June 3rd, 2012
By Bobby Toulaine -- I was living in Washington State south of Seattle at the time the Seattle Supersonics announced they were moving
the team to Oklahoma City. It was hard to like Clay Bennett, regardless of whatever merits he might have brought to the NBA team. It was almost satisfying -- but only for a brief period of time -- as they struggled in the first year or so in Oklahoma.
And now, as we have watched them improving steadily and learning -- as they play -- almost before our eyes -- and realizing at the same time that they are very young -- it is very fun and exciting to watch them play.
We knew the San Antonio Spurs were a good team -- and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili we knew they had their own particular brand of speed and excitement -- coupled occasionally with circus-acts shots by both of those guys.
In the first game of the series the Thunder led for a while, but the steady and relentless precision passing and set play
running of the Spurs whittled away at it -- and by the games end it had a little bit of that last year Dallas Maverick series feeling to it. They play well enough to compete, but when the opponent really asserts themselves -- it shows -- and they grind you up. The second game of the series was kind of the Spurs to lose -- and they didn't. The Thunder kept coming and the Spurs kept going. It gave us a slight lump in the pit of our stomachs. Kinda seen the Lakers and the Mavericks up close on those kind of play-off games before, too.
I knew the Spurs were good -- but are they really that good? Sports pundits said the Thunder bigs
just weren't athletic enough and not good enough ballers -- they just couldn't finish -- and aggregately, they said, the Thunder just couldn't match the athleticism of Parker and Ginobili -- and the tenacious, mistake-free, opportunistic defense the Spurs played. The Spurs bench was better they said -- and because the Spurs didn't have to pay much attention to the Thunder bigs -- the bench was not going to contribute enough to let Durant and Westbrook and Harden play their games. The Spurs would just shut the big three of the Thunder down -- and series over. One even said they shouldn't even play Thunder big, Kendrick Perkins, the rest of the series.
Then something happened. The Thunder came with a plan. Somebody threw the switch. They put bigs on Parker and Ginobili much of the time --
and played a fast, almost man-zone -- switching on the guards to prevent them from penetrating -- using their length and width to impede their passing by clogging the passing lanes and creating wide body congestion on the pick and rolls. Sefalosha had a monster, unconscious defensive game -- and an excellent offensive game as well in game 3 -- getting 6 steals and 19 points. Serge Ibaka went off with 11 for 11 for 26 points, Perkins got 13, and Collison got 8 in game 4 -- the trio hitting on 22 of 25 -- other worldly! In the process -- it almost looked like the Thunder switched roles with the Spurs. They made it look easy -- and made the Spurs look inept and low energy (old?) at times. Their defense was actually better than anything the Spurs had played against them - suddenly. And to finish it off -- they reversed the stats and play of their season -- in which they had one of the lowest assist totals -- and began sharing the ball, getting easy shots (a huge number of them back door or cutter dunks) and finishing game 4 with 27 assists. It was almost classic, half-court basketball. They also out-rebounded the Spurs substantially.
Suddenly it was all Oklahoma City Thunder. It was superb. Championship looking - almost.
Precision, high energy, opportunistic, aggressive, super athletic -- and really, really good basketball. So now they are on their way back to San Antonio for game 5. The Spurs will be at home. Young teams often fall to earth when they go on the road again after high energy -- big wins at home. They look slow sometimes -- and tentative -- like they don't exactly remember how they got there.
So this is the question Thunder fans everywhere are asking themselves. Was games 3 and 4
just a preview of what's to come -- sometime in the near future -- just not yet? Not this year. Not now. Soon. Or -- was what took place in San Antonio in games 1 & 2 just a final, finish tempering of an already play-off tested -- talented and up and coming young team? Are they ready? And is this the year they will arrive?
By rights -- San Antonio should win game 5. They should regroup like the veteran team they are.
Come out playing with blue flame tenacity and precision -- in the familiar surroundings and in the frenzied atmosphere of their devoted fans -- and they should right their ship. It goes without saying that winning three games in a row from a team that hadn't lost a game in weeks -- to anyone --- on any court -- will be a stiff challenge. But we will definitely find out on Monday. Are the Thunder ready? If they win game 5 -- they probably are. They may just have arrived a little early -- at least for the Spurs -- and they may be ready. Wouldn't it be a blast for Thunder fans if they were?