The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the San Antonio Spurs in game 3, 100-96. After a nail-biting finish in game 2, game 3 came down to the wire once again. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they trailed much of the night and despite a valiant effort to try and come back from down 7 with only 1:08 to play, could not catch the Spurs in the end. San Antonio takes a 2-1 lead in the playoff series, regaining home court advantage.
Once again, the game was a defensive affair, with the Spurs' league-leading defense leveraging the Thunder shooters into difficult spots to try and make plays. During one critical stretch in the 1st half, the Thunder went 8 minutes without scoring a point, and with no offense coming out of their system, they fell behind by 15, 35-20. Resilient as ever, Russell Westbrook led the charge to get back in the game, but Westbrook was hindered by a poor shooting performance and costly turnovers down the stretch. You might say that this was the full Westbrook experience, where his poor shooting (10-31, 3-10 from 3-point range on the night) and turnovers late put the Thunder in a very difficult position, but his 5 point scoring burst brought the Thunder to within 2 points with 18 seconds to play. OKC nearly gave themselves a shot at the win, but after forcing a LaMarcus Aldridge miss on the right baseline, Spurs star Kawhi Leonard (31 points, 11 rebounds) snatched the offensive rebound out of Andre Roberson's hands, leading to Tony Parker free throws and the pathway to a Spurs win.
Three quick takeaways in this tight affair:
1) After the Thunder took an 81-77 lead with 7:11 to play in the 4th, they were outscored 14-4 over the next 4 minutes of play. During this stretch, the Spurs generated 8 points at the free throw line, primarily because they were able to set up LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard in good scoring position where they capitalized on the aggressive Thunder defense. On the other end, OKC was not able to put their scorers Westbrook and Kevin Durant into these types of situations. While Durant was able to spring free against both Danny Green and Leonard, there was very little offensive action that gave him any help at all, and as a result, the Spurs defense was never compromised to have to over-help, leading to clean defense and no costly fouls.
2) The Thunder defense was mostly on point for much of the night, and where when they were dialed in and aggressive, they took away the open looks that both Aldridge and Leonard had feasted on (Aldridge finally cooled off in hitting only 8-21, but still got to the FT line 10 times, finishing with 24 points). However, There were just enough slip-ups against one man in particular - Tony Parker - that really hurt OKC's chances. On a number of occasions, Parker found himself all alone on the perimeter where OKC's defensive switching forgot to match up against him, and he calmly stepped into open shots from both mid-range and 3-point range. These mental mistakes, combined with the poor shot generation and unforced turnovers on the other end, are ultimately what cost OKC this game as well as home court advantage.
3) Westbrook's critics will come out in full force after this game, and not without solid justification. This was the equivalent of Durant's game 2 vs the Mavericks, where Westbrook soaked up so much of the offensive load, and without playing well enough to justify it, that he put his team in a compromised position. The tough thing for Westbrook and the Thunder is that this is the system they have designed, where so much of the offensive output is dependent on Westbrook's ability to create shots for himself and for others. If he is effectively setting up his teammates in pick and roll situations and firing outlets to the 3-point line, the Thunder look much differently than when he flies at the rim or takes too many 3's. In both of those scenarios, the Spurs defense wins, even if the shots do occasionally fall.
Game 4 now takes on monumental importance, because if OKC does not come out with much better offensive intent and a plan to give Durant open looks in the 4th quarter, they will face the quandary of heading back to San Antonio down 3-1 where the Spurs will have a chance to end this series. OKC will almost always give themselves a chance to win, but getting over the last hurdle is not something new in this season. The Thunder either figure out how to do it now, or they face a situation that will be nearly insurmountable.
Game 4 is at OKC on Sunday, May 8th at 7PM CDT.