How the Thunder Are Winning the West – James Harden and Stopping the Pick n Roll

Kevin Durant may have led the scoring for the Oklahoma City Thunder with 27 points; Manu Ginobili scored a game best 34 points. But it was James Harden who deserved the night’s MVP, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 108-103 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

After winning 20 straight games, the Spurs lose three in a row to fall behind 2-3 in the Western Conference Finals, heading back to Oklahoma City, where no one has won in the postseason. When you try and find out what and where it went wrong for the Spurs, look no further than the Pick n Roll, who the Thunder defend it and as a result, Tony Parker being unable to dominate like in Games 1 & 2.

The numbers are clear. The Spurs averaged 47.5 points off their pick n roll in the first two games, making them at 51.4%. Games 3-5? Only 27.3 points, shooting 35.7%. You take away the Spurs’ pick n roll, and the talent gap between the Thunder’s big three is too much, even for the deepest team in the NBA.

Look to the Sixth men to see where this game was won or lost. Manu Ginobili was elevated into a starting role, playing 38 minutes and scoring 34 points. The Spurs had a +13 when he was on the floor. James Harden came off the bench as usual, scoring 20 points and getting two steals. The Thunder were +24 in his 35 minutes, -19 without him. It was when Popovich changed his rotations, letting his bench players try and live up to their name, that the Thunder made their big runs.

In the end, it fell to Ginobili to try and tie the game with a tough three pointer that didn’t go in. Just like Dwyane Wade 24 hours earlier. It wasn’t a great shot, but it wasn’t a bad one. It just didn’t go in. It’s either win or go home. It’s our job. Nobody is going to feel sorry about ourselves.

Once the Thunder took away the Spurs’ ability to torture Russell Westbrook and create space through Parker and Ginobili, the series took a turn. Westbrook hasn’t been exploding on offense, but he did hand out 12 assists while scoring 23 points. The Thunder had six more shots in the game than the Spurs -turnovers, forcing San Antonio to 21 once again. They make the ball handlers feel so uncomfortable in isolation moves with long arms and traps. Ginobili and Parker both lost the ball five times.

No set plays and individual basketball is just fine for the Thunder. There’s no prettiness to their basketball. It’s about excellent players creating shots from themselves but making them, while keeping the pace through their pressure defense and fast breaks. The Spurs, or more so Popovich, have failed to find a way to jump start their offense for long periods of times. It looks like they’ve given up on trying to handle Durant and Harden. No one is saying it, but maybe they don’t believe they can win and force a game 7.

Championship teams win on the road. Oklahoma City just did that. (Gregg Popovich)

Images: Source