The Oklahoma City Thunder can never catch a break come playoff time. Last year it was Russell Westbrook they had to do without. This year, it seemed as though Serge Ibaka would be out the remainder of the playoffs. Then Reggie Jackson went down. Most people thought that the Thunder were done for, especially being matched up against the West’s top team San Antonio Spurs. However, during Game 3, Serge Ibaka returned and inspired his teammates to a huge victory to bring the series to 2-1 in San Antonio’s favor.
For Game 4, the Thunder’s two biggest stars came through with huge games to lead them to a series-tying victory over the Spurs. A defensive attack led by Ibaka and an offensive dominance led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were the deciding factors in the 105-92 victory for the Thunder, tying the series at 2-2.
Both teams are now 2-0 on their homecourt after a second half rally by the Thunder in Game 4. The two will next meet in San Antonio for Game 5 on Thursday.
Two years ago, these two teams found themselves in the same position. San Antonio took the first two games of the series, only to let the young Thunder beat their way to the NBA Finals. With a better veteran depth and an improving Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are way different from two years ago. In fact, so are the Thunder, who are left without James Harden and have Jackson and Ibaka gritting their teeth through injuries.
Westbrook had an incredible display, scoring 40 points and dishing 10 assists. He was also on the prowl defensively, grabbing five steals. Spurs PG Tony Parker and Danny Green couldn’t live up to his amazing speed. In the first two games, Tony Parker did a great job of controlling the paint. However, in these past two games he has had trouble doing so. Parker only scored 14 points and Green, who also had a great first two games, only scored 3 points, Green only connected on one of his four shots the entire game.
Tommy Beer tweeted: “Russ Westbrook joins Michael Jordan as just the 2nd player in the last 30 years w/ 40 points, 10 assists, 5 Rebs& 5 steals in a playoff [game].”
Pre-game comments from Russ included him stating, “I think that’s to my advantage,” when asked about his speed. “At my position, my advantage is my size, my quickness and being bigger than my opponents, so I’ve got to use it to my advantage. Be smart about it, but use it to my advantage.”
The Thunder have been successful at home by not allowing the Spurs to hit their shots the way they normally do, especially from long range. They were held to 39 percent shooting from the floor and only shot 9-for- 27 from long range. That’s the type of defense the Thunder will need if they want to make it to the NBA Finals.
Another Spur that uncharacteristically struggled in Game 4 was Manu Ginobli. He only scored five points after a fantastic Game 3. Two other important Spurs’ players that struggled were Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, who will need to perform well if they want to make it past the Thunder. They showed signs of frustration toward teammates and head coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs found themselves down by as much as 27 during the second half, before mounting a decent comeback. Showing signs of frustration, Popovich turned to his bench for the whole fourth quarter.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, shooting was fantastic. They shot 48 percent from the floor and once again used their trips to the free throw line to hurt the Spurs. They got to the line 31 times, compared to the 22 times the Spurs got to the line. The injured Reggie Jackson only scored three points, who was diagnosed with a sprained ankle, and Serge Ibaka only scored nine points, who was mostly focused on protecting the rim. The Thunder bench scored 20 points all together, contributions coming from Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Caron Butler.
When Westbrook and Durant are as hot as they were in Game 4, you don’t really need much help from the rest of the team. They combined for 71 points, with the rest of the team only scoring 34. When they score like that, the rest of the team can focus on stopping the Spurs defensively and in return, you get a Thunder victory. Westbrook did work in transition and also hurt the Spurs with the use of pick-and-rolls and isolations, getting simple shots in the paint or dishing the ball to his teammates. He finished with his second-highest point production in a playoff game.
Chris Palmer tweeted that “This is the best game Russell Westbrook has ever played.” And that could very well be backed up by his explosiveness and wild behavior he showed on the court. He was all over the place, either making plays for himself or making plays for his teammates. The Thunder will be hard to stop if he continues to play like this. In addition, it also takes a lot of the pressure off Durant, allowing him to get open and be used as a sharp-shooter.
Durant did most of his damage in the first half and let Russ do his thing in the second half. Twenty-two of Durant’s 31 points were scored in the first half. He shot 9-for-11 in that first half, as Russ and KD scored for a combined 39 points and accumulated zero turnovers in the first 24 minutes.
For the Spurs to win at home like they had in the first two games of the series, they will need Kawhi Leonard to lock down Durant. He did it in those first two games and also did it in the second half of game 4, however it was too late by then.
Come Thursday, it will have to be seen as a must-win for the Spurs. With Game 6 being held in OKC, if the Spurs lose Game 5 they will be in a win-or-go-home situation under the Thunder’s roof. Keep in mind, the Spurs have lost nine straight games in Oklahoma City. A loss Thursday could mean the end of the Spurs.
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Editor’s Note: This is a guess post from Justin Becker of FantasyBasketballMoneyLeagues.com. You can him on twitter @NBAandNFLInfo or on theFantasy Basketball Money Leagues Google+ Page, and for moreNBA basketball news visit Fantasy Basketball Money Leagues – afantasy basketball blog.