OKLAHOMA CITY -- It took 50 days, 20 games and 10 different opponents. It took the highest scorer in the NBA, the loudest crowd and the best sixth man. It took a poised point guard, a proven defensive stopper and an inspired front line. But the Oklahoma City Thunder did what no one has been able to do since Tax Day. They beat the San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder didn't just snap the streak, they sawed it in pieces, treating San Antonio the way the Spurs have been treating everybody else for the past two months.
The most impressive part of the Spurs' surge was the nature of their victories. Fourteen times they won by double digits and only three times did they win by fewer than six points. Five times they scored 120 or more, including Tuesday night against Oklahoma City, when they carved up the Thunder like a team of board-certified surgeons. The Spurs looked as though they might not lose until November.
Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks made his players pore over the film, every uncontested layup and how-did-he-get-so-open three-pointer. The Thunder responded with a 102-82 blowout that reminded everybody in the NBA, most important themselves, that the Spurs are not perfect even if they have appeared that way for a very long time. "We're human," said Spurs forward Stephen Jackson. "We had a good run. It's just one loss."
Few thought San Antonio could roll through the playoffs undefeated, but even fewer thought they could be beaten as thoroughly as they were Thursday. Oklahoma City interrupted the endless offensive clinic, forcing 21 turnovers, snatching 14 steals and blocking nine shots. After one of the blocks, by Kendrick Perkins on Manu Ginobili, Perkins locked eyes with Ginobili and clapped. The Thunder, who have suffered much torment to the Spurs in recent years, earned a round of applause. They narrowed the Western Conference finals to 2-1 with Game 4 at home Saturday night.
The Thunder are more animated than the Spurs, and while their emotion worked against them in the first two games, they harnessed it in the third. Perkins and Serge Ibaka were more disciplined against the high pick-and-roll, holding Tim Duncan to 5-of-15 shooting. Russell Westbrook was more controlled, scoring only 10 points but dishing out nine assists. And Brooks was more creative, deploying the 6-foot-7 Thabo Sefolosha against the 6-2 Tony Parker. Although Parker still put up 16 points, it was less than half of his output in Game 2, and Sefolosha actually outscored him with 19. "I think my length bothered him," Sefolosha said.
Parker downplayed Sefolosha's emergence, saying they have squared off in the past, but it could represent a turning point in this series. Asked how he might adjust, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said: "I guess I could ask Scotty not to play him." By the fourth quarter Thursday, Parker and Duncan were both on the bench, and Ginobili soon joined them. The score was so lopsided that swingman James Anderson played 15 minutes for San Antonio. Anderson had not played 15 minutes in a game in the entire playoffs.
As long as Chris Bosh is injured, these are the premier teams in the NBA, and nobody could have realistically expected San Antonio to waltz through Oklahoma City. The Thunder are too deep, too dynamic and too energized at home. Before the game, Kevin Durant said a prayer at the scorer's table, and before halftime, he stood at center-court with Westbrook during a timeout and whispered in his ear. Westbrook, who had just thrown a wild pass, listened carefully. On the next play, Westbrook made a spectacular block of a Parker jumper. "We just played harder," Durant said. "Leave everything on the floor. I think that's what we did."
The Spurs may ultimately be more polished than the Thunder, but they are not as athletic, and for the first two games it didn't seem to matter. But in the third, the Spurs were on the floor while the Thunder were above the rim, Durant flying in from the right wing for a dunk, Westbrook throwing down a lob from James Harden, Ibaka and Perkins taking turns swatting floaters. The matchup everyone was waiting for -- youth vs. experience, flash vs. fundamentals -- was finally under way.
It resumes Saturday, with the Spurs trying to begin a new winning streak, and the Thunder trying to make this a new series.