- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- At this point the only thing the San Antonio Spurs have going for them could be the one thing they never emphasized: home-court advantage.
The Spurs can't beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City. That's fact, not hyperbole, as evidenced by a nine-game losing streak here that includes regular season and playoffs.
The Western Conference finals, tied at 2-2, are now being played on the Thunder's terms. That's reality. So is the fact that two of the potential three remaining games will be played in San Antonio's place. That's a benefit of the NBA's best record that the Spurs didn't even make a priority, based on their strategic resting of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and the in-season sabbatical they gave Tony Parker. Nothing mattered more to them than ensuring their key players who had logged the most lifetime minutes were fresh for the playoffs.
The Spurs still won a league-best 62 games almost by default, because of dedication to a system that featured efficiency (the NBA's second-highest field goal percentage) and equilibrium (second-most assists, with no individual player among the league's top 20 scorers). It didn't matter which players were on the court, All-Stars or unknowns, starters or reserves. The Spurs marched on. They were a testament to precision and execution. A computer running the software without a glitch.
Except the Thunder have written a bug into the programming code. It's no longer about orderly outcomes. This series is now about random events and inexplicable incidents. It's about the qualities general managers seek in draft picks, such as length and athleticism, more than the demands coaches place on their teams.
It's about Serge Ibaka turning what appear to be good looks into bad ideas. It's about Jeremy Lamb making an impact long before he hit his first shot, by deflecting a pass here or keeping a rebound alive there. It's about Kevin Durant hitting shots only he can make. And it's about Russell Westbrook, which is something else altogether -- an unmapped sector, or one of those elements of the universe that are speculated about but still unproven.
Only Gregg Popovich's decision to plan ahead for Game 5 Thursday and send a younger, fresher, more athletic lineup to play the final quarter and a half kept the Spurs from losing by more than 13 points. The more telling numbers in the box score were the categories that reflect speed and athleticism, and the Thunder won those decisively: 12-4 in steals, 8-2 in blocked shots, 21-0 in fast-break points.
How much were the Spurs thrown off their game? Even Ginobili, who normally provides excellent analysis with spot-on vocabulary in English (his second language), struggled to find the right words to describe it.
"They just outplayed us, really, uhhh, evident, uh, evident manner, I guess?" Ginobili offered.
We get the gist, Manu.
The thing is, the Spurs started off just fine. Everyone talked about the importance of Parker returning to a high level and he did just that at the beginning, scoring or assisting on San Antonio's first five baskets, staking the Spurs to a 12-4 lead.
"All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something," Popovich said. "I thought about passing a picture out on the bench, so they'd know who Serge was. But really unwise all of a sudden.
"Instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots. We had seven turnovers in the first half, but really 14 because of the seven blocks; those are all like turnovers. And so that precipitated the 20-0 fast-break points. Game time."
Actually, the numbers were six first-half blocks and 21 fast-break points, but I sure wasn't going to correct Popovich at the moment, especially when he was in the middle of his most expansive answer of a news conference that featured seven responses of less than 10 words.
"So you've got to play smarter against great athletes," Popovich continued. "They're talented, obviously, but the athleticism and length gives you a small margin of error, and you'd better be smart the way you play, and you can't afford to screw that up as many times as we did."
All of a sudden the Spurs aren't adhering to Popovich's desires the way they did during the regular season, when he earned the coach of the year award for the way they carried out his grand design.
"I think, to a certain extent, yes, Pop is right, we have to keep moving the ball and try to find the open shooters," Parker said. "We just have to find the happy middle."
There actually is room for negotiation in Popovich's fiefdom. Players have talked him into more playing time before and have even resisted his orders to enter the game if they thought the players on the court could do better. But they've generally been the most successful when they play the way he wants, and that hasn't happened the past two games.
More specifically, the Thunder haven't let it happen. Thunder steals accounted for 12 of San Antonio's 13 turnovers. So it wasn't as if the Spurs were traveling or wildly throwing the ball out of bounds; the Thunder players were taking it from them.
"We've got to be way smarter and sharper," Ginobili said. "If we let them push guys around and we're not strong with the ball, that's when they get us on our heels and we stop attacking the way we do."
Durant talked about Westbrook's "fire and force" -- two things you'll never see diagrammed on a clipboard during a timeout. This game was much more about Westbrook's flying fury than it was about Parker's spin moves or floating jumpers. Westbrook wound up with 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, five steals and a blocked shot. Parker was OK, with 14 points and four assists in 26 minutes, but he committed three of the Spurs' 13 turnovers.
The 14 points were as many as Ginobili and Tim Duncan had combined. That's another issue for the Spurs.
"I don't know what it is, but we need to fix it quick and go home and try to turn it around," Duncan said.
The Popovich move in Game 4 that worked best was his surrender. It resulted in positive plus/minus numbers for guys like Cory Joseph (plus-11), Aron Baynes (plus-9) and Matt Bonner (plus-12), even though they were playing against the Thunder's top players most of the time. They hustled and they hit the floor for loose balls. And Joseph even showed the proper way to attack Ibaka, by driving and dunking in his face.
But lineups such as that one aren't the long-term path to a championship. And slowing the pace down to a crawl isn't the solution for a team that operated at one of the faster tempos in the league this season. The formula that won them the first two games -- pound the ball inside -- isn't an option now that Ibaka's back. If the Spurs' solution is more passing, what if the Thunder simply jam the passing lanes?
The Spurs might need to count on crowds and some of that home cooking that Paul George was talking about. They didn't set out to get home-court advantage. It might be the only thing that can save them.
5dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com