really, it’s been that way for several years. But over the last four games — setting aside that Game 1 blowout — the five-man lineup of Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, David West and Boris Diaw, the Spurs’ most-used all-bench lineup, is being outscored by 15.7 points per 100 possessions.
The weird part is, it’s the scoring that’s fallen off a cliff. That group is scoring fewer than 70 points per 100 possessions over that same span, which is absolutely putrid.
“We haven’t had great bench production,” Popovich said at the end of the night. “We need a couple more people to help us offensively.
“That’d be great.”
Thunder staying big
After a bit of early experimentation, Oklahoma City has recognized the advantage it has in its frontcourt. When the Thunder run out any two-man combination between Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter, they’re killing the Spurs, and it’s been especially clear over the last two games. San Antonio was outrebounded 54 to 36 in Game 5, and it’s a major reason why the series has reached this point.
When the Spurs get the kind of game they got from Green (20 points, 6-of-9 from deep), and they commit just eight turnovers — especially when their opponent gives it away 20 times, as the Thunder did — they almost always win that kind of game. But Oklahoma City absolutely murdered them on the boards, and that team doesn’t need more than a few second-chance opportunities to make you pay dearly.
But, the referees!
Popovich and his players rarely make comments to the media about officiating, but there have been several moments over the last four games that have clearly bothered them.
We all remember the chaos of the final sequence of Game 2 and the official-bashing that followed, but Tuesday night, when the Spurs’ coach was asked about the no-call in the closing seconds that allowed Westbrook to get to the rim and eventually extend the lead to four points, Pop shifted the attention to an earlier call on Green, where his shooting guard appeared to be tripped by Adams on a screen, causing him to fall into Durant’s leg as the Thunder forward shot the ball.
San Antonio coaches and players always seem to say the right thing in front of cameras and microphones, and they’re not blaming losses on the officiating, but they’re noticeably more annoyed by the results of a few calls than they normally would be.
Dion Waiters: impactful playoff performer?
Few young players in the league have been criticized (and made fun of) as much as Waiters has over the years, but he’s having a really nice stretch of basketball when it matters most.
During his team’s two-game winning streak (if you want to call two games a “streak”), the Thunder have been 24 points per 100 possessions better than the Spurs when Waiters is on the court, and nearly 10 points worse than San Antonio while he’s on the bench. He’s hitting timely jumpers and playing really effective defense, particularly against Leonard.
Between the play of Waiters and Kanter, the OKC bench is outplaying San Antonio’s reserves; and it’s giving them an extra advantage they did not have on paper heading into the series.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s regression to the mean
Since dropping 38 and 41 points in Games 1 and 2, respectively, the San Antonio big man has transformed from a smoldering volcano into what looked like a liability at times in Game 5. After essentially setting the earth on fire to open the series, Aldridge is shooting 36.7 percent from the floor over his last three games, and the Spurs as a whole are struggling as well.
“We missed a lot of easy shots (in Game 5). I thought our guys had great looks,” Aldridge said. “I had a couple of shots that I normally make that came out. I thought our guys competed, but the ball didn’t fall for us.”
An interesting note to go along with this quote: The Spurs had 48 uncontested field-goal attempts in Game 5, the most of any game in this series, and made only 21 of them. For perspective, Oklahoma City had just 33 such attempts. The difference? The Thunder made 46.7 percent of their contested attempts; the Spurs connected on just 35 percent.
So what happens next in Game 6? As wild as this series has been, your guess is as good as mine.