2012 NBA Playoffs: Spurs, Thunder Battle In Crucial Game 5
The Thunder fought their way back into the series with a 109-103 win in front of a rowdy Oklahoma City crowd Saturday night. But to take a commanding 3-2 lead, they will have to string a third-straight victory over a San Antonio squad that has not dropped three-consecutive games all season. Here is a rundown of how the teams arrived at tonight's pivotal Game 5, which tips off tonight at the AT&T Center in San Antonio at 6 p.m. PDT.
Air Congo takes flight
If Oklahoma City was going to match the Spurs' firepower, it would need some scoring punch from players outside the Big Three of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That's what the Thunder got in Game 4 from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, two guys known more for their defensive presence.
Ibaka (or Air Congo as fans call him) played as flawless an offensive game as he could have had in Game 4, scoring a career-high 26 points on 11-for-11 shooting from the field and 4-for-4 from the foul line. Not to be completely outdone, Perkins added 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with nine rebounds. In the two Thunder victories, Ibaka made 16-of-20 shots, while Perkins shot 9-of-13.
Ibaka won't be tossing perfect games the remainder of the series, but Oklahoma City needs him to continue to hit those open jump shots just enough to keep the defense honest and take the scoring burden off its star players.
Tony Parker has been the Spurs’ most valuable player this year, so it comes as no surprise that the team’s fortunes would rest on how the All-Star point guard performs in each outing. In San Antonio’s two victories, the 30-year-old averaged 26 points on 61-percent shooting from the field to go along with 7.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds. In the two defeats, he managed just 14 PPG and shot the ball at a 41-percent clip.
Credit the defense of lanky Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, whose seven-foot wingspan played a key role in bothering him. Parker’s ability to get inside the paint gives San Antonio its highest-percentage scoring opportunities. Unless Parker recovers from the two most recent lackluster performances, the Thunder have a strong chance of tilting the series in their favor heading back to Oklahoma City for Game 6.
Durantula comes alive
Durant continues to display his evolution into one of the league's premier closers during this playoff run. The three-time scoring champion unloaded 18 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter of the series-tying contest.
Much like the Thunder's previous playoff foes, the Spurs have not found a recipe for shutting down the 6-foot-9 Durant, who is averaging 29 points on 53.4 percent shooting in the series.
Spurs’ depth flounders
While Parker is the Spurs’ engine, and Tim Duncan continues to put up quiet but solid performances as only Tim Duncan can, San Antonio’s 11-deep rotation was supposed to be one of its more potent weapons in combating the Thunder’s top-heavy offense. That depth was nowhere to be found over the last two games, during which Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter shot a combined 4-for-18.
The most noticeable drop-off from the first two games of the series is probably the production of super-sub Manu Ginobili, who has been bottled to just 10.5 points per contest in the Spurs' two losses. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard turned in 23 PPG on 60-percent shooting when his team was clicking earlier in the series.
The Thunder’s defensive strategy of having Ibaka shadow Ginobili appears to have paid off. The 34-year-old Argentine is crucial in anchoring the Spurs’ second unit, so this individual battle will be one to look forward to during the rest of this series.
Where is Westbrook?
The Thunder winning the last two games with Westbrook hoisting up just 15 and ten shots in Games 3 and 4, respectively, may or may not be interpreted as a sign that they are better when he shoots less.
Whatever the case, Oklahoma City is at its best when the speedy point guard is in attack mode. But the two-time All-Star is shooting just a little over 34-percent in the series' four games, while making just 11 total trips to the foul line. Needless to say, the Thunder should feel encouraged that this series is all square with their second-best player still waiting for that breakout performance.
Who will win Game 5?
The key factors to watch out for in tonight’s game will be: 1) Whether or not the Thunder's role players continue to outshine the Spurs' supporting cast, and 2) Between Parker and Westbrook, which star guard can do a better job of recovering from his recent string of rough games? That being said, expect the Spurs to sneak away with a close win in Game 5 on their own home court. As for who takes the series? Given how evenly matched these two teams are, that might be a tougher call to make
Game 1: Spurs 101, Thunder 98
Game 2: Spurs 120, Thunder 111
Game 3: Thunder 102, Spurs 82
Game 4: Thunder 109, Spurs 103
Game 5: Thunder at Spurs (Tonight, 6 p.m. on TNT)
Game 6: Spurs at Thunder (Wednesday, 6 p.m. on TNT)
Game 7: Thunder at Spurs (Friday, 6 p.m. on TNT)*