Thunder must feel deflated after undefeated Spurs take Game 2
SAN ANTONIO -- To their credit, the Thunder have not yet offered to negotiate terms of surrender. No white flags have been spotted near the bench. No one has screamed "no mas!" Scott Brooks has not ordered his troops to retreat.
But it seems likely that a powerful thought has been planted in the minds of each of the Thunder players -- they simply are not as good as the Spurs.
The Thunder played the Spurs for the second time in the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night. They also lost for the second time, which means they have had to deal with the misery of defeat twice as many times in this series as they did in the first two rounds when they were 8-1.
After falling behind by as many as 22 in the third quarter, the Thunder battled gamely in the fourth period and got within six. But they were like the punch-drunk boxer who had been repeatedly knocked down. They had a little fight left in them, but not enough to avoid a 120-111 loss and a 2-0 deficit in the series, which now moves to Oklahoma City for two games.
"We played hard," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the two games in San Antonio. "Unfortunately we came away with nothing. They did a good job holding serve. It's our job to go home and win Game 3. That's all we're focused on."
That's the obvious approach for Brooks to take. The last task he wants his players to consider is what they must to do to win the series. The bleak reality is that to advance to its first NBA Finals, Oklahoma City will have to win four of the next five games.
And the Thunder are playing a team that has won an NBA-record 20 consecutive games bridging the regular season and playoffs and has not lost since April 11.
If it were only a matter of having a puncher's chance, there might be reason for hope. But even if the Thunder manage to put an end to the fourth-longest overall winning streak in NBA history, there is no such thing as a quick knockout. They have to play superior basketball for four games, and they have yet do that once.
To even be competitive, the Thunder will have figure out a way to repair their defense, which the Spurs shredded in a manner that fairly could be described as "nasty."
In the first three quarters, the Spurs made 60 percent of their shots. Tony Parker was brilliant. He rattled in four long-range jumpers and got another basket on a goaltending call in the first period when he had 10 points and four assists.
He never slowed down. Parker, who missed nine of his 15 shots in Game 1, made eight of 11 in the first half, eight of 10 in the second half and led San Antonio with 34 points. When the Thunder mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter, Parker made four of five shots, including one from short range with 33.8 seconds left to increase the Spurs' lead to 10 and end any hopes the Thunder had of winning.
"Tony's been great all year," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's been really focused the entire season. What he did tonight, we've seen many times before, so it's not a surprise. But he was excellent."
The Spurs built a 12-point lead in the first half and then opened the second half on the attack. The depth they built so relentlessly during the season was evident as they battered the Thunder from all over the court -- but, most notably, three-point range.
Twenty-year-old rookie Kawhi Leonard made two, and Danny Green and Boris Diaw made one each. When Diaw scored on a layup with 4:47 left in the third, the Spurs led 80-58, and the only thunder in the building was the yelling from delirious Spurs fans.
Parker attributed the Spurs' role-player production to Popovich's emphasis on team basketball. It's obvious the stars are important, but they are still required to play team basketball.
"When you have Coach Pop screaming at you every day, it will make you pass the ball," Parker said. "He is always big on 'you have to find a better shot' [and] we have great shooters on this team."
The Thunder fought back -- even employing the strategy of purposely fouling Tiago Splitter, who had made only eight of 25 free throws during the playoffs but managed to hit six of 12 on Tuesday. Eventually, the Thunder got to within six points in the fourth.
But the Spurs got eight points from Ginobili in the last four minutes and scored on 10 of their final 12 possessions to seal it.
Although the Thunder made a nice comeback, guard James Harden said, "We cannot put ourselves in those situations. We have seen what we can do when we play as a team. We fought hard, but it was too much of a deficit to come back late in the game."
But the Spurs again were effective on defense, limiting the Thunder to 42 percent shooting from the field.
The Thunder now hope their enthusiastic home crowd can make a difference. They tied for the second-best home record in the league (26-7) in the regular season and are 5-0 in the playoffs.
But there's always a "but" with the Spurs -- and that is their 20-game winning streak includes nine consecutive victories on the road. They will not be intimidated.
Oklahoma City had an impressive season and a good run in the playoffs. But the Thunder have to wonder if they are like a great middleweight going against the heavyweight champion of the world.
Very simply, they may be out of their weight class.