The Spurs are making the Thunder look like the No. 8 seed instead of No. 2. Who would have thought San Antonio, after looking old, beat and worn down last year, would be chasing its 21st straight victory going into Oklahoma City for Game 3 of a conference finals. They are looking like a team that is destined and unbeatable. The Tony Parker-led run they had early in the third quarter of Game 2 was the best combination of defense and offense I have witnessed all season.
Should we write the Thunder off till next year and crown the Spurs after two games or will the Thunder make a turnaround and return the favor in Games 3 and 4?
If I was easily drawn in by the exploits of the super Spurs after these two beatdowns, I would say it's over. But it is far from over and I would not be surprised if the series went back to San Antonio 2-2.
The Thunder have pride and it showed when they made a run in Game 2. San Antonio had to stand up and take notice. I was not surprised and I truly expect them to ramp up the intensity even more knowing a 3-0 deficit would for all purposes render this series over.
I am a firm believer that a series never starts until someone loses at home, so the Spurs have done nothing but hold serve. They now will enter into a sea of blue with the loudest collection of fans in the league.
Five things each team must do to win this series.
OKLAHOMA CITY MUST…
1. Force turnovers and speed the game up. OKC has no chance of beating the Spurs playing a half-court game. The Spurs have been the model in terms of half-court offense and defense ever since Tim Duncan entered the league. Russell Westbrook and James Harden have to push the ball every time and attack the rim consistently. When nothing is there, find shooters – especially Kevin Durant.
This is not a Durant series even though people want him to get more shots. There is a reason why he is not getting more shots and I will discuss it below.
2. Get Durant open. Durant's downfall is his inability to free himself under intense pressure for shots. He has relied so much on his athletic ability and size to get open that he has never perfected the art of simple ways to get open. Up and out, V-cuts or setting a back screen are all weapons for a shooter to get open within their range to get shots.
I see a player that is using two ways to get open and it's playing into the hands of a team that has built its defense in this series to stop him. He is either wrestling with players to get a look or being pushed above the three-point line operating in two-man games. The major problem with both of these maneuvers is he is in the sights of the other four Spurs, who have been instructed to squeeze and help. Durant has to play more below the free-throw line and use his height advantage to get 12-to-15 foot shots.
3. Play small. It is fools gold to play a traditional lineup of two big players against the Spurs. When you play small, you can switch everything and force Duncan to be the facilitator instead of Parker and Manu Ginobili. A few years ago, this would have been asinine as well, but presently Tim Duncan is not going to go off for 30 and 20 anymore on a consistent basis. If I were Scott Brooks, I would challenge Duncan to exert more energy to pass out of double-teams to three-point shooters rather than allowing Parker and Ginobili to do it from the paint while attacking the rim. I would play a bigger player on Parker (Thabo Sefolosha). When the switch happens, he would have size on Duncan to battle until they could double down effectively.
4. Post-up Russell Westbrook and make Parker guard below the free-throw line. It is obvious Westbrook will take 15-plus shots, so Scott Brooks needs to be creative, especially when James Harden is in the game. Put him in the post and force the Spurs to offer help. Parker can't deal with his aggressive nature around the basket.
5. Junk the game up like during the third quarter of Game 2. I was laughing because I thought Brooks finally got one up on Spurs coach Gregg Popovich when he resorted to fouling Tiago Splitter intentionally. The Spurs were in a tremendous rhythm and they seemed unnerved experiencing something they usually employ when they are struggling. That's why going small will force the Spurs to get out of their comfort zone and will force Duncan to guard someone. Hey, Muggsy Bogues could come out of retirement and guard Kendrick Perkins.
SAN ANTONIO MUST…
1. Keep Tony Parker unleashed. He has been the best scoring guard in the paint ever since he moved into the starting lineup years ago. He has proven time and time again that you can't stop him when you play simple pick-and-roll defense. In my opinion, he was the second best player this season behind LeBron James and it has not changed during the playoffs. The Spurs must continue to set great screens and make open three-point shots to keep him on a roll.
2. Keep disguising Tim Duncan as the Duncan of old by getting him consistent looks without double teams. For that to happen, the role players have to keep knocking down open shots, which will get tougher in Games 3 and 4.
3. Hope Manu Ginobili does not disappear. The reason the Spurs have dominated consistently is because Manu continues what Parker starts when the latter takes a seat. When Ginobili struggles like he has in the past, the bench suffers and that is the biggest concern for Gregg Popovich as the Spurs head to OKC.
4. Continue to be physical with Kevin Durant, which forces Westbrook and Harden to look to score. The Spurs know who can single-handedly beat them and the goal is to make Durant operate above the three-point line, giving them time to offer help. Stephen Jackson is basically playing bump-and-wrestle defense to make him catch the ball 22 feet from the basket and usually it has taken their offense out of rhythm with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock.
5. Continue to take it a game at a time. The Spurs are the smartest and most mature team in the league. The balance of veteran leadership and energized role players allows Popovich to keep everybody focused on the next game instead of resting on their laurels with a 20-game winning streak. Game 3 will undoubtedly be the hardest game they will encounter this season because the Thunder know all too well no one comes back after being down 3-0.