8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: San Antonio -1, Over/Under: 198
Wow. Through three games of the Western Conference Semifinals the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are putting on a show in what is clearly the most highly competitive series in the this Second Round of the Playoffs. After trading blows for three contests, we come to an all-important Game Four in which the Spurs can take a commanding two-game lead or the Thunder can square things away and turn this series into a Best-of-Three set. After watching Friday Night’s 100-96 victory, one would have to feel confident that San Antonio (67-15, 1st in Southwest) can avoid the latter fortune, particularly after grinding out a hard-fought win at Chesapeake Energy Arena, marking the first time in which they have triumphed at that venue this season. Gregg Popovich’s charges shot just 43.4% from the field, including 10-of-19 from beyond the arc (52.6%), while assisting on a healthy nineteen of their thirty-three field goals, and limiting themselves to just ten turnovers. However, in a remarkably even affair, the difference ultimately came from the Charity Stripe, where the visiting side held a visible advantage, knocking down 24-of-43 free-throws (70.6%), six more than the hosts, which turned out to be the exact difference in the final score. Once again, it was the tandem of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge that led this team to victory, accounting for fifty-five points, including a wealth of the free-throws, eighteen of them to be exact. Leonard has a team-high thirty-one points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field (52.9%), along with including 3-of-4 from downtown (75.0%), while calmly netting 10-of-14 free-throws (71.4%), along with eleven rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a block. Talk about filling up a stat sheet. However, there was one play in particular that stood out, as the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year secured a crucial Offensive Rebound off an Aldridge miss with eighteen seconds to play and his team ahead by four, ultimately leading to a pair of Tony Parker free-throws, effectively ending the game. The 24-year old wingman has emerged as one of the very best two-way players in the league today, providing excellent defensive pressure on Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Through three games, Leonard is averaging 23.3 points on 54.3% shooting from the field, including 44.4% from three, with 7.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, one steal, and one block. On the night, Aldridge scored twenty-four points on 8-of-21 shooting from the floor (38.1%), including 8-of-10 from the Charity Stripe (80.0%), along with eight rebounds, an assist, and a block, with Parker adding another nineteen points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field (50.0%), including 3-of-6 from long range (50.0%), along with eight rebounds, and five assists. It was a significant drop-off for Aldridge, who absolutely confounded the Thunder through the first two games; the veteran big man shot a blistering 33-of-44 from the field in Games One and Two (775.0%), leading to a total of seventy-nine points. On the series, he is averaging 34.3 points per game. In many ways, this particular Playoff Run has signified a Changing of the guard in San Antonio, as the longtime triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and the aforementioned Parker has finally given way to Leonard and Aldridge, who have shouldered the load throughout the postseason.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City (55-27, 1st in Northwest Division) currently finds themselves in desperation mode, for falling into a 3-1 hole heading back to AT&T Center is NOT what we’d refer to as a recipe for success. For the second time in these Western Conference Semifinals, Oklahoma City struggled to crack San Antonio’s staunch defense, shooting just 41.5% from the field, including an abysmal 10-of-30 from beyond the arc (30.0%). Though they repeatedly pummeled them in the Paint (+20 points), Billy Donovan’s charges simply couldn’t make the requisite plays to complete the comeback. All-Star Point Guard Russell Westbrook led the team with thirty-one points, but did so on 10-of-31 shooting (32.3%), including a miserable 3-of-10 from downtown (30.0%) as he was draped by Kawhi Leonard throughout the night. With that said, he did flirt with a Triple-Double, accumulating nine rebounds and eight assists, which would have added to the astounding total of eighteen that he amassed in the Regular Season. Ideally though, this is not the way for these guys to find success; the Thunder assisted on just fourteen of their thirty-four field goals. And while Westbrook and Kevin Durant are typically a given to carry the brunt of the offense, it’s their teammates that need the benefit of ball movement to make an impact. For instance, outside of Serge Ibaka (15 points), no other player had more than eight. In fact, the member’s of Donovan’s rotations not named Westbrook, Durant, or Ibaka accounted for only twenty-four points on 9-of-25 shooting from the field (36.0%). In the Playoffs, rotations always get shorter, which makes it even more important for the supporting cast to deliver, and a player as active as Stevan Adams posting just two points in over forty minutes of play just isn’t going to cut it. Now we are well aware that Oklahoma City has long been a two-man show, but in order to collapse San Antonio’s defense, they’re going to need to involve more than just their dynamic duo. After all, ball movement always beats good defense. Case in point, apart from that ridiculous final possession that featured a series of officiating mistakes, the Thunder were able to take Game Two because they enjoyed rare balance offensively; five players scored in double-figures, with Enes Kanter, along with the aforementioned pair of Adams and Ibaka accounting for thirty-six points on a solid 14-of-23 shooting from the field (60.9%), while Westbrook and Durant still got theirs with twenty-nine and twenty-eight points respectively on 22-of-44 shooting (50.0%). Furthermore, they managed to assist on sixteen of their thirty-eight made field goals, which is a far more favorable percentage (42.1%). So in short, PASS THE BALL, RUSS!!!!