San Antonio Spurs center Tiago Splitter (22) attempts a shot against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the third quarter in game four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. (USA TODAY Sports: Mark D. Smith)
Go ahead and make a running guess which adjustments Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs are plotting for Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals.
In his blunt self-assessment after a second consecutive loss in Oklahoma City evened the series with the Thunder 2-all, Popovich says that guess would be wrong.
“This has got nothing to do with adjustments — it’s about playing smarter and harder for more consistent minutes,” said Popovich.
Oklahoma City is 7-0 against the Spurs in the past seven games with center Serge Ibaka in the lineup. Popovich was on the verge of exasperation Tuesday after Game 4, when he sent his starters to the bench in the middle of the third quarter and confessed his mindset shifted to “Thursday” and Game 5. The puzzling part of the veteran-laden Spurs’ performance to Popovich was a stubborn insistence to attack the basket, where Ibaka was lurking and rejecting shots at will.
“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. They’re still getting more 50-50 balls, and playing with more determination than we did in these two games, so I give them credit for that.”
Point guard Tony Parker said the Spurs are a no-excuse team, tipping his hat to point guard Russell Westbrook (40 points Tuesday) and Kevin Durant for making great plays for four quarters.
“We’re just going to have to play better, bottom line,” Parker said. “We didn’t play well here, and now all we can control is Game 5.
“I think to a certain extent, yes, Pop is right, we have to keep moving the ball and try to find the open shooters. We just have to find the happy middle. But he’s right.”
While Westbrook sparked the offense with his defense and energy and Durant caught fire after what he described as a poor shooting series through three games, Ibaka has been the consistent catalyst the Thunder needed after dropping the first two games of the series.
“We play well with Serge. Serge is a really good basketball player,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s gotten better in a lot of areas. Defensively we can change some things up. We can do what we do with Serge in the lineup that we can’t do with other guys, and we try to utilize his strengths and his ability to block shots and alter shots and mix things up with some of the schemes that we do.”