1. Thunder Find An Energy Solution
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The difference in energy and emotion between the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs is evident before the official even tosses the ball. While the Spurs stand around like a collection of sculptures, Russell Westbrook gives a Usain Bolt-style double point to the crowd, Kevin Durant goes through his hacky sack pantomime routine with Serge Ibaka on the sideline, then skips across the court to give an exaggerated low-five to Kendrick Perkins followed by an elaborate handshake with Westbrook.
The Spurs are conservative, the Thunder excessive, but each style suits the team's roster. Emotion was a necessary element for the Thunder, down 2-0 in the Western Conference finals. They were trailing not due to their own poor play but a sheer function of the machine-like efficiency of the Spurs. If the Thunder were to gain traction in the series, they would have to find something extra, go to a place the Spurs couldn't.
"We have to play with energy, man," Durant said.
They discovered it early in their 102-82 victory over San Antonio in Game 3. They dictated the action, took the game to the Spurs and sustained it long enough to remove Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's desire to put his stars in fatigue's way.
There's no more appropriate corporate name in sports than Chesapeake Energy Arena. (It's certainly a better fit than San Antonio's AT&T Center, where cellular phone and Wi-Fi signals are as hard to come by as a snowman in Texas.) And with a boisterous, blue-shirted crowd of more than 18,000 cheering them on, the Thunder won with vigor Thursday night, an energy fueled by the emotion of desperation ... and even that deadly sin of pride.
Popovich found the most appropriate description for the Thunder's urgency.
"They played like it was a closeout game," he said. "Both offensively and defensively."
It essentially was their last shot to stay alive. If they fell behind 3-0, they would have been in a historically inescapable position against a team on a historical playoff run. Apparently, that meant more to Oklahoma City than the prospect of an 11-0 start and continued chance at a perfect postseason meant to the Spurs.
"They played harder than us tonight," Tony Parker said.
"We're a prideful team," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It's no fun being down 0-2. It's no fun."
Winning is fun. So, the Thunder did so by challenging every pass and shot, forcing the Spurs to commit 21 turnovers and shoot 39.5 percent from the field. They were getting offense from their defense, converting turnovers and rebounds into 18 fast-break points.
It wasn't truly the Thunder at their best -- Durant, Westbrook and James Harden's combined total of 47 points was slightly half of their total in Game 2 -- but this was them at their most resourceful.
They found an ideal blend of dribbling and passing after the scale tilted far too heavily on the dribble side in the first two games.
"It was a point of emphasis to start the game," said Westbrook, who had nine assists to five field goals. "Everybody made an effort to make the extra pass."
It was exemplified by a sequence in which Harden drove the baseline, then passed out to Fisher, who passed up a jump shot and instead gave the ball to Durant, who drove against the stretched-out defense and scored. It didn't count as one of the Thunder's 23 assists, but it showed them that ball movement is the better path to victory than individual moves.
There was also the tactical adjustment of defending Parker with Thabo Sefolosha, who successfully curtailed Parker's forays into the lane and contested his jump shots. Sefolosha also knocked down four of his 10 3-pointers to help him finish with a playoff career-high 19 points.
I thought that might be enough to get Sefolosha a trip to the podium, but it was occupied by the usual suspects, Durant and Westbrook.
"That's not me," Sefolosha said, waving his hands as if signaling a disallowed basket. "That's not my job."
His job is the defensive stopper, and even then he didn't want sole credit, deferring to the help defense played by his teammates.
Emotion can be fickle, as difficult to control as fire. The Thunder showed the good and bad signs of it in the first quarter. They jumped out to an 8-0 lead. But the Spurs held fast and soon took the lead, then the Thunder made the mistake of fighting a war on two fronts, getting caught up with the officials, as well as the Spurs.
Westbrook smacked the scorer's table after an out-of-bounds call didn't go his way. Durant picked up a technical foul while on the bench, yelling about a charge called on Harden.
But the Thunder were too relentless.
"It was all about fighting," Durant said. "We wanted to keep fighting and keep playing hard."
Popovich exercised prudence over valor, and when the Spurs couldn't make the score close enough, soon enough, he kept Duncan and Parker on the bench the entire fourth quarter to keep them rested for Game 4 on Saturday.
The question will be whether the Thunder, having expended so much to get this one, can regenerate the effort on Saturday. They're young, and they can't point to a single playoff game in which they failed to show up. Can they rely on sustained emotion, or will they have succeeded in doing something even more unlikely: arousing anger in the Spurs?
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Thabo Sefolosha. Kevin Durant was the leading scorer, but Thabo set the tone early with four steals in the first three minutes of the game. He scored, defended and wreaked havoc all night. Thabo finished with 19 points, 6 rebounds and 6 steals.
Defining moment: From the 11:12 mark to the 4:15 point in the second quarter, the Thunder went on a 22-5 run. James Harden led the charge with nine of those 22 points. The Spurs went just 2-for-10 in this stretch, getting blocked twice and turning it over five times.
That was ... impressively disruptive: The Thunder defense was completely chaotic in a great way. They blocked nine shots, had 14 steals and forced 21 turnovers for the game. They still gave up 3-point shooting (Spurs were 11-for-26), but they took away everything inside (Spurs were 12-for-25 at the rim).
3. Thursday's Best
Thabo Sefolosha, Thunder: OKC's defensive ace matched the combined scoring output of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, dunking and treying his way to 19 points, 6 rebounds and 6 steals in a Game 3 tour de force.
4. Thursday's Worst
That losing feeling: The Spurs can't win 'em all, taking their first loss since April 11, a run of 20 straight wins. The culprit was 21 turnovers. Maybe the surest bad sign for the Spurs was Manu Ginobili flops (lots) outnumbered his field goals made (one).
5. Quote Of The Night
"That's not me. That's not my job."
-- OKC's Thabo Sefolosha, on not wanting any part of a #podiumgame star turn.
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Tweet Of The Night
8. Ibaka's Got Wag
9. Stat Check
The Thunder taught that lesson anew by pinning the first loss of these playoffs on the Spurs, 102–82, on Thursday night. However, none of the past six NBA teams with a win like that -- by 20 or more points in Game 3 when trailing in the series two games to none -- went on to win the series. The last team that won a playoff series after being in a two-games-to-none hole and winning Game 3 by a 20-point margin? The Lakers, in a 2004 Western Conference semifinal series, when they used a 105–81 victory in Game 3 as a springboard to win four in a row -- over Gregg Popovich's Spurs.
Thabo Sefolosha recorded six steals for the Thunder in their 102–82 win over the Spurs. That's the highest playoff steal total for the franchise since Gary Payton had six for Seattle against Utah on May 3, 2000. It was the most steals by any player in a postseason game against San Antonio since Dirk Nowitzki had six on May 14, 2001.
The Thunder won by 20 points despite uninspiring shooting performances from their "big three." Kevin Durant shot 8-for-17 from the field, Russell Westbrook was 5-for-15 and James Harden went 5-for-10. Oklahoma City had been 4–8 all time in playoff games in which all three stars played and none shot better than 50 percent. And only once had they won such a playoff game by more than 10 points: a 27-point, second-round win over the Grizzlies in 2011.