Posts Tagged ‘Kendrick Perkins’

Pop’s Game 4 retreat is no surrender


VIDEO: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discusses Game 4

SAN ANTONIO – Let’s face it. If any other coach in the NBA — maybe on the planet — had done what Gregg Popovich did in Game 4, he’d be online toast by now.

Just imagine what would be left of poor little Scott Brooks if he tried that stunt in OKC.

Down by 20 just five minutes into the third quarter, the Spurs’ boss called off his dogs. After all, there are only so many times he can watch them roll over and play dead and still thinks it’s a cute trick.

Trouble is, 19 minutes in this league that is built on runs and streaks and offensive explosions is an eternity and the question was asked in more than a few corners why a coach who once snarled and told his team during a timeout that he wanted “some nasty” folded his tent so politely.

“Thursday,” Pop said.

He meant, of course, Game 5 at the AT&T Center, where the Spurs’ season — if not their era as a championship contender — hangs in the balance.

Yes, Pop surrendered for a night. But just to throw the only punch he’s got left.

If Russell Westbrook brings his 40-point, 10-rebound, five-steal game, maybe it won’t matter much what the Spurs try to do. Not with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka also there to stamp the Western Conference for certain as their domain to rule for the foreseeable future.

Popovich spoke of the Thunder’s superior athleticism and length and noted that it gives you just a small margin of error. That margin was long gone in Game 4 and there was no sense chasing a pipe dream.

All, really, that Popovich was doing was following his instincts and his philosophy on managing playing time and energy expended that he’s relied on for years. Whether it’s November and it’s the end of a five games in eight nights stretch at Miami or it’s late May and the Western Conference finals, Pop watches his veterans and he watches their minutes.

With a 38-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker turning 32, Popovich has never watched and micro-managed minutes more. Not a single Spurs player averaged 30 minutes per game this season.

No matter the specific circumstance, the belief is that no one night of overextending an individual is worth the long term goal of being healthy and fresh for the grueling playoff run.

None of the Spurs looked fresh on Tuesday night. They were all outrun, out-jumped, out-hustled and outworked. Not quite three minutes into the third quarter, there was a sequence where Duncan and OKC’s Kendrick Perkins got their arms locked and tangled in the low post. It evoked a rare angry reaction from Duncan. When play resumed, Duncan turned to put up a short jumper and Ibaka blocked it solidly and even sent Duncan flailing and falling to the floor. Two minutes later, Pop pulled the plug.

While it was interesting to see the Spurs eventually fall behind by as many as 27 and then have the bomb squad of Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner and Jeff Ayres use sheer hustle to cut it to 12, that’s all it was, interesting.

Steve Kerr mentioned on the TNT telecast that if the lead got under double-digits, Popovich might have to consider returning his to starters to chase the win.

Uh-uh. Not for even a second.

Pop knows his team and he knows the situation his Spurs are now in. There isn’t a strategic adjustment that’s going to turn the series around, suddenly make the Thunder look less youthful and less athletic.

The only chance in Game 5 — and for all intents and purposes, the season — is to meet that OKC athleticism with as much energy as those old Spurs legs can muster.

That’s why it was the right decision, even if it was tough to watch and no other coach in the league could have gotten away with it without taking a public flogging.

One reason: “Thursday.”

The only real minutes left that matter.


VIDEO: Game 5 preview between the Thunder and Spurs

Spurs letting Thunder party like it’s 2012


VIDEO: Thunder wax Spurs in Game 4

OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s deja vu all over again.

Hello, 2012.

Can Obama win a second term? Can the Spurs win another game against the Thunder?

There was no need for postgame locker room fireworks this time. Things got explosive early in the third quarter when coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan went jaw-to-jaw over another uncertain pass that led to another sure-thing dunk at the other end.

It’s no longer just about the inspirational presence of Serge Ibaka in the Thunder lineup.

It’s about the entire energetic, athletic, run-til-the-cows-come-home Thunder lineup. And a Spurs lineup that, just as it did two years ago, suddenly looks like the morning after.

This is no longer a matter of simply asking Tony Parker to play better. It’s about finding a way for the Spurs to regain their poise and effectiveness against an OKC team that in the last two games has come at them like a rolling bundle of butcher knives.

There have been four games played now and four blowouts. But no matter what the series score sheet says, it doesn’t feel like the Western Conference finals are tied at 2-2.

You could say the Spurs have been put back on their heels, if it didn’t look like they were flat on their backs. It’s looking just like two years ago, when the Thunder spotted San Antonio a 2-0 lead and then roared back for a reverse sweep.

Remember Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio when the Thunder front line of Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha put up just nine combined points? It pushed Thunder coach Scott Brooks to make a lineup change to get Reggie Jackson on the floor with the starters and Jeremy Lamb into the rotation.

Here was Duncan (nine points) Tiago Splitter (3) and Danny Green (3) managing to squeeze out just a few more drops and the solution is hardly to sound the trumpet for more of Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner and the Desperation Cavalry.

With the young arms and legs of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Lamb and Jackson cutting off angles and jumping into passing lanes, the Thunder have smothered San Antonio’s offense.

With their driving, relentless aggressiveness, OKC has also overwhelmed the Spurs’ defense. Of Westbrook’s 40 points and Durant’s 31, a lion’s share came with them going to hoop and making the Spurs look helpless to do anything about it.

It ended up 21-0 in fast break points. What’s more, in the first half the Spurs did not even run a single transition play. That’s plays, not points.

While Parker came out determined to re-establish his attack mode in the paint, his constant challenging of Ibaka actually took the Spurs out of their offense.

“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Popovich said. “All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They’d know who Serge was.

“(It was) really unwise basketball … instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots. We have seven turnovers in the first half, but really 14 because of seven blocks. You’ve got to play smarter against such great athletes. They’re talented, obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin of error. You’d better be smart the way you play and you can’t afford to screw up as many times as we did.”

At this time of the season with a core of veterans, there are not Xs and Os to be rearranged on the chalkboard that will deliver a solution. That’s the reason why Popovich pulled Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard when the OKC reached 27 points and it was still the third quarter. He needs to conserve whatever is left in those worn tanks for what is left of the series and maybe the season.

“This has got nothing to do with adjustments,” Popovich said. “It’s about playing smarter and harder for more consistent minutes.”

Not doing that has turned Chesapeake Arena into the Spurs’ own house of horrors.

Since the 2012 conference finals, the Spurs have an NBA-best road record of 62-33 against 28 other teams. But they’re also 0-9 in OKC since then, too.

“I think we should not think like that,” Parker said. “Each game is different, each series, each year.”

So how come it feels like 2012 and we already know how the election and everything else turned out?

Difference from 2012? Spurs just better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich speaks at Spurs practice ahead of Game 3

By the time they finally take the floor for the opening tip on Sunday night (8:30 ET, TNT), they will have reviewed it, relived it, dissected it more than a frog in a high school biology class.

Everywhere they turn, every newspaper or blog they read will remind the Spurs of the last time they were in Oklahoma City with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.

The Spurs actually brought 20 consecutive victories and an air of invincibility onto the court at Cheasapeake Energy Arena. And they left it eight days later with a fourth straight loss and the shards of a season in their bloody hands.

But you’ll excuse Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the silver and black for not being kept awake by scary reminders and bumps in the night.

This time around is like returning to the haunted house in broad daylight when it doesn’t seem quite so spooky. Gone, for one, is the ghost of James Harden, who hit big shots and was the third weapon in the OKC armory. Then there’s the skeleton of Serge Ibaka, out with a calf injury, that is now locked away in a closet.

“We’ll remind everyone of that situation,” said Duncan, showing the proper amount of the so-called appropriate fear. “We need to go into Oklahoma for that first game with the focus we’ll need to win the game.”

However, there is another more basic reason that the Spurs can walk a bit more boldly. They’re better.

In the past two years, the Spurs have added to their depth, improved their balance and become a more potent overall team than any of the remaining contenders in either of the conference finals.

The Heat are the two-time defending champs and may still have the best player in the game in LeBron James. But his supporting cast, beginning with Dywane Wade, has fallen off and James is now required to do more. Often much more.

The Pacers with the emergence of Paul George may be a step up from 2013. However, their late-season swoon, near-cratering in the first round against Atlanta, overall mood and performance swings — not to mention George’s physical status for Game 3 — makes Indiana shakier than a rope ladder.

The Thunder, of course, have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but are playing without two ingredients that made the previous comeback possible and three-fifths of a starting lineup — Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — that has produced a total of nine points in the first two games.

While the Spurs’ solar system still revolves around the Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the fact is it’s the emergence of the others that have allowed the veterans to keep their minutes down to all-time lows during the regular season in order to step up now, along with providing some punch of their own.

Danny Green — Parker’s partner in the starting backcourt became so lost and discombobulated during the 2012 series that he was eventually benched by coach Gregg Popovich for the final two games, playing less than four minutes in each.

“He’s come a long way,” Popovich said. “We cut him a couple of times and other people cut him, and he went to Europe and he went to Russia and he went to the D-League and he went all over the place. But the light went on and he become a little bit more aggressive, so that I think he could play at the defensive end. But I think his confidence grew shooting-wise, and I think that he gets a lot of credit for persevering and ending up where he is right now.”

That’s hitting seven 3-pointers in Game 2, giving him 21 points for the night, which is more than the total of 20 he scored in the entire 2012 series against OKC.

Kawhi Leonard — He’s steadily grown into the role that Popovich described as a “future face of the franchise” after the Spurs traded for the No. 15 pick on the night of the 2011 draft. He was a 20-year-old rookie in that previous series against the Thunder, taking the occasional wide open jumper and hustling for loose balls. Now Leonard is the Spurs’ No. 1 defender, locking up with Durant, James and every other big gun in the NBA while also blossoming at the offensive end to quite devastating effect at times, bull-rushing to the hoop or confidently stroking shots from the perimeter. His 14.7 rating is the best in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs by any player.

“He’s growing month by month, week by week,” Popovich said. “He’s been pretty special for us.”

Tiago Splitter — After nearly two full seasons in the starting lineup alongside Duncan, the Brazilian big man is showing more and more of the ability that got him named MVP of the Spanish League in 2010. OKC coach Scott Brooks shook his confidence by intentionally fouling Splitter during the 2012 series. But now he’s a key Spurs element at both ends of the floor. He and Duncan have developed rugged defensive combination, limiting opponents to 93.4 points per 100 points when they’ve been on the court together in the playoffs. He’s also an excellent interior passer and had a breakout Game 2 with nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Splitter has more rebounds (18) in two games than the entire 2012 series (11).

“What he does for us now is what he’s done in Europe for a lot of years,” Popovich said. “He’s been on championship teams over there. He’s a defender, a rebounder, a solid pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t have moves and he’s not a big offensive threat, but he’s every coach’s dream because he does everything so fundamentally sound.”

Patty Mills — The Australian dynamo only got off the bench for mop-up duty in the 2012 meeting with the Thunder. But now he’s Parker’s first backup at the point and he steps onto the floor with a fearless sense of belonging. His offense punch has not been needed so far against OKC, but Mills scored in double figures six times in 11 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Dallas and Portland.

Marco Belinelli — The free agent signing is the only newcomer to the core rotation since the 2012 series and has been invaluable all season long with his on-court smarts and excellent perimeter shooting. He was the team’s top bomber from behind the 3-point line this season and has had the best overall shooting year of his NBA career.

Spurs’ defense tightens its grip

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: A slow-motion look at the best plays from each conference finals’ Game 2

SAN ANTONIO – When the passes are crisp, the ball is moving and the shots are falling, it is easy to become hypnotized and think the Spurs are all about a smooth offense that should be set to waltz music.

But there’s a little head-banging defense that helps them rock and roll, too.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook may have finished Game 2 with their playoff low of 15 points apiece because they sat out the entire fourth quarter. But when they were part of the 112-77 massacre in the Western Conference finals, the Thunder top guns were a combined 13-for-40 from the field shooting.

Through the first two games, OKC has connected on just 14-of-47 shots (29.8 percent) from behind the 3-point line and hasn’t been able to develop any kind of offensive rhythm that isn’t just Durant or Westbrook going 1-on-1.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich isn’t professing to have solved the dilemma of stopping the Thunder permanently.

“I’m sure at times we guarded them well and I’m sure that at times they had open shots that they didn’t make,” he said.

Knowing that OKC doesn’t have Serge Ibaka as a third option in its offense, the Spurs have been able to play more aggressively on Durant and Westbrook, closing out faster on jump shots and contesting drives to the basket.

After Kawhi Leonard handled the lion’s share of the defensive assignment on Durant in the series opener, he got into early foul trouble and played just under 16 minutes in Game 2.

Danny Green and Manu Ginobili stepped into the breach for the most part, while Marco Belinelli also got a few trips down the floor on Durant.

“First Marco took Durant, then I came in,” Ginobili said. “Of course, we got worried because Kawhi is our designated defender on him. Besides that, even if he wasn’t our designated, he’s a huge part of what we do and we need him on the court.”

It certainly helps when the Thunder are starting games with a lineup that might as well be the equivalent of a one-armed juggler. The combination of Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison scored just five points in Game 1 and came back with a worse output in Game 2 (four points).

“You’re not going to stop (Durant and Westbrook),” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker. “We know they’re going to keep being aggressive and they’re going to score some points. So far, we’re doing a pretty good job. I think we can do better. It’s going to be harder to stop them at home.”

The Spurs had the No. 3-rated defense in the league during the regular season, giving up just 102.4 points per 100 possessions. But Green said the Spurs still needed to turn up the level of energy and aggressiveness after built a 36-33 lead about four minutes deep into the second quarter of Game 2.

“They were doing pretty much everything they wanted, the things that we didn’t want them to do in the first quarter,” Green said. “We changed some things, tried to show them different looks and they started missing shots.

“We started contesting harder, being more aggressive and trying to limit them to one shot, not to let them get second chances and offensive rebounds.”

Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan also ramped up their protection of the basket, blocking five shots in Game 2 and going over others.

In two games, the Thunder have made only 72-of-169 shots (42.6 percent) in the series.

“Those guys can score the ball so easily,” Leonard said. “So holding them under 50 percent is a great job.”

Reeling Thunder seem out of answers

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.”

24–Second thoughts — May 21

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Danny Green and the Spurs raised the roof on the Thunder in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The Spurs Way is real.

It’s a quantifiable force and can be seen on the tread marks all over the Oklahoma City Thunder after the first two games of these Western Conference finals.

From Danny Green making it rain from deep to the 3,000 points in the paint the Spurs have piled up in Serge Ibaka‘s absence, oh yes, the Spurs Way is live and in living color.

Whatever adjustments the Thunder made after watching the Game 1 slasher flick/film (they did watch it, right?) didn’t provide any insight on what could be done differently to fix all that has gone wrong for Scott Brooks and his team.

And before anyone reminds me that these two teams were in this same situation two years ago, when the Thunder stormed back from a 2-0 deficit to win four straight and advance to The Finals, remember that neither Ibaka nor James Harden (who was huge in that series two years ago) are walking through the door for Game 3 in Oklahoma City on Sunday.

So it’s your move Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

How do you respond to the worst playoff loss in Thunder franchise history?

The @officialspurs defeat the @okcthunder 112-77 in Game 2 of the #WCF. #nbaplayoffs

A photo posted by NBA (@nba) on

:1

Serge still believes!

:2

There is no greater testament to the Spurs’ greatness in this series than their ability to make sure everyone, even folks out around these parts, gets a decent night’s sleep!

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Can Sefolosha get his corner 3 back?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: What must OKC change in Game 2?

SAN ANTONIO – This is a contract season for Thabo Sefolosha, but you wouldn’t know it from his statistics. The veteran shooting guard is a defensive specialist, but he’s also been a dangerous and necessary corner 3-point shooter for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Only his accuracy has mostly gone MIA this season.

He shot just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc after consecutive seasons of shooting better than 40 percent. His slide has continued into the postseason — 28.6 percent — and it’s led to erratic minutes and even sitting out the entirety of Games 6 and 7 in the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies when coach Scott Brooks instead inserted Caron Butler in the starting lineup to help space the floor.

In Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and the San Antonio Spurs, Sefolosha played just 16 minutes and after missing his first three jumpers and being yanked midway through the first quarter, he sat for the remainder of the first half.

Sefolosha expressed frustration with his limited playing time after the game. On Tuesday he took a less opinionated tact.

“I don’t really want to talk on it. It’s coach’s decision,” Sefolosha said. “When I’m on court I’m going to play and when I’m not I’m going to cheer for the guys. You know, it’s part of the game.”

The Thunder need Sefolosha’s offense more now than ever with third-leading scorer Serge Ibaka shelved presumably for the remainder of the playoffs with a calf injury. With Nick Collison replacing Ibaka, the Thunder suddenly start three low-scoring offensive players in Sefolosha, Collison and center Kendrick Perkins.

In Game 1, those three combined to go 2-for-10 from the floor for five points, all scored by Perkins. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant accounted for 53 of 58 points scored by the starting lineup.

Sefolosha’s corner 3s have always come off kickouts from Westbrook and Durant penetrations as defenses collapse. The benefit to the Thunder’s offense when Sefolosha hits 40 percent from the arc is obvious. During the regular season, 56 percent of Sefolosha’s 3-point attempt came from the corners as did 60 percent of his makes.

He’s just 3-for-9 from the corners in the playoffs.

The Spurs forced Sefolosha off the 3-point arc altogether. He ducked under defenders following a shot fake and badly missed on this first three mid-range in the first quarter. Nearly 44 percent of Sefolosha’s shot attempts this postseason have been 3s, but he managed just one on four shot attempts in Game 1.

“If the 3 is open, I definitely would rather take the 3,” Sefolosha said. “But they did a decent job getting us off the line.”

Collison offers hope for Ibaka-less OKC

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: What must OKC change in Game 2?

SAN ANTONIO – Nick Collison is a naturally unassuming kind of guy. He grabs his lunch pail, goes off to work every day and earns his dollar.

Work conditions, however, have dramatically changed, and Collison is now at the center of a dilemma that threatens to unravel the Oklahoma City Thunder’s title hopes. Somehow he and his teammates must find a way to make life much more uncomfortable for the San Antonio Spurs’ offense without high-riser Serge Ibaka patrolling the paint.

Collison, the 6-foot-9, 33-year-old backup who had only averaged 11.6 mpg during the first two rounds of the playoffs and logged single-digit minutes in seven of the eight previous games heading into Monday’s opener of the Western Conference finals, is suddenly thrust into Ibaka’s starting job.

As everybody knows by now, the Spurs clobbered OKC with an alarming 66 points in the paint. Tim Duncan maneuvered unmolested inside for easy buckets that led to 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting in the first half — 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first quarter.

“We want to make it hard for them to make all their cuts and their passes,” said Collison, who received a half-dozen stitches in his lip after Game 1 and visited a dentist Tuesday morning to examine a tooth he thought might have been jarred from its root, but was not.

“They’re really good when they’re running through their offense and the ball is flying around and guys are wide open,” Collison continued. “We want to be able to throw their timing off a little bit, and some of that is physicality, but a lot of it is getting back and start playing at the beginning of a possession instead of being back on our heels and letting them run where they want to run.”

Collison only played 16 minutes in Game 1 and was scoreless with three rebounds, but there’s a belief that his more engaged, defensive effort during the Thunder’s impressive eight-minute stretch of the third quarter when they defended the paint as a team with more authority and twice seized a one-point lead, can carry over to Game 2.

“Our effort, intensity on the defensive end was really good,” Kevin Durant said. “We scrambled out, we made efforts, we rebounded the basketball, we attacked,” Durant said.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks experimented with multiple small-ball lineups in Game 1, but was burned badly defensively. One option in Game 2 is stay bigger and ride Collison as long as possible alongside starting center Kendrick Perkins and backup center Steven Adams.

“It’s hard for a coach to know what to do, especially with one of our starters being out, not knowing who to throw into the game, what lineups to use,” Durant said. “So you got to take that into account. He’s a great coach and he does learn from game to game, and knowing who to put out there. We can play with any type of lineup. It all comes down to effort and energy and just having that mindset that we’re locked in every single possession.”

Expectation is that Collison will not only be back in the starting lineup, but that he’ll have a bigger piece of Game 2, with the first eight minutes of the third quarter being the blueprint.

“We’re capable of doing it, but have to be able do it longer,” Collison said. “What we saw in that third quarter, that needs to be how we play, that needs to be our new normal.”

Ibaka’s absence brings ‘fluid’ lineups

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

SAN ANTONIO – The Oklahoma City Thunder are doing their best sales job to suggest life without Serge Ibaka has to be business as usual. In basketball parlance, it’s simply next man up.

But, with 11:09 left in the second quarter of Monday’s Western Conference finals Game 1 against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder pulled out their most unusual lineup, especially for this juncture of the playoffs. Jeremy Lamb checked in for Kevin Durant, but the the little-used, second-year shooting guard getting such early run wasn’t the exceptional part. It was who he was running with: Derek Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and Steven Adams.

Kevin Durant will need some help in Game 2 (Wednesday, 9 p.m.)(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Kevin Durant will need some help in Wednesday’s Game 2 (9 p.m., TNT)(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

“Our lineups can be very fluid and we have flexibility all year long to have done that,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said before Game 1. “We played small a lot and with Serge out, obviously we have more opportunities to play small.”

OKC climbed back from a 20-9 hole to 33-30 when Lamb came in for Durant. Exactly three minutes later, Lamb, whose head seemed to be on a swivel defensively as Spurs players raced by him to the bucket, checked out for Russell Westbrook and the Thunder trailed 45-37.

A small lineup that found success late in the second quarter was the unit of Westbrook, Jackson, Lamb, Durant and Kendrick Perkins. That group came together with 1:58 to go and OKC in big trouble, trailing 65-51. An 8-2 run trimmed the halftime deficit to a reasonable eight points, 67-59.

It’s a bad time of year to have to experiment with lineups. After the game, Brooks said he’s going to “have to find lineups that work.”

The Thunder’s best lineups are the ones in which Durant and Westbrook are on the floor together or, at least, with one of them in the lineup. And that’s mostly been the case. Durant logged 40 minutes in Game 1, the 13th time in 14 games this postseason in which he’s played at least 40 minutes, and the sixth in a row.

Brooks has to balance giving each of his stars some rest so they’re not totally gassed in the fourth quarter, but doing so while not putting the team at a severe disadvantage — which the Fisher-Jackson-Lamb-Butler-Adams group did.

There’s little choice for Brooks in deciding a starting lineup. Nick Collison is the only logical choice to fill in for Ibaka at power forward. Collison is a steadier player than the one that showed up Monday night and threw up three horribly off-target shots and was mostly poor defensively. A frontcourt of Perkins and Adams together doesn’t make much sense and Brooks clearly has little faith in 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet to contribute as a rim protector.

Although Brooks harped on defense after the game, his best bet might be to employ waves of small lineups that include Durant or Westbrook, or both, with Reggie Jackson and simply try to out-run and outscore the machine-like Spurs.

“I have faith in all of our guys to step in and do the job,” Brooks said. “No matter who we put on the floor, they have to be able to compete against this team. They have five guys that can score on the floor at the same time. You don’t have a possession off. Not one. We can’t hide anybody.”

Thunder searching for Ibaka answer

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: OKC coach Scott Brooks talks about how Serge Ibaka’s absence impacted Game 1

SAN ANTONIO – Thunder coach Scott Brooks delivered a straightforward message to the San Antonio Spurs, some of whom apparently manifested visions of injured Oklahoma City power forward Serge Ibaka swooping into the arena and swatting shots as if he were Godzilla.

That, obviously, didn’t happen, and it’s not going to happen.

“Contrary to what San Antonio was thinking, he’s not coming back,” Brooks said of Ibaka, who is expected to miss the remainder of the playoffs, regardless of how deep the Thunder go. “He’s not coming through those doors.”

Ibaka wasn’t even in the building. He was back home, relegated to resting his damaged left calf muscle and watching Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on TV. Or at least as much of it as he could stand as the Spurs ran a layup drill through a wide-open paint in the opening half on their way to a 122-105 victory.

In the aftermath, maybe Brooks’ message was intended more for his own club. It is a horrible time to be without your chiseled, 6-foot-10 defensive eraser and offensive safety valve. Ibaka’s absence seemed to serve as a giant mind tease early on as the Thunder looked lost defensively in just their fourth game in four years without Ibaka.

“Your body tells you a few things, just send them Serge’s way,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “We have to get out of that mindset. Tonight’s the first night playing without him, so we have to figure a few things out.”

Tim Duncan was the beneficiary of an OKC starting lineup that included the considerably less-athletic Nick Collison playing in the 24-year-old Ibaka’s starting spot next to Kendrick Perkins. That lineup was a bust from the get-go on both ends. OKC tried to get Collison comfortable early, but he launched two hellacious bricks from either baseline on the Thunder’s opening few possessions.

The other end was a Texas massacre, save the bloody mess of a chainsaw for the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel for which the Spurs have become famous.

Duncan had 21 of his 27 points in the first half, going 9-for-11 from the floor, and 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the opening quarter. He had eight points in the first five minutes. His first bucket was an 18-footer. The eight baskets that followed in the first half came from no deeper than eight feet and four were no farther than 3-feet from the rim.

Imagine the 38-year-old Duncan’s delight to work against the Thunder’s 20-year-old rookie backup center Steven Adams, a mostly impressive youngster who saw just 17 minutes after logging 40 in the Game 6 clincher over the Clippers. He acknowledged he “screwed up” on pick-and-roll coverages and will have to be better.

The Spurs scored 66 of their points in the paint — 20 more than OKC typically gives up with Ibaka on the floor. They had 38 at halftime, more than the Thunder managed the entire game (32).

“Well, we play team defense, we don’t just rely on Serge,” said Kevin Durant, who had 28 points and found himself checking Duncan at different times. “He does a great job blocking shots, but it’s all because of our team defense.”

It wasn’t all a horror flick, and the first nine minutes of the third quarter is the example the Thunder will look to duplicate if they’re going to make this a series. It’s the only quarter that OKC held San Antonio below 30 points — 22 on 8-for-22 shooting. Combined with Russell Westbrook‘s accelerated aggressiveness to attack the rim, the Thunder, once trailing 63-48, led 78-77 after Durant’s 8-foot runner with 4:44 to go.

Brooks spent the first half experimenting with different lineups and twice had success in the first and second quarters with small-ball fivesomes. But as the Thunder plowed ahead in the third quarter with the original starting lineup, Brooks may have stuck with them just a bit too long.

In a flash, the lead was gone for good. Manu Ginobili got in the lane for a floater, Duncan tossed in another layup as Westbrook missed a couple tired-looking shots and turned it over.

But the defensive blue print is there, even if it emerged for only a small window of time in the opener. It was the only quarter the Thunder scored more fastbreak points than the Spurs because they were finally able to get into transition off missed shots and four of the Spurs’ 10 turnovers.

“We just got to do a better job of closing the paint off,” said Westbrook, who had 25 points, 12 in the third quarter, and seven assists. “We did a better job in the second half of just putting more pressure on them, making it tough for them to get inside the paint.”

Now they must figure out how to sustain it. Because everybody knows Ibaka isn’t walking through that door.