Manu Ginobili rested for two series, not needing to show off his brilliance too much during two sweeps. Down by 9, with Tony Parker struggling and Tim Duncan needing someone to create for him, Popovich turned to Ginobili, who came through with his best game in the 2012 NBA postseason, leading the Spurs to a 101-98 win over the Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Ginobili finished with 26 points, but it wasn’t only the numbers (9-14 from the field, 3-5 from beyond the arc). It was mostly the decision making and turning it on and off whenever it was needed. Be it splitting the double team, be it spacing the floor and finding the open man – Popovich’s real Ace on the floor delivered in flying colors just when the Thunder seemed to be slipping away with the game.
The younger team had a nine point lead in the third quarter. But then Gregg Popvich told his players to start being nasty, and everything changed. If it wasn’t for some garbage time three pointers, the Thunder would have walked away with a painful scoreline to open the Conf. finals after being so dominant through their series with the Lakers and the Mavericks.
Everything we said about Ginobili and his decision making is true regarding James Harden and Russell Westbrook, just reverse. While their mistakes and turnovers were still manageable in the first half and while Kevin Durant still managed to make plays from the field, the Thunder were in the game. But their defense couldn’t cope with the ignited Spurs in the fourth quarter; Harden and Westbrook made a wrong decision at every turn as the game slipped away from them.
Kevin Durant led the scoring for the Thunder with 27 points, but in the fourth quarter it was mostly from the line. Stephen Jackson got under his skin and forced Durant to work hard for every dribble and every point. Durant got the message and stepped back. There was no more team in the Thunder’s game from that moment, with Westbrook, Durant and Harden trying to win it by themselves, to no avail.
Both teams played far from perfect games. Tony Parker woke up rather late and had trouble creating space for himself during long stretches of the game, finishing 18 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Tim Duncan found a harder duo in Ibaka and Perkins than what he’s previously faced, still finishing with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Both can do better in the next game.
The Thunder are the team that need to figure out more stuff. They rely on their jumpers and other nights might see some better shooting, but the Spurs haven’t won 19 straight games for relying on their opponents to miss open shots. They play smart defense, pushing the play towards preferred shooters. Brooks needs to get it into Westbrook’s and Harden’s heads that 1 on 1’s all night long won’t work here. The Thunder have more talent in their top 3 players. But talent doesn’t take you anywhere without any thought behind it.