The series between the Thunder and Spurs is all tied up, and it is now a best of 3. At this point, after the blowout in Game 1 and the rollercoaster of stealing homecourt and then giving it back, the Thunder have to be happy with where things stand. Game 4 featured the Thunder coming out on the right side of a fourth quarter collapse, a heavyweight performance from Steven Adams, and a sighting of the fear-inducing assassin of the night, the Slim Reaper.
To the tape!
Adams finished 6-8 from the floor (including a desperation heave from midcourt) for 16 points, 11 rebounds (2 offensive), and 2 blocks. He absolutely controlled the interior of the defense as usual, and as a result, the team thrived with him on the court.
To set the tone early, Russ found Adams rolling through the lane with a smooth bounce pass. This was important because these dunks eventually forced San Antonio to start switching screens. I think Adams has picked up something about how he screens from the great Tim Duncan. Duncan, when coming off of a screen, always gives a slight shove to the defender to shift their balance. If you watch Adams' right arm, he gives the most subtle of pushes to Danny Green, moving him one step further behind the play. This forces Green to commit to Russ, opening up the lane for the jam.
This play looks like something we've seen from Kanter a lot this season. Adams finds that slight gap behind the defense and starts moving as soon as the ball is passed. Where rookie Steven Adams would probably hesitate, veteran Steven Adams beats the defense AND uses the rim to protect the dunk.
Again, Adams gives a slight shove to the defender (Kawhi Leonard here) creating a gap just large enough for the pass to snake through. He goes up strong, beating Kawhi to the rim. Just a really smooth play by a really big man.
At this point, San Antonio looks flustered on defense, which is rare, but it is likely because they are not used to giving up so many uncontested shots at the rim. Here they get hit with a transition pick-and-roll, and as a result, there is no help back. Usually, that last line of defense slows the play just enough that the openings are smaller, and more precision is required on offense. This is one of the easier looks of the series (though that bounce pass from Russ is at a tough angle and right on the money).
OKC got back to controlling the boards when it mattered. This is a really impressive rebound, despite looking pretty easy. San Antonio has two guys (Kawhi and David West) assigned to boxing out Adams. West is a strong, stout power forward who knows how to box out, and we've seen the damage Kawhi does on the boards. Adams gets one hand up (without even needing to jump) and just controls the ball all the way to his hip. The result of this was a momentum-shifting 3 from KD.
I could write an entire article about Adams' defense, but I'll limit it to this play. Durant gets absolutely wiped out by a Boris Diaw screen, and Adams is forced to guard Kawhi in space on the perimeter. He does a good job of forcing him to the baseline, but gives up a step. However, his length, athleticism, and timing all combine for a smooth block of Kawhi right at the bottom of the backboard.
Perhaps this block doesn't look that impressive. After all, we're used to the high-flying, 7th row swats of Serge Ibaka. But remember: this is one of the fastest lateral moving guys in the league against a 7-footer. Teams look for these mismatches, but Adams played this as well as a big man can. He is going to be a force in this league on defense for a long time.
Fourth Quarter Defense
San Antonio was held to just 16 points in the fourth quarter (less than KD alone scored) and it was against an interesting lineup. In perhaps the most shocking development of the series, with Kanter closed the game guarding LaMarcus Aldridge AND DID A FANTASTIC JOB ON HIM! Aldridge scored only 1 point in the quarter on 0-2 shooting (1-2 FTs), and simply could not get a look good enough to take the shot.
Additionally, the Thunder were able to generate turnovers, opening up the offense while making the Spurs ball-handlers much more tentative about driving the basket.
Parker drives the rim late in the 4th quarter, and Dion cheats off a couple of steps on Green (who only took 3 shots, missing them all). Parker is forced to spin away to avoid him, and puts the ball right into the trailing Westbrook's hands. Dion gets the break, but misses the layup. Russ flies in for one of the best hustle plays of the season, tipping the ball to Dion, who gets the timeout while lying on his back.
This play is one of the reasons Russ frustrates me so much. He fights to stay in front of Parker, closing off any path to the basket. Because he doesn't get behind the play, no one else has to rotate, and the defensive integrity stays sound. Parker tries to spin off-balance, loses the handle, and Durant gets a layup on the other end. If Russ approached defense with this resolve every play, we would up 3-1, needing only to win one of the next three games.
This is Durant pulling a Kawhi on the DPOY himself. Kawhi sort of telegraphs the cross-over and Durant just sits on it, waiting to jab away the ball. As is often the result of live-ball turnovers, the play results in points. Again, the Spurs tried to ISO one of our stars (who often are maligned for not playing energetic defense) and by digging in their heels, they make the play necessary.
Two things are worth noting here. One: no one on our team is forced to rotate. Often, our defense has breakdowns when forced into switching and shifting. San Antonio chose to run an ISO at KD in the post, and Kawhi has to take a tough fadeaway shot. Two: notice the rebounding. The basket is literally surrounded by guys waiting to pull down the board. Adams goes up and grabs it, and nothing short of the hand of God is going to pull it from him. After seeing some breakdowns earlier in the game and series, this is refreshing to see.
Again, a similar thing happens here. Very little off-ball movement allows the Thunder to play defense straight up. I'm sorry, but I will take Steven Adams defending in the post against just about anyone. I know it seems a bit strange to say, given Aldridge's insane efficiency through this series, but every time the Spurs choose to run isolation sets, I like the Thunder's chances at defending. All of our guys are capable of defending 1 on 1; it's when they get caught on screens and have to chase their man off-ball that they make mistakes.
I had to include a clip of Kanter guarding Aldridge because he did a fantastic job of it. He barely gave up any ground and forces him to choose between spinning to the baseline where Adams is waiting for him, or attempting to shoot over Kanter in the paint. While the result of the play is an open look, West sees Adams about to close out and appears to rush the shot.
Kanter has really stepped up in the playoffs on the defensive end. I don't know if it's the extra rest between games, the slower pace, or just being more familiar with opponents, but he hasn't been a liability at all. I'm more than happy to eat my words, as I expected them to feast on him in the pick-and-roll.
The Slim Reaper
As All Hallows’ Eve approacheth my thoughts turneth to darkest dread,
Whilst in old age I harboureth a deep fear of seeing this one’s grim head;
Methinks the [Sl]im Reaper cometh this time with his scythe in hand,
Which striketh maximum fear in me and maketh him feel quite so grand.
Tim DuncanGary Bateman
That stanza from Gary Bateman's poem The Grim Reaper Cometh perhaps illustrates what it must feel like whenever Durant starts dropping shots with no concern for the defense.
This is where Durant starts cooking in the 4th. Something I noticed this game that seemed to be missing was Durant's quick trigger in the mid-range. He has done it some from 3, but he seems to have been taking at least one dribble before getting into his shooting motion, and his defend could get him enough off balance to alter the shot. When he went up straight off the catch in this game, the results seemed much better.
Also, note that San Antonio is switching screens at this point. Durant had a big-man on him most of the quarter because Steven Adams was too big of a threat not to leave him alone near the basket.
This time, KD takes on Kawhi mano a mano and simply beats him with a fantastic shot. This is as good of defense as you can play, but when the Slim Reaper shows up, no defense is good enough.
We ran Kevin off of screens off-ball! This was something I mentioned in the game thread comments, but during the first half, Kevin only operated near mid-court or in the post. He never caught the ball with the defense off balance, and it took so long to get the ball to him that he never could get great looks. Here, Kawhi runs through 3 screens to get to him, and by the time he arrives, Durant already has the ball, another baseline screen gives him space for an easy 15 foot floater.
Again, screens off the ball result in an open look. This time, Adams engulfs Kawhi, giving KD his easiest 3 of the series. He was cooking at this point, and this essentially broke any shred of hope San Antonio had left.
While it took a while for us to see the vintage, scorching hot Durant, he showed up when the Thunder most needed it. While it will still be an uphill battle to win the series, if this version of KD keeps showing up, I have no doubt that the Thunder will be back in the conference finals. But it comes down to winning a game at a time and not looking ahead or losing sight of what has worked thus far.