June 6th, 2012
By Bobby Toulaine -- Down 18 points in the first half, and San Antonio looking like the team that hadn't lost a game in a couple of
months -- it would have been a forgivable sin if the thought crossed your mind that inevitably a team as good as the Spurs will wake up and reclaim what was only two or three weeks ago presumed to be rightfully theirs.
While the Thunder never appeared to panic, there were some things that were different early.
Their occasional bursts would often end in a wild play -- a turn-0ver -- or a couple of times full spin-out slip, skip, and falls that looked bone-crushing and dangerous. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each had one of those. The were focused on defense -- just a step slow and didn't seem to be anticipating Spurs passes like they did in Games 3 and 4. The extra pass was missing on offense -- so were the dunks, alley-oops, and back door layups -- which come off those extra passes. The challenge was there, but it was more of an isolation -- put the ball on the floor and break their ankles if you can -- and most of the time they didn't. They got caught in traps - had the ball slapped away -- and when they did find their way to the basket, it looked like they were getting fouled but they weren't getting any calls. Different. And the Thunder did not protest much about it either. It was almost like they knew something -- they had a plan -- and everything going on right now was just setting the table -- the meal was yet to come.
I found myself wondering from time to time where their game had gone. Was how they played in game 3 and 4
so unconscious that they just can't get back there now -- because they didn't consciously realize that they were doing it in the first place? Are they that young? A case of "monkey see, monkey do" -- about the Spurs performances in game 1 and 2?
At the same time, I knew how explosive the Thunder could be. But for most teams something just ignites it and off they go. It's not
something that you call a time out, and coach Brooks says, "All right, it's Thunder time" -- and the jail break is on! It is, however, partially driven by defensive opportunism -- and that defensive tenacity does at times appear to be something that the Thunder are able to switch into on command. We used to have a thing we called a "mad-minute" when I used to play. In the last minute of the 2nd and 4th quarters our coach would say: "Okay, it's mad minute time. And for one minute you would bust a gut. Play with everything you had -- and with reckless abandon! You'd leave it all on the floor. We almost always got easy buckets and we always outscored our opponents -- but above all else it was just plain fun. It was also infectious and tended to carry over into the regular minutes of the game. The Thunder seem a little like that. At certain times -- in close games -- the defensive tempo and tenacity changes -- and suddenly opponents have trouble doing the things they were doing so effectively just minutes before. There are deflections, steals, blocked shots, strips, lucky bounces -- and calls even seem to go their way. And lots of points come off that defense -- quickly -- and by the bucket full (that's the part pundits call explosive) -- and lots of confidence on offense seems to come with it. The Thunder are in full attack mode -- almost have a swagger. I have seen it all season!
And it happened tonight. The Spurs got out of the shoot quickly -- scoring points in clusters -- and their old crisp, efficient offense was
back. So was Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Driving, passing, hitting the cutter -- kicking for threes. The Thunder was scoring also, but every time the Thunder hit a two, the Spurs hit a three -- or two quick twos. The lead was 18 at one point in the first half, and 15 at halftime. The Thunder never looked like they were being particularly outplayed -- nor were they rattled -- they were just steadily falling further behind.
Charles Barkley on TNT's half-time show summed it up precisely. "I still think Oklahoma City is going to win", he said. San Antonio is
not going to hit nine three's in the second half -- and they're not going to shoot 67% -- or what ever they shot -- in the second half." Oklahoma City was just too young, too fast, too explosive -- and too good. Indeed, they were.
When they turned the switch on -- you could tell. San Antonio could tell, too. The Spurs played valiantly, competently, aggressively,
and opportunistically -- as usual. They just did not seem to play anticipating that they would actually win. And they didn't. Thunder played dynamite defense -- and even more explosively on offense. They erupted. The Spurs kept hitting. But the Thunder hit shots in torrents. Two-pointers, three-pointers, and ones. You name it. Dunks, alley-oops, back door cuts, pull up jumpers, runners -- and when it was over the Spurs went from 18 point up to losing by 7. Go figure. I'd hate to be the Spurs. I wonder if they ever really thought Oklahoma City was that good. I don't think so. They seemed a little surprised. The Thunder have grown up in a hurry in the play-offs. And now they are going to the big show! There will probably be more of those in the coming years.
Popovich was right. The Spurs were not playing the "Little Sisters of the Poor" (whatever the hell that means, anyway). They were playing the up and coming -- "young guns". And they arrived early!