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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Now that Serge Ibaka has returned to the playoffs it's time to send out a search party for the San Antonio Spurs.
This 106-97 victory for the Oklahoma City Thunder didn't include the Spurs as we've come to know them.
Where was the intensity and efficiency that brought them victories in six of their previous seven playoff games? With a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, the Spurs opted to lean back in their chairs rather than crouch down in a defensive stance.
"Maybe we thought that it was OK, and we were going to win here playing so-so," Manu Ginobili said.
What happened to Tony Parker, who went from plus-44 in the first two games to a minus-12 in Game 3?
"I don't know," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said slowly, wearily, deliberately, in a way that suggested he didn't feel like bailing Parker out with any reasonable explanations.
It's not as if Parker sought an escape route. He stood and faced the oncoming traffic, ready to be held accountable for his nine points on 4-for-13 shooting and an even assist-to-turnover ledger of 4:4.
"We didn't play good basketball, and it starts with me," Parker said. "I need to play better.
"I missed shots, I had bad turnovers, and I have to play better."
Parker successfully drew the defense's attention in Game 1 and dished off 12 assists. In Game 2 he sliced his way through the Thunder to score 22 points. His first shot of Game 3 was a missed jumper that was contested by Ibaka on a switch, the first signal that things would be different on this night. Parker missed layups and floaters and pullup jumpers and eventually reached the point where he stopped looking to score even when he was right under the basket.
"We just did a better job of just staying with him, not giving him much space," Russell Westbrook said. "I know he likes a lot of space and likes a lot of free movement, and my job was to stay with him all night long and try to make him feel my body, my size and make him shoot some tough shots."
Parker's drop-off is an ominous sign for the Spurs because it was at the heart of their collapse in the 2012 Western Conference finals. That year, Parker went from scoring 34 points in Game 2 to 16 in Game 3, then shot below 40 percent in Games 4 and 5. By the time he recovered to score 29 points in Game 6 it was too late; the Thunder had been given new life and couldn't be restrained. The machines in the "Terminator" saga had become self-aware. The composition of these two teams isn't exactly the same, but the personalities seem unchanged.
This was the third time the Thunder have dropped the first two games of a series; they've never fallen behind 3-0. And if anything, they were better equipped to approach this particular 2-0 deficit specifically because of the experience they gained from that 2012 series. We always talk about the Miami Heat's ability to shrug off playoff adversity, but we need to take into account the Thunder have won four series in which they've trailed, including both of the previous rounds this year.
The Spurs, meanwhile, have lost three of their past four chances to end a series early, a record that includes losses to Portland in Game 4 last round, to Dallas in Game 6 of the first round and, um, well ... you know.
Game 3 technically doesn't fit that category. But this was the closest thing, since no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit. It was a closeout dry run, and the Spurs didn't pass the test.
"I was very disappointed that we didn't come out with more a foot-in-the-neck sort of an attitude," Popovich said. "They killed us on the boards, they beat us on 50/50 balls, and that's very disappointing to me."
It wasn't just the players. Popovich didn't exactly have a "Mortal Kombat" finishing-move playing rotation. With his team down seven at the start of the fourth quarter, he sent out a lineup with Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Danny Green. Thunder coach Scott Brooks had Kevin Durant in with the veteran combination of Caron Butler and Derek Fisher he likes to use in the fourth quarter, along with Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams.
The more potent Thunder lineup scored the first seven points, effectively putting the game out of reach before Popovich sent Parker, Tim Duncan and Ginobili in for one last run. Popovich pulled the plug (and his stars) midway through the quarter, when the deficit had grown to 17.
Another ominous sign for the Spurs is that, as in 2012, it's Brooks and not Popovich making the impactful mid-series adjustments. Of course Ibaka's return was medical, not tactical. But Brooks also moved Jackson into the starting lineup ahead of Thabo Sefolosha. (What's worse: That Sefolosha and Nick Collison went from starting to picking up DNP-CDs, or that in doing so their combined scoring production dropped by only two points?)
Jackson used the additional playing time to pick up 15 points and five assists, and was plus-17 while he was in."He did well, but again, I think that the difference in intensity was the biggest key, not X's and O's, particularly," Ginobili said. "When you see [52-36] on the boards and every loose ball was theirs and our .... lagging defensively, lack of awareness was a big difference."
It was the second time he used the word "lagging", which was a great description for San Antonio's play. He also said the Spurs couldn't "trot down the court" -- another perfect way to summarize the slower, ineffective pace the Spurs used.
Ginobili did more than just supply the vocabulary words; he also scored 20 first-half points to keep the Spurs in the game heading into halftime. But he faded in the second half, and went to the locker room early to get treatment on a sore left foot.
"He'll be fine," Popovich said. "Or he's out for the rest of the playoffs."
It was a swipe at the dramatic reversal in Ibaka's prognosis -- "You've still got to have some fun even if you lose," Popovich said to the laughing media gallery.
So Pop hasn't lost his sense of humor. That aspect of his personality is still intact. The problem for the Spurs is, so is their penchant for letting series last longer than they should.