Saturday, June 2, 2012
Thunder flip the script in Game 4 win
By John Hollinger ESPN.com
Serge Ibaka's 11-for-11 outburst helped pave the way for a series-tying victory in Oklahoma City.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- If you were going to bet on a role player shooting 11-for-11 in a Western Conference finals game, you wouldn't have picked anybody on the Thunder.
And if you were going to pick one team's "non-Big 3" to shoot a sizzling 25-for-35 to swing an important game, you certainly wouldn't have picked the Thunder.
But it was Oklahoma City's secondary players who owned Game 4, a 109-103 win over San Antonio that tied the series at two games apiece. And it's that fact -- and not the late-game scoring eruption from Kevin Durant -- that marks this game as a potentially historic one in the continuing evolution of this team, particularly if it ends in a championship parade through whatever part of this city isn't under construction at that time.
Don't get me wrong, Durant was amazing -- after the Spurs cut a 15-point Thunder lead to four midway through the fourth, he scored 16 straight Thunder points to put the game away. More amazingly, he only needed nine trips to do it.
That was awesome, but we've seen him do this before.
Defensive stopper Kendrick Perkins exploded for 15 points and nine rebounds in OKC's victory.
The part we haven't seen before was the prelude: Durant taking his teammates along for the ride and turning the Thunder's secondary players into huge offensive weapons.
This is a potentially huge development for the OKC side. As good as they've been as a three-man offense by riding the prodigious talents of Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, their top-heaviness gave defenses an out -- one exploited by Dallas, for example, in last season's conference finals. Even playing that way, they were the league's second-best offense this season, but if they move the ball the way they did on Saturday, they're basically unguardable.
Just ask the Spurs -- a darned good defensive team, by the way -- whom Oklahoma City blistered for 109 points on 93 trips, a deadly 117.2 offensive efficiency rating. They did it without offensive boards (only seven in 31 chances), without a profusion of free throws (just 21, including six intentionally given in the final minute), and without raining a bunch of 3s (only five).
Instead they did it the old-fashioned away, generating one easy shot after another by passing, screening, driving, kicking and, of course, making the shots. The Thunder -- who were last in the league with assists on just 49.7 percent of their baskets in the regular season -- assisted on 27 of their 44 field goals.
They aren't supposed to do this. The book on how to defend this team has always been to make somebody besides Durant, Westbrook and Harden beat you by crowding their drives and counting on them not finding the opening.
The Spurs did exactly that, and my goodness, did Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Kendrick Perkins beat them. Ibaka in particular was deadly, becoming only the third player in league history to take more than 10 shots in a playoff game and make all of them. His 11-of-11 was one short of the NBA playoff record, set by Kansas City-Omaha's Larry McNeill in an evening of hyphenated glory against Chicago in 1975.
Ibaka did it with jump shots, mostly, that were conceded to him by San Antonio's defensive strategy. The Thunder had occasionally found this pick-and-pop option in the first three games, but on this night they located it repeatedly. Ibaka made the Spurs pay by hitting six jumpers from beyond 15 feet, and then later added a show-and-go move that he finished with a soaring, Dr. J-like dunk over Tim Duncan.
Ibaka has shown this skill before -- he made 46.0 percent of his long 2s on the season, according to Hoopdata.com -- and has never lacked for confidence in his abilities.
"Maybe a surprise for you, but not a surprise for my teammates or myself," Ibaka said. "If you saw the first game in San Antonio they always left me open every time."
This takes us to the next level of the discussion, the chicken-and-egg argument about whether their secondary players didn't score because the three main scorers monopolized the shots, or whether the three main players monopolized the shots because the secondary players couldn't score.
Let's just say they hammered the latter argument.
With Durant locating teammates so well -- his eight assists were his most since April 9, 22 games ago -- Ibaka got more of those wide-open jumpers, Perkins and Collison got a few open rolls to the rim, and the three combined to shoot 22-of-25.
"We've got this interesting conundrum," said locker-room sage Collison, who made 4 of 5 himself and, defensively, blew up several San Antonio pick-and-rolls in the pivotal second quarter.
Western Conference Playoffs
Get all the news and commentary on the Spurs-Thunder matchup on ESPN.com's matchup page.
"We've got these guys who are as good as anybody on the planet at getting to the basket, but then teams try to take that away and we have to make the right decision. So it's a fine balance between being aggressive and trying to score, which we need, we need that all the time, but then also making the right plays. We've been making the right plays these last two games."
And in the process, it has made the end of games easier for Durant, who has learned that by giving it away early, it's easier for him to take over late.
"Doing that in the first three quarters kind of opened it up for me in the fourth," he said.
"He's really improved as the years have gone by at becoming a better playmaker," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "Even early in the season, he's had some turnovers by doing that. They weren't selfish turnovers. They were turnovers trying to find his team, and everything clicked tonight."
But it's not just Durant -- it's Westbrook and Harden, too. Those two contributed a dozen assists to the cause, and in particular the formerly erratic Westbrook has all but banished turnovers from his box score line in the postseason.
None of which guarantees anything going forward. The Thunder are still tied 2-2 without home-court advantage, and their bigs are unlikely to shoot 8-of-9 on long 2s every game.
But from a big-picture, evolutionary perspective, Saturday night's game could be huge. This team was hard enough to guard as an iso-heavy, hero-ball team riding on pure talent. Throw in precision ball movement and secondary scoring sources, and it's an impossible task.
They don't do it with regularity yet, but the scary thought for the rest of the league is that if and when they do, nobody will ever beat them.