Fifty days it had been since San Antonio last tasted defeat… back when the since-eliminated Lakers got 30 rebounds from Andrew Bynum and 26 points from Metta World Peace. That almost seems like a season ago, and I think the fact that the Spurs promptly bounced back and took care of the Lakers by a 24-point margin makes it feel as though the streak lasted even longer.
If you don’t recall, the Spurs looked so incredibly mechanical (in a good way) and dominant in that April 20th revenge game that, although it was just another regular-season contest, it put to rest any doubt in my mind that this team wasn’t/isn’t as real a deal as any championship Spurs squad from the past. Up until last night, all they’d done since then is win 14 consecutive games, and most of them by double figures.
So, how were the Oklahoma City Thunder able to solve the NBA’s Rubik’s Cube? And how were they able to do it so quickly, figuratively speaking? Well, I feel like it all started with the defense of Thabo Sefolosha.
I don’t want to be one of those knee-jerk-reacting sensationalists, so before this begins to look like an article from the front page of Yahoo! let me just say that I honestly believe this defeat had a lot to do with the San Antonio Spurs. I thought Kenny Smith made a solid point on Inside The NBA when he said something along the lines of “true desperation can’t be duplicated.”
It’s true. Oklahoma City absolutely needed to win game three—their season was riding on it, really—while San Antonio required only two of the next five, if the series is to go that long (doubtful). As down to earth a team as the veteran Spurs are, not even they can unlearn how damn dominant they’ve been over the past couple of months. I’m not even saying they weren’t focused… it’s just that they weren’t able to capture that gutsy, defiant attitude which comes with returning home for a must-win contest. Remember, no team has ever come back from 0-3. It truly was a must-win situation for Oklahoma City.
Attitudinally-disadvantaged or not, the Spurs are still an awfully good basketball team (one hell of an understatement indeed). The determined young guns from Brick Town had to do more than a few things quite well to spark a series of events that resulted in 21 San Antonio turnovers and 44 points in the paint. Like I said, I feel that it all started with Thabo Sefolosha; the defense he played on Tony Parker, particularly.
Excluding Chris Paul, who is of otherworldly descent, Tony Parker led all point guards of his caliber in ball security for the ’11/12 season. While Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, and Kyrie Irving (see how I threw him in there?) all turned the ball over better than three times per game, Parker coughed it up only 2.6 times. Like the aforementioned Paul, Parker has always been a master of the ability to go wherever it is he pleases. He’s been a leader in paint points for the past… however many years, and at 6’2″ that speaks volumes about his agility and control.
Last night, however, Parker turned the ball over five times whilst attempting just two field goals in that obnoxiously-blue rectangle. OKC’s decision to switch a lot of pick and rolls helped to keep him from turning the corner, but Sefolosha’s combination of length and lateral movement was definitely the key to a stellar defensive effort. Thanks in large part to his individual doggedness, Parker was kept outside of the lane and forced to attempt some awkward passes out of pressure situations. For these new-fangled, outside-in Spurs, Parker’s individual struggles brought about a sort of trickle-down effect.
Due to Parker’s befuddlement, the Spurs drifted away from their game. The post, aka Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter, did not respond to the sudden change of plans and combined to finish 5-17 from the floor. As a team, San Antonio shot just 39.5%. Thanks to the surprising abundance of San Antonio bricks (along with those 21 giveaways) the enthusiastic Thunder didn’t have to begin all their possessions by taking the ball out of the peach basket. That resulted in plays like this, and then this.
The dominoes didn’t stop falling there. Electrifying plays such as those build confidence, and a little confidence can go a long way for a young team like the Thunder. On this particular evening they turned it into a 22-point victory over a team that hadn’t lost since you filed your tax return. Individually, Sefolosha flipped it into the biggest offensive night of his playoff career. When he wasn’t busy racking up six steals he was working on his 19 points. It took him 16 shots, but hey, the shots will be there when you force all those turnovers. Hell, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant failed to connect on more than half of their opportunities, but they got so many (88-66 FGAs in favor of OKC) it didn’t even matter.
And that, my friends, is how Thabo Sefolosha’s name ends up headlining a Western Conference Finals victory.