One of the most overstated messages about the game of basketball is that you have to play for a full 48-minutes. It’s not one good quarter, one great half, but a complete 48-minute ball game.
The San Antonio Spurs’ season came to an end on Wednesday night as the Spurs were eliminated from the Western Conference Finals by the Oklahoma City Thunder 107-99 in six games, due to the Spurs playing just 36-minutes of good basketball, not 48.
“In the third quarter, it was like playing in mud,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich after the game, “that was our downfall as much as anything. The lack of offense in the third quarter was tough.”
That third quarter will be one the Spurs will remember for a long time as a remarkable season in which they finished with the best record in the league, and were the only team to have three double-digit win streaks comes to an end.
The first half couldn’t have been scripted better for the Spurs. Their floor general, Tony Parker (29 points, 12 assists), who had been struggling against the Thunder defense in the previous three losses, was finally playing with aggression and fire.
The Spurs started the game with the first five points, but the Thunder responded with a 6-0 run. Parker led the Spurs on a 10-2 run immediately after and the Spurs went up by seven points. Another 10-2 run in the quarter would put the Spurs up by 11 points, and their lead got as high as 18 at one point. Stephen Jackson (23 points, 6/7 Three-Pointers) and rookie Kawhi Leonard were playing excellent defense on the Thunder scorers, and by the end of the first quarter, the Spurs led 34-20. Parker had 17 points and five assists, and the Spurs were moving the ball and playing with a quick pace. They also took care of the ball with just one turnover in the first quarter.
In the second quarter the Spurs continued to move the ball, as Parker was able to get into the lane and find his teammates. The Spurs held a 15-18 point lead for the majority of the quarter, then just before halftime, Kevin Durant (34 points) hit a three pointer close to the buzzer, as the Spurs went into halftime with a 63-48 lead. Parker had 21 points and 10 assists at this point, the Spurs as a team were still taking care of the ball as they only turned the ball over three times in the entire first half. And then came the third quarter.
“In the third quarter,” said Jackson after the game, “we were running in quick sand.”
For Tim Duncan, it was all about the pace of the Spurs imploding, “I just think in the third quarter we just slowed our pace down.”
The Thunder came out in the third quarter with energy and intensity on defense. They used an 11-2 start to cut the Spurs’ lead to six points. The Thunder’s defense would get the team down to two points. Parker could no longer get into the lane and the Spurs couldn’t knock down any open or contested shots. Then Durant capped a 7-0 run by the Thunder with a three pointer to allow the Thunder to take the lead. The Spurs would fight back down the stretch as they took a slim 81-80 lead into the fourth quarter. But the damage had already been done as the Spurs turned the ball over four times in the quarter and were outscored 32-18 in the period.
At this point, Parker and Tim Duncan (25 points) had each played over 31 minutes in the game. Kevin Durant had played all 36-minutes of the entire game. The fourth quarter was going to be a test of youth versus age.
The Spurs had an early lead in the fourth quarter, but with 9:31 left in the fourth, it would be the last time they led in their season as the Thunder took a 85-84 lead after a 10-3 start. The Spurs’ turnovers continued and got worse when it mattered most, as the team turned the ball over five times. There were some questionable foul calls in the fourth quarter as the Thunder were already in the penalty midway through the quarter, as they shot 15-free throws in the quarter. But the Spurs eventually couldn’t keep pace with the younger squad. Derek Fisher hit a huge three down the stretch to put the Thunder up five points and when the Spurs made a counter, James Harden (16 points) once again came up big with a three-pointer to put the Thunder up by six points. The Spurs tried desperation threes, but in the end the Thunder once again out-executed the Spurs down the stretch as they held on for the victory.
This Spurs team gave credit to the Thunder after the game, but once again, as has been the same message after each of their four straight losses, they pointed to themselves as the key reason why they lost.
The players said the third quarter is what dug them in the whole and threw all of their momentum off. For the Thunder, they’ll be moving on for the first time to the NBA Finals as they await the Eastern Conference Champion to be crowned, either the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics.
For the Spurs, Wednesday was once again the ending to a disappointing season as the team once again failed to reach its ultimate goal, winning an NBA Championship.
Coach Popovich said the team had a wonderful season and said in a way they overachieved, but still, you could tell from the players reactions after the game that they felt they had a legitimate shot at the crown this year and let it slip away.
As the Spurs head back home to clean out their lockers, the future of the players on the roster has a lot of uncertainties, which begin with the foundation for their franchise, Duncan. Duncan is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and though most expect him to resign with the Spurs, the possibility of retirement is still an option. The Spurs also have some vacancies to address with their backcourt and big men as they have multiple free agents in those positions.
The Spurs’ window is closing after every season that doesn’t end with a championship. But as Ginobili said after the game, the Spurs have been called the “old guys” year after year and still ended up with the best record in the NBA. Ginobili said he trusts the front office will make the right moves in the offseason to get the Spurs back to where they want to be, the last team standing in June.