Sometimes the solution is simple, but takes a while to find. Using Matt Bonner in the lineup and giving Boris Diaw an extended time on the floor opened up so many things on offense for the San Antonio Spurs, getting to run all over the Oklahoma City Thunder with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili leading the way to a 117-89 win, taking a 3-2 lead in the series.
Some might say that this game was won in the previous one, as the Thunder showed their cards and insecurity by playing with their strongest lineup through almost the entire fourth quarter, while the San Antonio Spurs went into garbage time mode in the middle of the third quarter. It gave Popovich time to think things and see something that worked out well for him in the opening of game 5.
The Thunder’s defense didn’t work because the Spurs stopped playing with two traditional big men. Matt Bonner didn’t score a single point, but he forced Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins to open up driving and passing lanes, and when Boris Diaw came on the floor, finishing with 13 points and 6 rebounds in 28 minutes, the knockout was delivered. Bad defense meant no transition offense for the Thunder, and thus their speed advantage went away, as Westbrook hardly drove to the basket (only five times) and the Thunder couldn’t get to the line as easily or create open shots.
Tim Duncan scored 22 points, sharing it quite nicely between the three quarters until getting sent to rest. Tony Parker felt a lot more comfortable on offense, suddenly seeing a lot more space to roam and move around, scoring 12 points but influencing in a much bigger way. Manu Ginobili with an excellent postseason was nearly flawless with his decisions to attack the basket or shoot from long range, scoring 19 points on 7-of-9 from the field with 7 assists.
The defensive assignments the Spurs used worked perfectly. Danny Green made life difficult for Kevin Durant, who did score 25 points on 11-of-21 from the field, but was hardly felt in the game and finished 3-of-8 with 7 points against Green. Kawhi Leonard gave Russell Westbrook a much bigger body to work against, resulting in Westbrook shooting 5-of-11 with an average field goal distance of 18.7 feet against Leonard, 6.7 feet further from the basket than his average through the first four games.
Serge Ibaka? He scored 6 points and did get two blocks, but his fear factor disappeared. He didn’t get any easy looks in the paint, and couldn’t help out Kendrick Perkins, playing only 16 minutes because of foul trouble. Steven Adams wasn’t much better, as using two big men made no sense against the lineups the Spurs were using, and the Thunder seem to shy away completely from going smaller and stretching the floor themselves, fearing a complete defensive collapse, which happened anyway.
Some say the Thunder were simply exhausted. With not three or four days of rest this time, using his players a lot more than he needed to might have hurt Scott Brooks in a crucial turning point of this series. The Thunder played bad basketball, but maybe a bit more energy and strength would have helped them stay closer and keep this a contested game. Instead, they gave up quickly in the fourth quarter, realizing a furious comeback isn’t going to happen.
Popovich got his team to play the way he wants because he made the necessary changes. Stretching the floor, going a bit smaller, which made things better for everyone. Going to Oklahoma City can’t change that. The Spurs have found their answer to the big bad blocker called Ibaka and everything that came from him. Now it’s time for the Thunder to adjust, which is something they’re very bad at.