Friday, June 1, 2012

Sefolosha Gives Thunder New Life

For a while there, we had predicted the Spurs to beat the Thunder, given the first two games of this best-of-seven series, ready to project San Antonio's place in NBA history. Now it's a different story, after Oklahoma City finally came out to play, avenging a pair of agonizing losses on the road.

For one of the extraordinary NBA tales to resonate a striking climax with reference to a franchise that relocated to Oklahoma City and gave celebratory fans something to embrace, it was substantial that the Thunder ease back into the Western Conference Finals. The adjustments made by Thunder head coach Scott Brooks worked in Oklahoma City's favor, and also, they were in a favorable position after returning home for Game 3, where the crowd was electric and saw the Thunder beat the Spurs 102-82 on Thursday night. The expiration date on the Spurs 20-game winning streak went bye bye when Oklahoma City snapped its opponents' perfection and, better yet, kept its season alive by winning a pivotal game to avoid a 3-0 series deficit.

“We’re human. We had a good run. It’s just one loss,” Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said.

What it should remind us is that the Thunder, remarkably, are skilled and frightening, after all -- extremely aggressive and built with plenty of weapons to tie it in Game 4 on Saturday night. It would be a mistake on America's behalf, your behalf, or my behalf to put the Thunder on the back burner. The star of the night was Thabo Sefolosha, a guard from Switzerland, setting playoff career-bests with 19 points and six steals. What happened Thursday night will keep everyone buzzing until at least after Game 4, depending on how well the Thunder perform in a must-needed game for the second straight meeting against the Spurs.

It's beyond absurd to even conceive that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Sefolosha will back down and not engage in a monumental playoff campaign. It was so much to be excited for, after this game. It was a total team effort, it was a brand of basketball we are used to seeing from the Thunder -- role players showed up, they played their style of basketball and were exceptional defensively, to uphold high regards based on a respectable performance.

“We never thought these guys had an advantage over us even though we lost a few,” said Durant. “We came out with the sense of urgency that we need to play with for the rest of the series.”

The chances of them winning the Western Conference Finals are still roughly plausible. Durant had 22 points, as usual, making shots from the floor, and Sefolosha had a right-handed dunk off a lob pass from Westbrook, who fueled the crowd with a two-handed slam shortly after and finished with 10 points and nine assists. The run was perpetuated when Sefolosha finished with a reverse layup on another turnover to expand it to an 86-63 lead late in the fourth.

"We wanted to bounce back after two losses like that. We had to play better and we did that tonight," said Sefolosha. "We played with energy, we played with passion in front of our home crowd. They did a great job giving us a lift."

From there on, the Thunder went on a 9-0 run, which the Spurs were exhausted and couldn't stifle fast break opportunities. It led to a blowout that reminded us of something usually seen in an NBA Live video game, and before you knew it, the Spurs were trailing to the Thunder by double-digits. Late in the fourth quarter, when Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich's head was ready to explode, he had benched his entire starting lineup and inserted his second unit. Over on the bench, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were flummoxed and starred dazed, only to be pummeled when we thought the Spurs were unbeatable.

And finally, despite a horrendous beatdown, Duncan had five blocks to surpass the great Kareem Abdul-Jabber's NBA record of 476. For a man who scored only 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting -- exhausted and aging every time he takes the court -- Duncan couldn't care less about individual accomplishments. He would instead tell everyone that he prefers to win another championship than reaching the heyday of his career. But here we are, second-guessing ourselves, not leaving out the Thunder after the damage they did in one game. This is the type of performance that scares the hell out of the NBA. If there's the possibility of Oklahoma City tying this series, which can happen if the Thunder have regained their swagger with thunderous roars from local fans, then there's a great chance they can muster momentum and take full control.

So not so fast, Spurs. This is not over, folks. And both teams could be in for a long, long series. This was a whole different game for Parker, who entered Game 3 coming off a 34-point performance. But this time, Sefolosha was assigned to muffle Parker, an All-Star point guard. Not very much to bring, he was held to 16 points and four assists, while his antagonist, Sefolosha, was the star on his own stage and deserved much credit for being a two-dimensional player. It was one defensive switch that changed the whole dynamic, giving the Thunder life in Game 4.

With plenty of talk floating around that the Spurs were potent and championship-built, maybe even the top and most experience team in these playoffs -- as much had been made about experience topping youth -- it's a new series now, a game of unpredictability and exhilaration. Perception and reality are what defines this series suddenly, assuming the Thunder will have the momentum and confidence, with the next game in their own gym where they have been wonderful all season. And the last we seen Westbrook, he was quiet but finally arrived in time and appeared to be more active and sprightly.

There's no place like Southern Home Cooking. And at home, in front of the loudest NBA crowd, Durant and the rest of his team normally eat well. Which is thought of even more so, when the Thunder are roughly deeper and younger, capable of playing a full 48 minutes, as the aging Spurs became fatigue and mentally drained by the second half. Not sure there's much Popovich can plot to alter things back into his favor. The one way the Spurs can extend their lead is by Ginobili having another amazing effort, a left-handed sixth man who can hit the three-pointer, storm to the basket and knock down timely layups.

"I can ask Scotty not to play him," Popovich said calmly after Game 3. "I don't know how I can change what Sefolosha's going to do. He did a good job."

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the Spurs respond, as much as it will be to see if the Thunder breaks out with all firepower and more energy.

It is, however, far from over.