It’s Game 5 in a series initially thought to be a cakewalk for the Spurs. No longer the case, the series is back in San Antonio, becoming a three-game series. Throw out everything you know about these two teams, and hang on for a wild ride.
Both the Spurs and the Thunder did exactly what was necessary thus far: defend home court. But the scale has to eventually tip towards one team’s favor, and below are three things San Antonio can do to regain the series lead in a pivotal Game 5.
Live By the Sword, Die By the Sword
As detailed in previous articles, the Spurs had the best three-point shooting percentage in the league during the regular season. However, that has hit the wall against Oklahoma City, and the Spurs seem desperate to just make a triple. (Are you paying attention Boris Diaw?)
Yes, the team is full of sharpshooters, but that doesn’t mean they should continually hoist three-point shots when they're not going in. The narrative (one I even was buying into) of Serge Ibaka making a huge impact is only partially true. Has he made one? Of course – he’s had seven blocks in the two games he has been back.
But attempting more three-pointers doesn't mean the Spurs are “afraid” of Ibaka. Granted, San Antonio took seven less shots close to the rim in Games 3 and 4 in comparison to Games 1 and 2, but that isn't as huge of a discrepancy as talked about. The bigger difference was in the amount of three-pointers, as we can see from the shot charts below.
Spurs’ Shot Chart in Games 1 and 2
Spurs’ Shot Chart in Games 3 and 4
In Games 1 and 2, the Spurs took 40 three-point attempts. When you’re shooting just under 50% from that range, you tend to ride that as much as possible. The Spurs have Danny Green to thank for making their percentage look so good, but that didn't translate well into Games 3 and 4.
San Antonio attempted 52 three-pointers in those games, but very few were falling. It allowed the Thunder to crash the board and create plenty of extra scoring opportunities for themselves. Getting back to working inside and not loading up on three-pointers is what the Spurs really need. That's just much easier said than done.
To get back to the basics and work the ball inside more to counter the Thunder’s front court of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and Steven Adams, the lineup for the Spurs needs to be evaluated. Coach Popovich did some of that evaluating in Game 4.
While it may have seemed he gave up on the game (ok, he probably did), he was also able to see what else had at his disposal to give him the best shot at winning Game 5 and beyond. Having an all-bench unit may have opened up his eyes to what could be possible.
Boris Diaw was one bright spot during the last quarter and a half of Game 4, as he almost brought the Spurs back single-handedly. And while Diaw likes to chuck up his threes, the Spurs went inside with him seven times in that last quarter and a half, with three of them being against Ibaka.
Coach Popovich has the right pieces to use inside in the paint to win Game 5. Diaw showed he had the power to get in there for the Spurs and Tim Duncan can still navigate his way inside, even at 38. This should give Pop options as he could go with Diaw over Tiago Splitter in order to have a better inside presence, or even go with all three of them to really look for advantages over the Thunder.
Either way, I expect we will see Diaw getting plenty of playing time in Game 5. If Pop wants to make a statement right away in the game, he could feature a starting lineup that has Diaw, Duncan, Splitter, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. Then a rotation in and out of his big men will allow him to keep his perimeter shooters fresh and ready for the kill when called upon.
One player that is very fresh and has a lot of energy as seen in Game 4 is Cory Joseph. After seeing 17 minutes of playing time in Game 4, Joseph seemed to give the Spurs a little spark as he threw up 11 points despite five fouls. His +11 was also second highest on the team in Game 4.
Despite being buried on the depth chart behind Tony Parker and Patty Mills, Joseph had his time to shine. Let's take a look at the Spurs' performance with Joseph on the court versus off the court when playing the Thunder this series.
While this is only a small sample size due to his minutes played, we have handy offensive and defensive ratings to measure a team's performance per 100 possessions. We can see a slight uptick in offensive performance from when Joseph is on the court versus being off, but defensively is where he seems to make a difference. The Spurs defensive rating improves dramatically when Joseph is on the court, though that may admittedly be due to facing the Thunder's backups at the same time.
If that doesn't make you a believer in Joseph as a potential secret weapon though, then maybe this will:
Joseph has the Spurs' third-highest PER as well as the third-highest win shares per 48 minutes for the entire post-season. Taken these raw numbers, Joseph has a lot of potential; if you put them in context, he's done his damage against most team's bench players. But Popovich sees things we don't and this could be a diamond in the rough - what does have to lose by inserting him into the lineup more?
Game 5 is pivotal for both teams. The Thunder are coming off a masterful performance from Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Durant hasn't been a slouch either. The Spurs need to execute in the paint, and not just heave up three-pointers to dig their hole deeper. Greg Popovich always has tricks up his sleeve and won't let his team go down without a fight.