OKC eyeing 2012-style comeback

Originally Published: May 22, 2014
By Royce Young | Special to ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- In the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were doing the exact same thing Serge Ibaka was, some 450 miles north.

Arms crossed and shoulders slouched, the two Oklahoma City Thunder stars were off their feet, forced to watch a complete San Antonio Spurs liquidation Wednesday night. It was a 112-77 playoff embarrassment unlike any they've ever experienced, the worst postseason loss for the franchise since moving to Oklahoma City.

But it's not unknown territory for them, outside the historic final margin. For both teams, 2012 remains a talking point, when the Thunder overcame a 2-0 deficit to the Spurs with four straight wins to advance to the NBA Finals.

"We've been here before," Durant said. "That's all we can say. We try not to say since we were down 0-2 two years ago and we end up winning, we'll do the same thing. We've really got to figure it out on how we need to get better, and we've always done that."

[+] EnlargeThunder
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsKevin Durant and guard Russell Westbrook had lots to think about as the Game 2 blowout played out.
The callback of 2012 is obvious, and stared everyone in the face following the Spurs' 35-point win on Wednesday, but there's no denying the differing feel. For starters, that Thunder team had James Harden and a healthy Ibaka. Plus, this Spurs team is better than that one. In 2012, Kawhi Leonard was a rookie and Danny Green -- who hit 7-of-10 from 3-point range on Wednesday -- was essentially benched by Game 4.

"I remember that series very well," Green said. "It's a series I won't forget."

The Thunder have three days off before Sunday's Game 3, which has essentially turned into a must-win. In 2012, the Thunder blitzed the Spurs from tipoff, swarming the ball and energizing their rabid home crowd. It was a Thunder rout, one that ended a near-60-day run without a loss for the Spurs, and sent a strong message that things weren't going to be easy for the kings of the West.

This time, there's no magical adjustment to make. Thunder coach Scott Brooks is taking the brunt of the blame, but there's no clear solution to fix the team right now.

"It's easy for you guys to figure out because y'all aren't playing," an agitated Durant said. "But for us, we've just got to fly around. We've got to make more efforts. We've got to play a little harder, and got to contest.

"Of course everybody is going to try to spread us apart these next few days, but we've never been a team that front-runs. We always stick together no matter what. We've just got to go out there and do it."

With the injury to Ibaka, the bulk of the burden has been squarely placed on Westbrook and Durant. The defense is pillow-soft, the offense is as erratic as Westbrook's wardrobe, and the complementary players are wildly inconsistent. So it's on them. And they didn't show up in Game 2. They combined for 30 total points on just 13-for-40 shooting. While the Spurs spread the floor with magical ball movement and pinpoint spacing, the Thunder seem to get in their own way, running simple actions side to side without any counters off the initial trigger.

"It's easy to say [the shots are bad] now when we miss them, but when we make them two weeks ago, there's nothing said," Westbrook said. "So now it's a problem when we miss. But that's how it goes."

The Thunder's adjustment to everything has always been "play harder" or "make more shots," but there's something far more complex here. They're paying for their regular-season sins, for their insistence on relying on top-level talent triumphing over everything else. Like Westbrook said, the shots they take are the shots they take -- they either make them, or they don't. While the Spurs are executing with the sharpness of a knife, the Thunder are running their dulled offense and hoping that it's just one of those nights when they go in.

It is impossible to ignore the predicament the Thunder are in, though. They seem unprepared to handle the loss of Ibaka. But how can you really blame them? The regular season doesn't predict the future, but remember, the Thunder did go 4-0 against the Spurs. Remove Chris Bosh from the Heat, David West from the Pacers, or Tim Duncan from the Spurs in the middle of a postseason series and there would be some significant issues. 

The Thunder aren't well equipped to cope, in terms of depth and structure. They aren't producing good shots, and their defense is entirely in shambles. It's about far more than the absence of one player, but there is a shellshock element at play here. The Thunder just don't look like themselves anymore.

"We're down 0-2," Durant said. "If they'd have won this game by one point, we still would have been down 0-2. You know, it's easy for you to go hide and run and be negative and clash, but it's hard for you to stay positive at a time like this when we lost by a lot two games in a row. It's hard for you to stay together, but we have a group of guys that's not front-runners, and we'll figure it out."

As 2012 proved, one win can right a ship rather quickly. The Spurs have picked the Thunder apart, humiliating them in almost every way, but a playoff series can flip in a new direction any given night. The Thunder might spend the next few days trying to remind themselves of what they accomplished two years ago, but first, they probably need to remember who they are.

Royce Young's work appears regularly on Daily Thunder, part of the TrueHoop network

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