If you were looking for them, there were glimmers of hope for the Oklahoma Thunder in this series from Game 2.
Their “big three” showed up — Kevin Durant had 31, James Harden 30 and Russell Westbrook 27. There was a run, early in the fourth quarter, when the Thunder were able to clog the lane, stall out the Spurs offense and make a little run. They may have found a lineup to close out games (if they just replace Derek Fisher in it).
The problem was it wasn’t enough. They are down 0-2 to a Spurs team playing beautiful and smart basketball.
But the series is not over. There is a chance as they head home.
But the Thunder need to find some answers. Fast.
The questions are mostly on the defensive end — the Thunder put up 111 points and were far more aggressive attacking the rim.
But they could not stop the Spurs. And that really comes back to they could not stop the Spurs penetration — once Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili get in the lane you are at the mercy of a little floater or a kick out to an open corner three. You have to cut them off early.
And for a stretch of the second half they did.
“I think we did a good job at the end of the third to the middle of the fourth just putting more heat on them, on the ball, really making it difficult for (Parker) to see those gaps, to see those passes,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the game.
The Thunder found some answers with a lineup of Westbrook, Durant, Derek Fisher, James Harden and Serge Ibaka — a variation on their small lineup — that clogged the lane on the Spurs in and disrupted passing lanes. Oklahoma City made a 13-4 run in the fourth quarter that made you think maybe. It’s an athletic lineup (save Fisher), and that bothered the Spurs. San Antonio was forced to shoot contested jumpers that for a while they missed. The Thunder ran off turnovers (particularly Harden). The Spurs 22-point lead evaporated. To single digits.
But then Brooks made his second fourth quarter substitution mistake of the series — he stuck with Fisher once the Spurs started exploiting his defense. With Thabo Sefolosha, his best perimeter defender, sitting on the bench Brooks stuck with Fisher. Who missed shots (save one three) and was getting torched on the other end. Brooks can’t make that kind of mistake again.
Still, the idea was right. The Thunder blew up the Spurs rhythm with hack-a-Splitter them built on it. The Thunder did better for stretches guarding the paint. It’s just that the Spurs can beat that, too.
“You take away the paint, you give up something,” Brooks said. “They made 11 threes. That’s what makes them a good team.”
The Spurs are a relentless offensive machine, but the Thunder have the athletes to at least slow them. They just need to do it more consistently. They need more Ibaka and less Kendrick Perkins (a great one-on-one post defender, perfect for the Lakers series but less effective here).
They need the energy the home crowd brings in OKC, which elevates the Thunder game. The Spurs, it’s not changing them. These games could be played outdoors on asphalt with chain-link nets and they would do the exact same things. Gregg Popovich has probably even thought up special plays for a potential outdoor game. Just in case.
The Thunder have another gear, they need to find it, particularly on defense. They are learning what works, what they need to do. Now they need to execute it. Right now. At home, with all the energy that building brings.
That or this series will be over faster than a Kim Kardashian marriage.