The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs 111-97 in game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. Facing a harrowing challenge of falling behind yet again early, an 8 point halftime deficit, and trailing by double digits on numerous occasions, the Thunder showed remarkable resolve and concentration, especially on the offensive end, to turn the tables and earn a huge game 4 win, which knots their playoff series at 2-2 heading back to San Antonio. A loss would have put OKC in dire straits, falling behind in the series 3-1 and heading back to San Antonio, but OKC proved that the walk of life is paved with both challenge and opportunity.
Three factors in the win
1) The Thunder offense, after grinding and struggling for nearly every quarter up to this point, finally found some offensive rhythm, and because of it, spacing for their playmakers. OKC shot 50.6% from the floor on the night, and following an abysmal opening quarter where they only scored 17 points, finished up the last 3 quarters producing 94 points against the league's best defense.
After struggling through game 3 and bearing the brunt of it after the fact, it was Russell Westbrook, creator, that finally showed up in this series. Although he continued to struggle with his own shot (5-18 from the floor), his playmaking more than made up for it as Westbrook notched 15 assists on the night, besting the entire Spurs passers (12 assists total) all by himself. This is the Westbrook that we saw emerge throughout the regular season, and it is this player that OKC needs to hit its best level of play on offense.
The biggest recipients of Westbrook's play were Durant, who finished with a tie of his career playoff high with 41 points, Steven Adams, who finished with 16 points, and Dion Waiters, who continues to be a bench producer, finishing with 17 points on 7-11 shooting.
2) The Thunder defense continues to do enough to get the job done. There is no question that they are still suffering from defensive inconsistency, and much of that has to do with Spurs PG Tony Parker's constant capitalization on Westbrook's mental lapses, but the defense as a whole has become far less prone to collective laziness, and it is beginning to pay dividends, as evidenced by the Spurs' anemic 16 points in the final quarter.
The two players that felt the brunt of OKC's defensive energy were LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs' Big Two, who have carried them on offense. I've written many times over the years that when you try to defend Aldridge, you have to play the long game. That is, he is so big, so long, and has such a deft shooting touch, that if he's feeling his shot in the beginning of the game, there is very little you can do. That is, with the exception of bodying up on him and playing as physical as you possibly can. Easier said than done, but that's exactly what OKC did, and it paid dividends. With a combination of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Enes Kanter, they battled Aldridge all night long, and it paid off because even though he scored 20 on the night, he was held to a single point in the deciding 4th quarter when the Spurs' lead evaporated into a double-digit loss.
Meanwhile, if you aren't paying attention to the head-to-head battles going on between Leonard and Andre Roberson for 20 minutes a game, you are missing a clinic in one-on-one play. While Roberson isn't as strong or as 'stretchy' as Kawhi, he is hounding Leonard and playing some tough, physical defense. The fact that Leonard is still producing is a testament to how far Leonard has come as an offensive player. And after Roberson checked out at the end of the game, it was Durant and his some men are longer than others reach that helped silence Leonard to zero points in the 4th.
3) Lest you think I was going to gloss over Kevin Durant and his 41 point night, let me just phrase it this way. This game was the first time over the course of this winding, peculiar, uneasy season where he actually looked to me like the Durant of old. The player who can own defenses by himself off the dribble while producing an obscene amount of offense while barely touching the ball.
The Slim Reaper rode again tonight. Show 'em, Brenner.
Much has been made about Kawhi's rise these playoffs, and the praise is well justified. I've been a fan of his since the moment I first saw him many years ago, and the work he can do on both ends of the court is unparalleled in today's NBA.
But on this night, in game 4, we finally got a chance to see what distinguishes Durant. After starting slowly from the floor, shooting only 3-12 in the 1st half for 12 points, Durant finally figured some things out. He spent his 2nd half working the entire Spurs defense to the tune of 29 points on 10-13 shooting, 2-3 from 3-point range, and got to the free throw line 10 times. It was the kind of meteoric shot-making performance that has separated the last two league MVP's from everyone else.
Game 4, Thunder.
Happy Mother's Day, Wanda.
Game 5 is scheduled for Tuesday, May 10th at 7PM CDT.