Thunder 102, Spurs 82: Defense Gives OKC 1st Win (2012 Western Conference Finals Game 3 Recap)

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 31: Thabo Sefolosha #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots over Gary Neal #14 of the San Antonio Spurs in the third quarter in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 31, 2012 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Box Score

What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?

Perhaps I am playing the romantic, but I think this Game 3 was the moment that I've been most proud of while following the Thunder team. After Game 2, things looked bleak. Not only was OKC about to run out of bullets, they were also about to realize that the pistol that was in their holster was actually made out of cookie dough.

The playoffs are a funny thing where momentum can take the most unexpected of turns. I felt good after Game 1 despite the loss, and after Game 2, well, my tummy hurt. It wasn't the fact that the Spurs had absorbed almost 90 points by the Thunder 'big 3' and still coasted to the win, it was in the way they had seemingly solved the Thunder defense and turned it inside out that caused my alarm. Perhaps they won't repeat a 120 point outburst, but it seemed like at that point they had collected enough useful information with how OKC was defending them that they would always be able to generate open looks and be just a little bit better than whatever Durant & Co. had to offer.

The series is still in a state of peril, obviously. A loss on Saturday probably makes Game 3 a footnote, but oh what a footnote it was. Perhaps the Spurs still are the better team and will go on to win, but for one night at least, OKC pushed the enemy back out of the Hot Gates and stood their ground. That is a Moment worth being proud of.

What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?

In a word, defense. In two words, Thabo Sefolosha.

It is a good thing too, because OKC's offense was mostly mediocre for much of the night. They did not shoot the 3-point shot particularly well (6-22), they only shot 45.5% from the floor, and only managed 17 trips to the free throw line. Durant was ok (22 points), Westbrook was subpar (10 points on 5-15 shooting), and James Harden was held an efficient if modest 15.

After the Game 2 shellacking, how many people would have guessed that the key player to tonight's game would have been Sefolosha, the guy who hardly ever shoots and was only allotted 15 minutes of playing time on Tuesday? Apparently Scott Brooks did, because he opted to switch Westbrook off of Tony Parker and put the bigger and stronger Sefolosha on Parker in the hopes that Thabo could make Parker veer off his attacks at the rim. To Brooks and Sefolosha's credit, that is exactly what happened.

We've written and commented a number of times here that while a team can't stop Parker's offense, the best bet is to make him go side-line to side-line instead of baseline to baseline, much like the way a defense in football slows down a runner like the Vikings' Adrian Peterson by redirecting his running path to the sidelines. This is exactly what Sefolosha and the Thunder defense did, making Parker take much wider and more circuitous routes to his favorite spots, which afforded the Thunder defense more recovery time to prevent the kick-out passes as well as cut off Parker's driving lanes.

In a bit of a surprise, Sefolosha also was the second highest scorer on the night with 19 on 7-16 shooting. While I certainly don't have any inside info, I'd be willing to bet that the team watched the impact Sefolosha was having on the defensive end and because of it worked a little harder to set him up on the offensive end. Sefolosha responded well.

I'd also like to make a special mention on Russell Westbrook's performance in Game 3. He above all others in the NBA, with the exception of LeBron James, receives more criticism than just about anyone. He had not played well so far in the series, and he again did not shoot well in Game 3. However, he took a strong step forward in his own personal growth as a complete ball player by focusing his energies on all the other things that he can do well. He grabbed 4 steals, pulled down 7 rebounds (3 offensive), ran the fast break well, and tallied 9 assists total against only 2 turnovers. During the regular season, Westbrook was a bit of a turnover machine and at times we wondered when he'd become aware enough to minimize those errors. In these playoffs he has taken a major step forward, and as a result the Thunder turnovers as a team are way down as well.

OKC only had 7 TO's on the night (and the last one was a meaningless intentional TO) and they are not wasting possessions as much. In the series, Westbrook has 22 assists against 6 turnovers. Parker, by comparison, has 18 assists against 11 turnovers. Parker may still be playing better, but at least in this particular area Westbrook is holding his own and helping keep his team in games.

What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?

The Spurs committed 21 turnovers against the OKC perimeter defensive pressure. More importantly, the Spurs' two primary ball handlers, Parker and Ginobili, had 5 and 4, respectively. OKC did a phenomenal job in defending these two players both in denying easy access to the lane as well as cutting off passing angles so that the Spurs could not find open shooters. While Parker still shot the ball well (6-12), his attempts were down by 9 from a game ago, as he wasn't getting nearly as many good looks at the rim. Ginobili fared even worse - he only took 5 shots on the night, making 1, and was held to 8 points.

Both players' offenses are predicated on keeping their defenders off-balance by way of their threat to pass the ball. They may not rack up as many individual assists as, say, Chris Paul, but quite often their passes off of drives serve as "hockey assists," or the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the score. However, with no lanes to pass through, the kickout passes were minimized and they ended up driving into a sea of OKC big men.

Sefolosha was the biggest menace in this area, swiping 6 steals of his own (Westbrook stole another 4 himself) and really disrupted the timing of the Spurs' offense. One subtle element in particular had significant ripple effects - a number of times when Sefolosha was guarding Parker, he was able to tip the pass Parker intended for a teammate. Even though it did not end up in a turnover, the tipped passes had 2 effects; 1) it stalled the Spurs offense; and 2) it eventually caused Parker to start lobbing his passes to avoid them getting tipped at the point of attack. You might say, "who cares if he was lobbing passes; they were still getting to where he wanted them to go." However, the difference was that he was losing the ability to engage the offense so quickly. If he had to lob the pass, that was one less second that he had to cut to the rim, one less second to penetrate, and one less second to make an additional pass to find an open shooter. The smallest things can have significant impact, and this was one of them.

What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?

This win means that OKC, though still down in the series 2-1, has not yielded the fight. As I alluded to in the game preview, we as sports fans wait for moments to arrive like this game. They are moments that let us see inside the essence of the teams that we root for. The Thunder had been badly outplayed for 5 consecutive quarters and were on the ropes. What was inside of them? Did they have the resolve to check in the mirror the shiner the Spurs had given them, smirk, and then come out swinging again? Did they have the belief in themselves that they were good and talented enough to run with the best team in the West? Could they put aside the staggering idea of having to best the Spurs in four out of the next five games and just concentrate on Game 3?

The answer, at least for one night, was 'YES.'

Game 4 is going to be a vastly different story than Game 3, but we now have something we did not have before - hope.

***

(An aside: there's no great place to add this, so I'll just stick it here. I don't know if you caught it after the game was over, but as the Spurs were leaving the court Tim Duncan came out and met his teammate DeJuan Blair and could be seen trying to lift his spirits and give him props for playing hard in what was a bad loss. If you're not aware, Blair has been in Popovich's dog house for most of the season and has been all but eliminated from the normal rotation. Yet here Duncan was, trying to build him up and motivate him as a team leader and as a friend. Tim probably knows Blair won't see any meaningful minutes the rest of the series, he knew Blair's performance was largely meaningless in a blowout game, but the effort meant something to Duncan. He still wanted to try to lift up his teammate. I love seeing that. It gives further credence to the fact that Duncan makes one of the best teammates any player could ask for.)

Thunder Wonder: Thabo Sefolosha, along with his game-altering defense against Tony Parker, chipped in with 19 points, 6 rebounds, 6 steals, 1 block

Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, for grabbing 3 offensive rebounds (7 total) to go along with 9 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocks

Thunder Blunder: Cole Aldrich, for not throwing down a Cole-slam during the 4th quarter blowout

Thunder Plunderer: Stephen Jackson for the way he makes sweet, sweet love to pressure, scoring 16 points on 6-7 shooting, including 4-5 from 3-point range

***

Next Game: Saturday, June 2, 7:30 PM Central Standard Time

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