Everyone assumed the San Antonio Spurs would have a few minor hiccups in route to the Western Conference Finals, but would nonetheless remain on their season-long collision course with the Golden State Warriors for a shot at the NBA Finals.
Now the Spurs, who put together an historic 67-win regular season and were widely considered the second-best team in the NBA right behind Golden State, are on the brink of elimination one round too soon thanks to the stellar play of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook taking control of Games 4 and 5, respectively, the Thunder are one victory away from reaching the West finals for the fourth time in six years and are part of one of the most memorable playoff series of recent memory.
The series, now at 3-2 in Oklahoma City’s favor after Tuesday’s 95-91 win on the Spurs home floor, has been rife with incredible offensive and defensive displays and even loads of controversy over the officiating. Typically, that’s what makes a series intriguing, along with the high stakes of championship contention.
Described by Durant as a “maniac” after Game 5, Westbrook went off for 35 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists as the Thunder overcame a six-point deficit with four minutes left in the contest. And for the second time on their home floor this series, the Spurs endured a difficult loss and some questionable calls.
Westbrook would lock up the victory with a three-point play with 6.3 seconds left, but referee Jason Phillips didn’t call an obvious intentional foul by Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. The no-call allowed Westbrook to fly into San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge for a layup and he’d knock down his eighth free throw of the night to knock the Spurs on their heels.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 11, 2016
“He fouled him,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “It was pretty obvious he fouled him, but every call doesn’t get called. That’s the way the game is. I was more concerned about the play before that with Durant’s shot. But as I’ve said, sometimes you get a call. Sometimes you not. It happens to everybody. Tough game.”
Leonard said he “definitely” fouled Westbrook, and the play harkened back to the messy closing seconds of Game 2. The NBA publicly admitted that referees missed five separate calls in the final 13 seconds of the game, including Spurs guard Manu Ginobili stepping on the baseline while Thunder guard Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball, followed by Waiters blatant elbow to Ginobili’s chest to create space for his pass, and three rather obvious holds or grabs that by themselves should’ve garnered whistles.
However, it’s easy to focus on poor officiating while disregarding the stellar play of Durant and Westbrook to put Oklahoma City in such an enviable position. Durant has clearly lifted his game. Averaging 26.8 points on 50 percent shooting for the series, the four-time scoring champion went off for 41 points in Game 4. Durant also played a strong facilitating role with five key assists in Game 5.
Westbrook’s been vital in the series despite his poor overall shooting numbers. He’s only connecting on 35.8 percent of his total field goals, but the triple-double machine has found numerous ways to keep the Thunder offense humming with 24.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 10.2 assists, and 2.0 steals a contest. In the final four minutes of Game 5, Westbrook scored seven points to lift Oklahoma City.
Much of the credit still belongs to the team as a whole, particularly when it matters most. The Thunder have seemingly put their fourth-quarter woes from the regular season behind them. Billy Donovan's squad managed to lose more than a dozen fourth-quarter leads this season, but in Game 5 they held the Spurs to 6-for-21 shooting in the final stanza after limiting them to only 16 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4.
“When you are not making shots, and you’re not defending at the level necessary, it’s really hard to close out games,” Donovan said. “We’ve given ourselves a chance, in my opinion, because we’ve defended better coming down the stretch. And when you do that, you give yourself a chance. That’s been the message.”
The Thunder seemed to have gotten that message in the first round, when they cruised past the Dallas Mavericks. It only took five games, and the Thunder outscored the Mavs in the fourth quarter of the final three games. It has mostly carried over against the highly experienced Spurs, with the Thunder dominating them in the fourth quarter in back-to-back games.
Clearly, the Thunder’s two best players and the entire squad are clicking at the right time with a lot going in OKC's way. It should be difficult to close out the Spurs, but the Thunder have already proven they aren't going down without a big fight.