Posted on June 4, 2012 at 6:16 AM
Monday, Jun 4 at 3:28 PM
The toast of the NBA a week ago when they were in the midst of what would become a 20-game winning streak, the Spurs now find themselves facing the challenge of stopping a two-game skid to preserve their home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.
In sports, as in life, fortunes can change quickly. But, really, no one should be surprised that the highly anticipated series between the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder is tied after four games.
After all, we're talking about the top two seeds in the Western Conference playoffs.
Anybody who thought the Thunder would go quietly into the night after falling behind 2-0 was sadly mistaken. It's worth noting now that OKC led the West for most of the regular season before the Spurs seized the No. 1 seed with a strong finishing kick.
Energized by their fans in Game 3 and Game 4, the Thunder snapped the Spurs' 20-game winning streak with a 102-82 spanking Thursday night and evened the series by hanging on for a 109-103 victory Saturday night.
Game 5 is at 8 p.m. Monday at the AT&T Center.
Suddenly, the matchup between the top two seeds in the Western Conference playoffs has come down to a tantalizingly intriguing best-of-three series.
Thunder 3-3 in road playoff games this year
The Spurs still own home-court advantage, but the momentum clearly has shifted in the Thunder's favor. Flush with confidence after the way they handled the Silver & Black in Oklahoma City, the Thunder will be tough to beat Monday night.
Led by 6-foot-10 forward Kevin Durant, described by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as "arguably the best player on the planet," OKC simply has outplayed the Spurs in the last two games.
A young team, the Thunder played like a veteran squad at home. And therein lies the key for OKC: Can it beat the Spurs at the AT&T Center?
The Thunder are 7-0 at home in the playoffs, but only 3-3 on the road. If Durant picks up where he left off Saturday night, the Silver & Black could be in a heap of trouble.
Durant took over in the fourth quarter of Game 4, scoring 18 of his game-high 36 points in the final seven minutes to almost singlehandedly stave off the Spurs' rally. I say "almost singlehandedly" because Durant's teammates did a great job of getting him open with screens.
While Durant stuck the proverbial dagger in the Spurs' hopes of winning Game 4, OKC big men Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, none of them noted for their scoring, hit 22 of 25 shots and finished with 49 points. Ibaka had a career night, making all 11 of his field-goal attempts and scoring 26 points.
With the Spurs focused on slowing down the Thunder's Big Three of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Ibaka, Perkins and Collison were the collective X factor for OKC in Game 4.
Look for Spurs to bounce back in Game 5
Don't look for the Spurs' defensive strategy to change in Game 5. After all, what are the chances of Ibaka, Perkins and Collison shooting lights out again?
"Maybe they'll do it again, but I don't think so," Popovich told the Associated Press on Sunday. "We'll play the same defense, and if they don't shoot as well it won't be because of our defense. It'll be because they don't do as well."
For the record, the Spurs haven't lost two consecutive games since falling to the Utah Jazz (91-84) on April 9 and the Los Angeles Lakers (98-84) on April 11. They started their club-record 20-game winning streak after the loss to the Lakers, and had won 31 of their last 33 games before getting routed by the Thunder in Game 3 last week.
The Spurs returned from Oklahoma City with a few chinks in their armor, but look for them to get back on track in Game 5 Monday night. Given their history, they'll respond to the challenge of maintaining home-court advantage with their characteristic poise and efficiency.
A few words of caution, though: It will be critical for the Spurs to get off to a good start and put together a complete game.
One other thing: Considering how Durant went off Saturday night, the Spurs better have a sizable lead in the fourth quarter.
It should be a humdinger of a game. I'll see you there.