Wild West roller coaster continues


SAN ANTONIO -- Tim Duncan has played 17 seasons. He's appeared in 228 playoff games.

But never has he been part of something like this.

"It's the craziest series I've ever been involved in," Duncan said.

Five games, five blowouts, the most recent coming in Thursday night's 117-89 rout for the San Antonio Spurs.

No game decided by fewer than nine points, and even that one was mostly lopsided with garbage time tightening up the score a bit. After the Thunder stormed their way to two convincing wins in Oklahoma City following the emotional return of Serge Ibaka, there was a feeling that they'd taken control of the series, that they simply had the Spurs' number.

But as this series has proven, anything you think you know, you don't actually know. Ibaka is back, but so are the Spurs, who flexed their systematic muscles to pull one game closer to a Finals return.

It was a return to what the Thunder experienced in Games 1 and 2, when they were flummoxed by the Spurs' precision ball movement. The Thunder weren't able to recreate the havoc that disrupted the Spurs in Game 4 as the ball effortlessly found the open man time and time again. The Thunder were in the game early, holding a seven-point lead with three minutes left in the first, and tied 32-32 after the opening 12 minutes.

"The first quarter was fool's gold," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "It's about playing every possession, and we didn't have that mentality tonight. We had that for 96 minutes the last two games. If we don't get that back, it's going to be a hard game to stop."

The series returns to OKC next, a house of horrors for the Spurs in recent years, where the Thunder have won nine straight. For whatever reason, for both teams in the series, home court has been an actual, decisive advantage. The glaring difference in San Antonio has been role players, specifically Danny Green. At home: 51 points on 17-of-27 shooting, including 15-of-23 from 3-point range. On the road: 11 points on 4-of-16, including 3-of-8 from 3.

"Obviously it seems like the home court motivates both teams pretty well," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said with his trademark sarcasm. "They both look pretty comfortable at home. So that's why we've opted not to go to OKC."

For the Thunder, they haven't been able to impose their physicality and intensity. Ibaka's return stabilized the Thunder on the defensive interior for Games 3 and 4, but some of that was lost on Thursday. The Spurs didn't crush OKC in the paint or anything -- they had 40 points there -- but worked the ball over the floor finding good shots almost every possession.

Part of that may have to do with the lineup tweak from Popovich to start Matt Bonner, while keeping two bigs off the floor at all times. It pulled Ibaka out of the paint and didn't allow him to lurk on the weakside to time up Spurs' drives. There was more space to attack the Thunder, and the Spurs took advantage of every bit of it.

"That's what they're known for," Reggie Jackson said. "I don't think it matters who plays. They could play five centers and they would still find a way to move the ball. It's just what they do, their system, and they're good at it."

Russell Westbrook, who mauled the Spurs himself in Game 4, was somewhat held in check (21 points on 6-of-12 shooting, seven assists and three steals), unable to completely express himself on both ends of the floor.

Westbrook is the Thunder's tone-setter, an endless ball of supercharged energy that stays on the attack at all times. But with the Spurs carving up the Thunder on the offensive end, there wasn't much opportunity for Westbrook, or Kevin Durant, to impose their will.

Nobody was able to really find a good answer to explain why these five games have gone the way they have.

"You really think I can explain that?" was Popovich's response when asked.

The common theme has been the impact of playing at home, but until Thursday, Ibaka's absence in the first two games added a necessary qualifier. The Thunder have always had to get one in San Antonio to win the series, with it not mattering if it came in Game 1, 2 5 or 7. But as they return home, they're now facing elimination. The Spurs have shaken off the Ibaka problem, freeing their minds of the thought that the Thunder are unbeatable with him patrolling the paint.

The issue for the Thunder has been controlling the waves of offense the Spurs have poured on them. Durant and Westbrook had a few answers, but 46 combined points will never likely be enough to keep pace with the objective offense the Spurs run.

"We're guaranteed 48 more minutes," Durant said. "It's been an up-and-down series, but we've got to find a way to come with it in Game 6. If we want to get to where we want to get to, we've got to win one in San Antonio, but we've got to get the next game."

After the Thunder's two resounding wins in OKC, the flashbacks of the 2012 Western finals were beginning to hang over the Spurs like a dark storm cloud. That season, the Thunder won Game 5 in San Antonio, then finished it off at home in Game 6 to advance to the Finals.

But that talk is over with emphasis.

This time, as the series returns to OKC for Game 6, it's not about closing. It's about survival.