SAN ANTONIO – The Thunder couldn’t stop Tony Parker, couldn’t slow the early perimeter contributions of Danny Green and couldn’t stop the Spurs in general, not with San Antonio at 57.9 percent from the field the first half.
So, the Thunder went with something new: not trying to stop Tiago Splitter from scoring.
On four consecutive possessions in the third quarter Tuesday night, Oklahoma City intentionally fouled Splitter away from the ball. They purposely sent the San Antonio backup big man to the line in hopes his 32 percent from the free throw line in the playoffs would help OKC get back in the game.
Splitter would not oblige — he made four of the eight attempts, earning a louder and louder ovation from fans inside AT&T Center with each make, the final one with 1:38 left in the period practically as if he hit a half-court heave at the buzzer. The Spurs lead during the span of Hack-a-Splitter stayed at 16 and, in fact, went up to 18 in the final minute of the third.
When the Thunder climbed back in the game early in the fourth quarter, though, the strategy by coach Scott Brooks had indirectly paid off. Even without additional intentional fouls on Splitter, and several minutes after the approach ceased, the flow changed.
“It changed the tempo a little bit,” Brooks said. “They (the Spurs) were fast tonight. That ball was just all over the floor with quick passes, passes that were right in their shooting pockets, and it kind of threw their rhythm out a little bit. He stepped up and made six of them (including another trip to the line that was not away from the ball). He did better than his playoff percentage. But if on occasion we have an opportunity to do it again, we will.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said “maybe” the strategy had a role in the Thunder getting back in the game.
“It was a good move,” he added. “I might have done it.”
Someone asked if he ever had gone there.
“No, I’ve never done that before,” Popovich deadpanned. “I think it’s a lousy thing to do. It’s unsportsmanlike.”
Some of the reporters in the postgame news conference busted up. Of course he had done it before. The Spurs deployed the strategy all of one series ago, against Reggie Evans of the Clippers and used it in the past against Shaquille O’Neal.
“No,” Popovich said by way of correcting himself, “it’s a good move. If there’s a reason to do it and they felt there was a reason to do it, they did it. It’s a good move.”