Thunder evens series with more physical approach
SAN ANTONIO — You're going to remember the last play. The crazy inbounds pass from Dion Waiters that included an elbow to Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green's steal, and Steven Adams' fanatical defense, contesting three potential game-winning opportunities, and the scrum under the basket that ended with the final buzzer and a 98-97 victory Monday night that ranks among the greatest in Thunder history.
But Kevin Durant remembers the first play.
Danny Green's runner in the lane, which had to be lofted over a challenging Serge Ibaka and bounced off the rim.
The Thunder breathed a sigh of relief when that final buzzer sounded and OKC got out of town with a 1-1 tie in the Western Conference semifinals. But the Thunder breathed a sigh of relief when Green's runner didn't drop.
“Their first basket didn't go in,” Durant said. “That was a step in the right direction for us.”
The hoop returned to normal diameter for the Spurs. Instead of the Alamodome-sized basket San Antonio seemed to be shooting at in Game 1, the Spurs were putting on tougher greens. The Thunder was more physical. More fanatical. More determined.
The Thunder pushed the ball and pushed the Spurs. San Antonio missed 13 of its first 15 shots. Eleven of those 15 shots were from 10 feet or closer. Tim Duncan missed four shots in the first 3-1/2 minutes. Steven Adams and Ibaka assaulted the Spurs' front court players.
LaMarcus Aldridge eventually warmed up and whipped out 41 points to keep the Spurs in the game. But the Thunder made life miserable on the rest of the Spurs.
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Twelve hours earlier, in an empty AT&T Center, the Thunder's Enes Kanter chatted amiably but said physicality was the key. The Thunder just wasn't ready to get tough in Game 1. That would be the tonic for a rebound from the 124-92 thrashing the Thunder endured.
Kanter proved prophetic. And it didn't take a do-better speech from the Thunder veterans to make the difference. Durant said he said nothing to his youthful teammates to try to inspire a better performance.
“I didn't say anything to ‘em,” Durant said. “It's basketball, at the end of the day. I know I'm the leader, but I can't go up and say, ‘Look, we lost by 30 last time. Let's get locked in.' They know that. I thought we did a good job from the beginning.”
Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook played with controlled fury and found the perfect antidote for Kawhi Leonard's suffocating defense. He pushed the ball so fast, the Spurs had to match up with Westbrook on whoever happened to be back.
“Better for our team,” Westbrook said after a 29-point, 10-assist, 7-rebound, 3-turnover night. “We have the opportunity to get the ball up the floor, especially off misses. Use our youth, our athleticism, to get the ball up the floor.”
The Spurs were down 17-4 early in the game, but there was no threat of a reverse blowout. The Spurs were 40-1 in the regular season at the AT&T Center; counting the playoffs, they were 43-1 at home this season. They were going to rally. Sure enough, San Antonio caught OKC by late second quarter.
But the Thunder, with a gutty game, retained the physicality and found enough offense to take a 56-53 lead. And when the offense stagnated — just 21 points in each of the final two quarters — the defensive toughness remained.
And now the series is tied. It's a five-game series, with the Thunder having homecourt advantage. After a debilitating Game 1, everybody in Oklahoma can breathe a little easier.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.