OKLAHOMA CITY — Midway through the third quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder's Game 4 rout of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, a debate broke out on press row that said everything about the drastic turn of events that continued Tuesday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The question: Has Gregg Popovich ever looked so mad?
By the time the 105-92 win that tied the series 2-2 was over, he wasn't alone. Tony Parker, who played just six of his 26 minutes in the second half when Popovich benched his starters, sat stone-faced as he watched the one-sided affair unfold. Tim Duncan, who had a meltdown moment of his own in the third quarter when he could be seen flailing his arms and yelling toward coaches and guard Danny Green about the latest defensive mix-up, had gone from stoic to steamed as he sat helpless on the sideline. They had every reason to be angry, not to mention worried.
Oklahoma City's win was its 12th in the past 14 games against the Spurs in which Thunder forward Serge Ibaka played, meaning this matchup is suddenly looking as one-sided as it did when the Spurs dominated those first two games in San Antonio while he was out with a calf strain. And after his dramatic return in Game 3 reminded the masses that he's the Jenga piece this Thunder puzzle just can't live without, the formula that has been so perplexing for the Spurs proved itself yet again.
The Spurs had talked endlessly after Game 3 about the need to be more aggressive, but halftime arrived with nary a fast-break point on their part (a shutout that continued in the second half). Instead, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was the one coming at them with his one-of-a-kind fury, turning in a 40-point, 10-rebound, five-assist performance that was an all-timer in his already-accomplished career. MVP Kevin Durant had his first MVP-type performance of the series, playing the part of aggressor while scoring 22 of his 33 points in a first half in which the Thunder led 58-43 while hitting 11 of 22 shots.
"We didn't play smart on a consistent basis, and all of a sudden we were going to see if Serge could block a shot or something," Popovich said. "I thought about passing a picture out on the bench. They'd know who Serge was. But really unwise basketball all of a sudden. Instead of hitting open people that are out there, we started attacking the rim unwisely, and that turns into blocked shots. We had seven turnovers in the first half but really 14 because of the seven blocks. Those are all like turnovers.
"And so that precipitated the 20‑0 fast‑break points at game time. So you've got to play smarter against such great athletes. They're talented obviously, but the athleticism and the length gives you a small margin of error, and you'd better be smart the way you play, and you can't afford to screw that up as many times as we did. And I think we have to play harder. I think they're playing more physically than we are."