By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
VIDEO: Inside the NBA crew hands out some advice for struggling Thunder
SAN ANTONIO — The Thunder had to feel pretty good. Relatively speaking. No, they hadn’t shot it well and the offense remained a combination of two overburdened superstars and haphazard execution.
But they had also stemmed another early San Antonio paint party and were getting enough hustle and grit from role players off the bench to survive Kevin Durant sitting out the first 5:42 of the second quarter, darn near a vacation for Mr. Inexhaustible during this postseason.
As the MVP checked back into the game between Tim Duncan free throws, the first tying it 36-36 and the second giving the Spurs back the lead, 37-36, the Thunder did have to like what was happening. They were hanging in, defending well enough that the Spurs, shooting under 40 percent, had to earn their looks.
Coming out of a timeout with 2:37 left in the half, San Antonio went up 47-42. Then the hurricane hit with a devastating wallop. First a Danny Green 3-pointer followed by a Boris Diaw reverse layup and then another quick-trigger Green 3 as Durant lunged, helplessly out of position to contest.
Suddenly it was 55-44 — an 8-2 explosion in 81 seconds.
Durant and Westbrook exchanged words heading to the bench for a timeout — leaders getting on one another, Westbrook explained, “what leaders do” — although it’s doubtful either could hear what the other had said.
The ascending roars inside AT&T Center reverberated off every seat in the house until the place felt as if it was going to blast off. For the Thunder it must have felt like the roof had caved in on them, leaving them stumbling through choking clouds of rubble. At least that’s how they played on the Spurs’ next possession.
First Diaw grabbed Ginobili’s missed layup. Then Ginobili snuck inside of Durant and rebounded Tony Parker‘s errant 3. Ginobili dribbled freely all the way out beyond the arc as if taking it back behind an imaginary line on his driveway, lined up a 27-footer and buried it with 33 seconds left in the half.
It was 58-44, a 22-8 burst being the precursor to a second consecutive blowout, 112-77.
“You can’t go from down 5 to 14, not in two minutes,” Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said.
“I messed the game up at the end of the second quarter,” Durant said. “I got hit on the screen and Danny Green got open for a 3. I overhelped and he got another 3, and then Ginobili hit the 3. All those plays was on me … We shouldn’t have been down that much at halftime, but I made three bonehead plays.”
Durant sounded a lot like Chris Paul after the Clippers’ Game 5 loss at Oklahoma City. Paul shouldered blame for a series of bungled plays. This one obviously had much more time to play out, but just as the Clippers never recovered, there’s an undeniable dire feeling attached to this so-far non-competitive Western Conference finals.
Durant and Westbrook could have combined for 60 points and it still wouldn’t have been enough. Shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha was held scoreless again. He, Perkins and Ibaka fill-in Nick Collison have combined for nine points in the two games. Only Jeremy Lamb off the bench cracked double-digits and those points came after this one was long over.
With 5:41 to go in the third quarter the Spurs led 76-50. “Sweet Caroline” played over the audio system during a timeout and 18,581 swaying fans turned the arena into a rollicking sing-a-long.
With 1:47 left in the period, the margin stretched to 87-58 after a Kawhi Leonard layup, another layup that accounted for 54 point in the paint, 120 in the series. Durant slammed the ball to the floor and Thunder coach Scott Brooks threw in the towel. Durant, just 6-for-16 for a playoff-low 15 points, and Westbrook, 7-for-24 for 15 points, watched the rest of it from the bench.
Inevitably, the Thunder’s 2012 West finals comeback when they went home down 0-2 to the Spurs and then steamrolled them with waves of athleticism in four straight, became a popular line of postgame questioning. And OKC’s players all answered as they should, that they’re not giving up the fight.
But three key differences make this time feel a whole lot different: James Harden plays in Houston, Serge Ibaka is on crutches and this souped-up Spurs team, humming at top efficiency, is even better than that one.
Game 3 in Oklahoma City is not until Sunday night, leaving Brooks 72 hours to dissect this two-game train wreck and seek solutions to questions that seem unanswerable. Ibaka’s athleticism to defend Duncan in the post, meet Parker on penetrations and step out for 15-foot target practice on the offensive end, appear too much to overcome.
Brooks went small in Game 1 and he tried to go big in Game 2. He got by with again starting the second quarter without Durant and Westbrook on the floor. At the 9:13 mark, Westbrook returned with OKC up one. They’d keep it right there over the next three minutes when Durant returned to anchor another newly concocted lineup with Westbrook, Collison, Perry Jones and Steven Adams.
They got flattened. Now comes three days of introspection before the Thunder puts their season, their championship dreams, on the line in Game 3.
“It’s hard to do, but like I said, we can do it,” Durant said. “Of course everybody is going to try to spread us apart these next few days, but we’ve never been a team that front-runs. We always stick together no matter what. We’ve just got to go out there and do it.”