Thunder-Spurs Game 5: Oklahoma City won like battle-tested veterans

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The conventional wisdom coming into this series was that the younger, less experienced Thunder might well not stand up to the level of play the battle tested Spurs were at.

But the Thunder have plenty of experience, too. We thought all season they were the team to beat in the West, that didn’t change until San Antonio got hot. The Thunder have been together for years, they have grown through the playoffs each year. They’ve become battle tested. They have added guys like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher who have have rings. Even in these playoffs we have seen them evolve.

The Thunder are ready. They showed it Monday night in Game 5.

San Antonio played the game of a desperate team — they altered the starting lineup that had so recently won 10 straight playoff games, they played with spurts of incredible tenacity. San Antonio wanted this.

Oklahoma City withstood the storms, made their plays, came back and went on to win 108-103 (Stephen Jackson’s last shot three was waived off) and take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals. OKC can close it out Wednesday night at home and advance to the NBA finals.

There comes a time in every series where the coach who realizes it is really slipping away from him starts making desperate moves with his lineup. When he’s willing to try anything to find a combination that works, to change the pace. It almost never works.

For Game 5 Gregg Popovich inserted Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup. He early on tried small lineups. It worked for a minute and the Spurs were up 8 quickly.

But the Thunder are experienced, they do not rattle easily, even on the road. They responded with a 9-0 run of their own and took the lead back before the end of the first quarter. As it had the last couple games, the athleticism of the Thunder disrupted the Spurs offense. The Spurs were out of synch. Their decisions were slow, the ball movement not crisp. Do that and the long, athletic Thunder can recover and contest shots. San Antonio shot just 39.5 percent in the first half with 11 turnovers. Yet they were only down 8, 52-44 at the break.

The start of the second half was like the start of the first, Ginobili was knocking down everything — he finished with 34 points on 21 shots. Tony Paker was defending Russell Westbrook the length of the court and the Spurs were hot, and 18-4 run. They took the lead, they looked like the old Spurs.

And the Thunder weathered the storm. Like a veteran team. They retook the lead, just like they did in the first half. Their defense was good enough, their offense was too much for the Spurs to stop. Kevin Durant had 27 points, Westbrook 23, Harden 20 on just 11 shots (including the dagger four point play). As a team, the Thunder shot 50 percent.

They were flat out better.

Call it a passing of the torch if you want, but we knew all season OKC was the team to beat. And it’s not like the Spurs passed the torch — OKC has ripped it out of their hands. They cranked up the defensive pressure, their offensive ball movement has taken a leap forward, they have been stellar.

They have been what we expect of contenders. And now they are one win away from the finals. Which they earned.

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.