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June 5, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
On the Ropes

by Kevin Pelton

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Oklahoma City 108, at San Antonio 103 (Oklahoma City leads 3-2)
Pace: 95.4
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 111.3, San Antonio 109.9

I totally understand why Gregg Popovich moved Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup, an adjustment I've mentioned in the possibility after each of the last two games. To the extent that starting Ginobili allowed Popovich to extend his minutes, it was a complete success. Ginobili saw 38 minutes of action--14 more than Game 4--and was often the best player on the court, scoring a game-high 34 points on 25 shooting possessions.

Yet starting Ginobili failed to address the San Antonio Spurs' biggest problem in this series: bench production. In fact, to the extent it limited Ginobili's minutes with the second unit, starting him actually exacerbated the issue. Depth was the Spurs' strength throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, but the reserves have failed Popovich at the most urgent time. As San Antonio's coach noted afterward, Game 4 was lost in the second quarter, when the Thunder pulled away. In a similar fashion, the Spurs lost Game 5 during the late first and third quarters, when their second unit was badly outplayed by the Oklahoma City Thunder's reserves.

The difference between the two teams was most apparent when Sixth Man Award winner James Harden played and Ginobili rested. During those nine minutes and seven seconds on the clock, Oklahoma City outscored San Antonio by 16 points, which explains how both Harden (+24) and Ginobili (+13) could have substantially positive plus-minus figures in a game decided by just five points.

When both starting units were on the floor, the Spurs with Ginobili had the better of play. The Thunder courted disaster during the game's first two minutes, getting into early foul trouble (Serge Ibaka picked up two fouls in 45 seconds) and struggling to get on the scoreboard. San Antonio was up seven when Popovich first went to his bench. Down eight at the half, the Spurs quickly regained the lead with an 18-4 run out of the locker room that seemed to reassert their dominance; the starters were +11 in that stint.

Even at the end of the game, San Antonio outplayed Oklahoma City, running off an 11-0 run as Tony Parker returned to the game after a brief rest. It took a difficult Harden three-pointer and Ginobili missing a potential tying three in the waning seconds for the Thunder to survive. They had that kind of margin for error because of the lead they built up late in the third quarter and at the start of the final period.

Really, none of the Spurs' issues are new. They've been looking for an extra creator to complement Parker and Ginobili since at least their last appearance in the conference finals in 2008. When one of the two players is on the bench, it puts tremendous pressure on the other to score and set up teammates. When an opponent can hinder one of them as Oklahoma City has Parker since putting Thabo Sefolosha on him after Game 2, the San Antonio offense breaks down. Stephen Jackson gave the Spurs a little extra scoring punch with 13 points off the bench, but it wasn't enough--San Antonio was outscored by 15 points during his 30 minutes.

The other asset the Thunder defense brings to the table is length and athleticism on the perimeter. That's allowed Oklahoma City to close out to shooters and keep them from getting open looks. The threes the Spurs' role players were getting in the first two rounds just aren't there anymore. This is evident in the way players like Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Gary Neal are forced to put the ball on the ground rather than catching and shooting in rhythm. Leonard is still contributing defense and rebounding (he had 10 boards in 36 minutes). The others ranged from invisible to outright harmful in the case of Neal, who missed all six of his shot attempts and was a ghastly -17 during his 15 minutes of play.

So it was that the league's deepest team was reduced to a six-player rotation in the final quarter of the most important game of the year. While Scott Brooks extended the minutes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook too, that was more about exploiting their relative youth and going for the kill on the road. In the first half, Brooks actually expanded his rotation, going back to Daequan Cook for a four-minute stint during which he drained a pair of three-pointers and scored eight points. Despite playing 40-plus minutes, Durant and Westbrook had plenty left to offer down the stretch.

This was a good Russell/bad Russell performance for Westbrook, who was guilty of overdribbling at times and trying to do too much at others. He shot 9-of-24 from the field and committed six turnovers. And yet Westbrook was also brilliant at times, showcasing his improving court vision. He handed out 12 assists and delivered a crucial score with 1:36 to play. This was a night where the Thunder got major contributions from all three stars, who combined for 70 of their 108 points. But don't overlook the play of the Oklahoma City big men, especially at the defensive end of the floor. With Ibaka in early foul trouble, Nick Collison stepped in to deliver a vital 11-minute stretch of near-perfect basketball. Collison took charge after charge and made all three of his shot attempts.

There comes a point in seven-game series where adjustments start to take a back seat to execution. I think we've reached that point in the Western Conference Finals. Certainly, Popovich has tried about everything possible in terms of personnel other than maybe starting DeJuan Blair or Tiago Splitter instead of Boris Diaw. There's not much else the Spurs can try, which is not to say they're doomed, even heading on the road. Change a shot or two during the fourth quarter of Game 5 and maybe we're talking about how a veteran San Antonio team overcame a scare. As it is, the Thunder has the Spurs on the ropes.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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