SAN ANTONIO — Figuring out this wildly divergent Western Conference finals is getting harder than calculus after the Spurs’ 117-89 win over the Thunder on Thursday night gave San Antonio a 3-2 series lead.
There was a lineup change. There was a personality change.
There were tactical adjustments. There was an attitude adjustment.
The Spurs contested harder on defense. They battled harder for every rebound. They scrapped harder to come up with every 50-50 play. They worked harder at keeping the ball moving and at staying within their carefully constructed offensive identity.
And it worked for San Antonio. Again.
Five games in this series, five blowouts, all by the home team. The average margin of victory is 20.4 points. The Spurs have won their three home games by 26.6 points per game.
“You’re serious? You really think I can explain that?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asked.
For those obsessed by the Xs and Os, the Spurs replaced Tiago Splitter in the starting lineup with Matt Bonner and all through the game kept a stretch-four on the court to keep Serge Ibaka from making the low post and all of the paint his own personal dinner plate.
The Spurs switched defensive assignments, using the bigger Kawhi Leonard to block the tracks of the runaway train that can be Russell Westbrook and trusting Danny Green to give away a half a foot to league MVP Kevin Durant and not be overwhelmed.
They also made the most of Boris Diaw’s broad palette of skills, knocking down 3-pointers, moving shiftily inside for hoops and using a magician’s sleight-of-hand to slide the ball to all of his open teammates.
“It definitely helped,” said Tim Duncan, who broke free for a Throwback Thursday effort of 22 points and 12 rebounds. “Boris shot the ball really well and just the threat of Matt being out there, I think, helped us to keep [Ibaka] out of the lane a little bit and spread him out a little bit. It was a great move by Pop, a little adjustment there, and it obviously worked.”
But only because the Spurs also adjusted the way they played the game — going from lost and timid in OKC to ferocious and confident back home at the AT&T Center.
None of San Antonio’s best-laid plans would have meant a thing if Duncan hadn’t turned back the clock again to do practically hand-to-hand combat to get his dozen rebounds, if Leonard had not thrown off the dazed look of Games 3 and 4 to become locked in, if Diaw didn’t play perhaps the most feverish and significant playoff game of his career.
And if Manu Ginobili hadn’t once more bounced and banged all over the court like a funnel cloud clearing out everything in its path.
Often you can waste time trying to break things down to their smallest parts, rather than sit back and take in the beauty of the entire beast.
“Probably they were not aggressive and we were,” Ginobili said. “Today we were just sharp. We were smart and that’s what we were talking about. It’s the only way we have a shot.”
The Thunder are still younger, swifter and stronger and if the Spurs let them turn this into strictly an athletic affair, they won’t be making a return trip to the NBA Finals, even with the home-court advantage still in their hip pocket.
But a couple of possessions were a perfectly drawn blueprint of exactly what they must do:
- Once Tony Parker drove the ball down under the basket, whipped a pass all the way back out top to Diaw, who gave a glance at the basket, but then passed the ball on to Leonard in the right corner for a 3-pointer.
- On another occasion Ginobili raced downcourt in transition while being dogged and contested by second year man Jeremy Lamb of OKC. He waited as Lamb got up in his face, then he waited some more while other Spurs caught up to the play and offered other options. He waited until Lamb finally took the bait and took a half-step away and then calmly and simply raised up and buried a killer 3 from the right wing.
The Spurs played smart. They played poised. They played hard.
None of that may translate to Game 6 on Saturday in OKC, where San Antonio has lost nine consecutive games. But two nights after not even running in a single fast break play in OKC, the Spurs outran the Thunder 14-4. They devoured the Thunder 48-35 on the backboards. They cleaned up on the inside with 17 second-chance points. For the first time in several years, they thoroughly neutralized Ibaka at both ends of the court.
“It was two things,” Popovich said. “What matters in a game is execution and mental toughness. You have to execute and you have to play with passion. So it’s like the old Dean Smith-Larry Brown thing — play harder than your opponent.”
The rest is easy.