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June 7, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Thunderstruck

by Kevin Pelton

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at Oklahoma City 107, San Antonio 99 (Oklahoma City wins 4-2)
Pace: 91.0
Offensive Ratings: Oklahoma City 117.8, San Antonio 108.6

Basketball, They say, is a game of runs. This was a series of runs. At times, both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs looked unbeatable. That was true throughout the course of the series, naturally, but also within the deciding Game 6 specifically. The Spurs couldn't have possibly played much better than they did in the first quarter, and it didn't matter because the Thunder was so good after halftime.

San Antonio opened the game playing a decisive, attacking style that contrasted with the team's tentative play in Oklahoma City's last three wins. Everything started with Tony Parker taking advantage of re-screens and aggressively getting to the paint off the dribble to score and break down the Thunder defense. Everything the Spurs did during the first half was acting rather than reacting, and Oklahoma City had no answer.

Parker had 21 points and 10 assists in the half, San Antonio had 15 assists as a team on 24 buckets and the team shot 9-of-15 from beyond the arc. Yet the Thunder managed to stay within contact. When Kevin Durant nailed a three-pointer just before halftime, it cut the lead to 15--a significant lead, for certain (the Spurs had never surrendered such a large lead midway through a playoff game before), but also a manageable one.

Twitter's consensus was that Oklahoma City was very much still in the game. Just as halftime ended, I noted my belief that everyone else was making a 15-point comeback sound too easy, adding the caveat that I might look like an idiot in hindsight. That's exactly what happened. The Thunder sliced nine points off the lead in a little more than four minutes, forcing a Gregg Popovich timeout, and took the lead before the third quarter was out on a Kevin Durant dagger three.

The outcome wasn't decided until Manu Ginobili missed a three-pointer with 17 seconds remaining, and Oklahoma City needed a pair of big shots from Derek Fisher and yet another huge James Harden three to keep San Antonio at bay. However, the Spurs simply couldn't muster enough scoring down the stretch to truly threaten the Thunder. Their efficient offensive attack of the first half, and of the entire regular season and first 10 games of the playoffs, disappeared under the pressure of Oklahoma City's quickness and length. During the second half, San Antonio shot just 32.5 percent from the field and had nearly twice as many turnovers (nine) as assists (five).

When the Thunder locked in defensively, the Spurs simply did not have any answer. Again, Popovich found many of his role players, so useful during the regular season, entirely unplayable. Matt Bonner never got off the bench and DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter scarcely played, though the latter did manage to earn a Popovich tongue-lashing during his brief stint. Danny Green played four empty minutes and Gary Neal made terrible decisions. Ultimately, Popovich could count only on his five starters and Stephen Jackson, who had his way with pressure in making five threes in six attempts and finished with 23 points on nine shooting possessions.

With Nick Collison (seven minutes) largely cut out of Scott Brooks' rotation, Oklahoma City wasn't a heck of a lot deeper. But the Thunder got meaningful contributions from everyone who saw heavy action. Even the much-maligned Fisher delivered nine points and excellent defense on Parker, who could get nothing going after halftime (his second-half line was eight points on 4-of-13 shooting and two assists). Meanwhile, Brooks was able to stretch out Durant and Russell Westbrook for the entire second half with no repercussions down the stretch. They'll have plenty of time to rest before the Finals begin next Tuesday.

As John Hollinger wrote this morning on ESPN Insider, this was a series that defied regular-season trends. I'm open to the possibility that such counterintuitive results in terms of passing, ballhandling and even shooting were simply the result of a short series. As much as we'd like to believe that the NBA's best-of-seven series produce a "true" winner, that's only the case relative to the more volatile playoff series in other sports.

More than that, though, I think Oklahoma City's advantages played out. Besides having the edge in terms of athleticism and size, the Thunder simply had more options offensively. At this point in their respective careers, Oklahoma City's top three players are better at creating shots than San Antonio's top three, and more difficult to take away with game planning. The Spurs were never able to adjust offensively when the Thunder took away their usual scoring sources, and instead alternately rushed or became so tentative that the offense broke down.

The series win is also a credit to Brooks and his coaching staff, who managed to outperform the NBA's best coach over these six games. Brooks had more options than Popovich, but he also made the most of them in a way his critics never believed he could do. Moving Thabo Sefolosha onto Parker and corralling San Antonio's pick-and-rolls changed the tenor of this series.

The Oklahoma City coaching staff also came up with a great wrinkle late in games by bringing Durant off pindown screens set by Westbrook. In Game 4, those plays freed Durant for his huge fourth quarter. During Game 6, the Spurs adjusted, but the extra help against Durant merely freed up other options. As Sebastian Pruiti noted on Twitter, the Thunder scored 10 points the four times they ran the play in the fourth quarter, with different players scoring all four times. Perhaps by the NBA Finals, either the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat will have enough time to figure out a better solution, but in this series that play was unstoppable--not unlike Oklahoma City the last four games.

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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