While most of the NBA world awaited the re-crowning of San Antonio as the Western Conference champion, few considered that a different sort of coronation could be in the offing at the end of the NBA semifinal round.
In other words, the Western torch is on the brink of being passed from the Spurs to the spry Oklahoma City Thunder, whose three straight wins have dramatically reversed course of this matchup, which Kevin Durant & Co. can close out on Wednesday night.
The site will be the Thunder’s own Chesapeake Energy Arena, where Scott Brooks’ team has yet to lose in seven playoff games in this postseason. For this potential series decider in Game 6, the Don Best odds screen notes that Ok City has been installed as a 5-point favorite at the vast majority of Las Vegas sports books, with the total hovering between 201½ and 202 points, depending upon the outlet.
Tip-off time Wednesday will be at 9:00 p.m. (ET), with TNT and its usual crew (Marv Albert, Reggie Miller, Ernie Johnson and friends) providing the coverage.
But the big question is whether Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Shaq and Ernie will be doing their usual “gone fishin’” gig on the postgame show if the Spurs can’t reverse course. Just in case, the TNT bunch has its poles and reels at the ready after such a dramatic turnaround in the last three games of this series.
The switch from Games 1 and 2 has been dramatic, and it is disturbing for San Antonio. It has become apparent that earlier playoff foes Utah and the Clippers were made to order for San Antonio, neither able to expose the Spurs’ flaws which were admittedly hard to identify as the S.A. win streak mushroomed to an improbable 20 games after successes in the first two games of this series.
The problems facing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich are beginning to mount. Mostly, that wonderful San Antonio depth, which allowed the Spurs to roll through the regular season and continue into the first couple of playoff rounds, has suddenly disappeared. Coach Pop’s bench has been effectively reduced from its normal 10-man rotation to seven as this series has progressed.
Indeed, Pop’s move of Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup for Game 5 could be seen as a desperate roll of the dice. Ginobili, usually the important spark off the bench, contributed heroically on Monday night when scoring 34 points, but Danny Green, the normal starter at shooting guard, was a non-factor off the bench, just as he has been a non-factor in this series. Guard Gary Neal, Popovich’s designated dagger-thrower, missed all six of his shots in Game 5. Matt Bonner left the bench for all of 50 seconds. Frontliner DeJuan Blair, called upon in the first half, didn’t reappear thereafter.
Oklahoma City’s length and athleticism continues to cause San Antonio fits, especially when the Thunder is on the stop end. Ok City forced another 21 turnovers (converted quickly to 28 points) in Game 5. Spurs sharpshooter Tony Parker has been mostly neutralized since Game 3, when Brooks assigned his best defender, the taller, Swiss-bred Thabo Sefolosha, to San Antonio’s French firecracker.
Popovich’s eventual counter was to put Ginobili, who continues to prove a tough matchup for the Thunder, into the starting lineup, but that move has apparently disrupted the Spurs’ delicate chemistry and effectively shortened their bench.
Popovich is running out of alternatives to cope with the Thunder’s burgeoning confidence, which coincided with a return home for a backs-to-the-wall Game 3 last Thursday. Brooks’ defense, with Sefolosha on Parker and bigs Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka blitzing the Spurs’ patented pick-and-roll, has effectively jammed the San Antonio offensive gearbox since.
It is hard to say if Popovich still has trust in those “others” (as TNT’s Barkley, Smith and Shaq refer to the respective supporting casts) such as Green, Bonner and Neal, all of whom so important to the San Antonio depth package that fueled all of the success prior to late last week. If Popovich doesn’t rediscover trust in his depth, and the Spurs’ supporting cast doesn’t begin to deliver, and soon, San Antonio’s chore just became that much harder.
More production is also going to probably be required from Tim Duncan, whose numbers have not been too bad in this series (including the 18 points and 12 rebounds in Game 5) yet might be required to be enhanced in Game 6. But is Duncan up to dominating as he used to be able to do with regularity?
With three go-to weapons on the attack end in the wondrous Durant, Russell Westbrook and clutch sixth man, bearded James Harden, whose late three-pointer was the dagger in the Spurs’ side in Game 5, plus a bench that has begun to make meaningful contributions besides those of Harden, Ok City (which has also covered the spread in four of five games in this series) is indeed well-placed to make the franchise’s first trip to the Finals since it was still based in Seattle back in 1996, when Gary Payton & Co. fell to Michael Jordan and the 72-win Bulls in six games.
Having already disposed of recent West kingpins Dallas and the LA Lakers in previous playoff rounds, the Thunder can confirm their ascent to the predominant place in the conference with another win.
Do the Spurs, whose championship window might be closing for good, have enough left in their tanks to make one more stand?