You have to fight the Spurs with defense.
OK, I get that sounds remarkably stupid in its obviousness. Please try and hear me out. In Games 1 and 2, Scott Brooks, for reason beyond understanding, chose to go with offensive lineups. Particularly in the fourth quarter of both losses, he went with lineups featuring Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Derek Fisher. The focus on trying to score with San Antonio was a critical mistake, and one he wouldn’t replicate in Game 3, and it resulted in not needing fourth quarter lineups at all as the Thunder blew out the Spurs 102-82.
It was a critical adjustment for Brooks, who went to extended minutes for Thabo Sefolosha, using him to switch onto Tony Parker to contain the All-Star point guard. The Spurs starters scored just .77 points per possession Thursday night, and the more the Spurs’ offense unraveled, the more the Thunder got out and ran for scores, which allowed their defense to reset.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The Thunder decided to pick another poison Thursday night, instead of letting Tony Parker loose, they packed the paint to prevent perimeter penetration, surrendering fifteen shots to Tim Duncan. But on a night where Duncan became the all-time playoff leader in blocked shots, the future Hall-of-Famer only hit five for eleven points. With Manu Ginobili and Parker held to just 17 shots total, the Thunder let the supporting cast try and shot their way back into it. They could not.
It’s a considerable adjustment and reflects a development that began in Game 1. The Thunder defended well until the fourth quarter of Game 1, where the Spurs shot a blistering 75 percent effective field goal percentage. In Game 3, their game-long eFG% was just 46.7.
The Spurs won’t be affected by the loss much, even if they know that it wasn’t just an off shooting night but a legitimate counter punch from their Conference Final foe. They’ll have time to make adjustments before Game 4. But the inherent advantages that OKC has in terms of length and athleticism are not easily solved. All this sets up a monster Game 4, with the series on the line. A Spurs counter-attack ends the series, effectively, while a Thunder win resets everything. The big question will be if the Spurs’ offense can get that edge back in front of a hostile crowd. This is the first time they’ve really faced a team with confidence on the road, and a team that can defend.
Because the Spurs aren’t doing it this series. After holding both the Clippers and Jazz to less than one point per possession, the Spurs are now surrendering 108.6 points per 100 possessions in this series. It’s a tiny sample size, but it’s a trend that’s held. Their defense is not good enough to win this series. Their offense is. Which means that it’s the Thunder who have the control here. The Spurs are not going to defend OKC. If OKC can’t keep up this defensive efficiency, they’re going to lose. If they can, they will. It’s in their hands. Granted, the Spurs can counter-adjust offensively, but two things have stabilized. The Thunder can score, the Spurs can’t stop them. It’s all on the Spurs’ offense vs. Thunder D. Last year, this exact situation played out in the conference finals with another team from Texas.
The Thunder tried to outscore the Mavericks last year. Game 3 seems to indicate that they’ve figured out that’s not the approach to take.
In an all-offense series, it’s become about defense.