Spurs Return to Form, Roll the Thunder in Game 5

AT&T CENTER – Spurs fans can finally put the fear of déjà vu to rest. Granted there are still at least 48 minutes to be had back up north in the Chesapeake Energy Arena but the Spurs will be bringing along something that was desperately lacking from Game 6 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals: mental toughness.

After being manhandled in Games 3 and 4, the Spurs turned the aggression back on the young athletic Oklahoma City Thunder, winning comfortably 117-89 at home and taking a 3-2 lead in the series. Much of the talk heading into Thursday was around a lack of effort, or passion, displayed on the road in Oklahoma City. And from tipoff, the Spurs were bound and determined to pour out every drop effort to wrangle momentum away from the Thunder. “I think we were all focused, all in the moment,” said Tim Duncan (22 PTS, 12 REB). “We knew what we had in front of us, just a great result from everybody.”

In the postgame presser, Coach Popovich labeled “execution and mental toughness” as the two things that matter in a game. The Spurs are outmatched in strength, size, athleticism, and speed. In order for them to win against a physically superior team, and a talented one at that, San Antonio must execute their brand of basketball to perfection. The communication must be constant, the timing perfect, and so on. But this part fails to exist if the mental toughness aspect is lacking; aggression, focus, intensity, passion, etc. Whatever synonym you care to dig up, it’s something the Spurs have struggled with against Oklahoma City since the 2012 postseason meltdown.

Whether it was intimidation or just a mental road block, the 28 point bombing in Game 5 showed that they finally busted through. They return to Oklahoma City this Saturday for a close-out game in an energy-packed arena they’ve suffered nine straight losses in. But on this trip, the Spurs will leave behind the ghosts of 2012 and focus on earning a shot at the 2013 ghouls that haunt them still.

Red Rocket in Flight, French Brûlée Delight

Much to everyone’s surprise, Coach Popovich opted to start Matt Bonner in place of Tiago Splitter (6 PTS, 2 REB). There was speculation heading into Thursday that Boris Diaw (13 PTS, 6 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL) may be moved into the starting rotation. But the concern there was the removing Diaw’s influence and chemistry with the second unit, most notably Manu Ginobili (19 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST). Enter Matt Bonner.

Prior to Game 5, Matt Bonner was the only Spurs player to not start a game throughout the entire season. Bonner would also be the only Game 5 starter to tally zeroes in either points or rebounds. Regardless, the Rocket’s impact on the floor was noticeable, forcing a rim protector out of the paint or creating a mismatch on the switch. AS expected, Diaw provided the same long-distance threat along with his excellent passing ability and crafty footwork in the paint.

With the passing lanes cleared up, the Spurs backcourt and Tim Duncan had more room to go to work. We can expect more of the same this Saturday in Game 6.

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Whether it was spread out or packed inside, the Spurs kept testing and probing the Thunder interior defense. After only scoring 36 total points inside the paint in Game 4, the Spurs battled their way through the lane for 28 in the first half alone. The Spurs struggled over the past two games getting the ball within the arc in halfcourt sets, typically settling for outside looks or being forced into tough, contested attempts. With Serge Ibaka and the other Thunder big men patrolling the lane, San Antonio appeared tentative at times and unable develop any offensive consistency.

Tim Duncan led the squad in points but it was the aggression of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (12 PTS, 4 AST, 4 REB) towards the basket that unraveled the Thunder defense. This time around San Antonio took the fight to Ibaka and the Thunder’s defense, attacking early into the shot clock and making smart passes off the collapsing help defenders. With the rock getting to the rim early, San Antonio opened up looks around floor. With clear skies on the perimeter, the Spurs took advantage by knocking down 13 of their 26 3-point attempts. Ginobili, Diaw, and Patty Mills (9 PTS, 2 REB) dealt the bulk of the damage with a combined 8-11 3-point performance.

San Antonio finished the night with only40 points in the paint but their tenacity inside created a defensive nightmare for the Thunder. “We got off the ball, we didn’t have any ball stoppers,” Popovich said. “We hit open people and relied on team play more than we did in OKC.”

De-Fense! De-Fense!

The Thunder did a phenomenal job inside early on in the game. After starting off 1-7, the Thunder blistered the Spurs with a 12-16 FG performance with 7 of the made baskets coming from inside the pain. Kevin Durant (25 PTS, 5 REB), Russell Westbrook (21 PTS, 7 AST, 4 REB), and Reggie Jackson (11 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST) all seemed destined for yet another big night after the first quarter. Jackson was a perfect 5-5 FG for 11 points and the Batman/Robin duo of Durant and Westbrook put in 13 points together.

The Spurs interior defense began to make adjustments and stopped letting the Thunder backcourt score on a whim. After 14 first quarter points inside the paint, the Spurs gave up only 22 through the remainder of the night. San Antonio showed hard on the pick and rolls, forcing the ball handler late into the shot clock and channeling them into tough spots on the floor. When the ball did move, the Spurs defenders were bursting to close out on the shooter.

The Spurs held Oklahoma City to just 34 points in the second half on 35.9% shooting, including 0-12 from the perimeter. The end result was three decreasingly productive quarters (32, 23, 19, 15) for Oklahoma City and a second sub-90 point Thunder performance in this series.

Other Notes and Numbers

  • After scoring 21 fastbreak points in the previous game, the Thunder were held to just 4 in Game 5 (2/5 FG).
  • The San Antonio Spurs dominated the rebound battle 48-35 by attacking the ball rather than just relying on the numbers game. The Thunder excel at creating second-chance opportunities by playing the glass aggressively.
  • Moving Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup was a smart move by Coach Scott Brooks but has created a limited amount of offensive firepower off the bench. The Spurs bench outscored the Thunder’s bench, 55-26.
  • Serge Ibaka had a noticeable limp when heading to the locker room after the game reached it’s conclusion. Ibaka spent a great deal of his pregame practice alternating between shooting drills and lower leg stretches.
  • After a gutsy performance in Game 4, Cory Joseph only saw 7:29 minutes of game time. Coach Popovich used Joseph as a model of mental toughness and aggression when he addressed his team in film session.
  • Manu Ginobili is 14-23 (60.9%) from 3-point range in this series.
  • After two straight games of 30-plus free throw attempts, the Spurs only allowed the Thunder to get to the line 20 times (13-20).
  • The Oklahoma City Thunder tallied a total of 18 block in Games 3 and 4. They only managed 4 on Thursday night.
Aaron Preine

About Aaron Preine

Aaron Preine has covered the San Antonio Spurs since 2010 and is one of the hosts of the Project Spurs Spurscast.