By Jeff McDonald
OKLAHOMA CITY — A Swiss, a Frenchman, a Congolese and an Argentine all walk onto a basketball court.
What sounds like the setup to a bad joke was actually the defensive recipe Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks used to get his team back into the Western Conference finals.
With off-guard Thabo Sefolosha blanketing Tony Parker, and with power forward Serge Ibaka flummoxing Manu Ginobili on most every pick-and-roll, the Spurs’ juggernaut of an offense looked downright mortal in a 102-82 loss in Game 3 on Thursday.
“They brought it,” said Ginobili, whose team had a franchise-best 20-game winning streak stopped. “They got us on our heels. Now we know how it’s going to be.”
Still up 2-1 in the series, how the Spurs respond in Game 4 tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena will go a long way toward determining how much longer this thing plays out.
First order of business: Solving the Thunder’s International House of Defense.
Sefolosha, a 28-year-old from Switzerland, is 6-foot-7. His combination of length and quickness made it difficult for Parker to scoot around him.
After averaging 26 points in Games 1 and 2, Parker managed 16 in Game 3 and committed five of the Spurs’ 21 turnovers.
Parker, who had been guarded in the first two games mostly by Russell Westbrook, was not exactly surprised by the change.
“It’s not the first time,” Parker said. “They did it before in the past. I have to keep being aggressive and choosing my spots.”
Of greater significance, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, was Brooks’ other major adjustment.
The call to switch most every pick-and-roll often left Ibaka, the NBA’s top shot-blocker at 6-foot-9, paired with Ginobili on the perimeter. The 22-year-old Republic of Congo native handled the assignment well, keeping Ginobili out of the paint and unable to throw the pick-and-roll passes he prefers.
Ginobili went 1 for 5 from the field and added four turnovers to the Spurs’ tally. His counter in Game 4 is simple.
“Attack better,” Ginobili said. “When they collapse the paint, try to find the open teammate. Basic basketball. It’s not something Xs and Os wise. I’ve got to be sharper, more decisive. The spacing’s got to be better.”
With their trademark pick-and-roll effectively sabotaged, the Spurs struggled to keep up with OKC on the scoreboard.
After seemingly getting any shot they wanted in Games 1 and 2, the Spurs were forced into more one-on-one isolation plays in Game 3 than they would have liked.
The ball movement that was the staple of the Spurs’ winning streak disappeared. The offense stagnated.
During their streak, the Spurs averaged better than 109 points per game. The 82 they mustered Thursday were their fewest in the postseason since a 101-81 loss at Dallas in the 2010 first round.
“Our pick-and-roll defense was very good against probably the best pick-and-roll offense,” Brooks said. “We did a good job of getting into the ball, did a good job of being up into the ball with our bigs. That was the key.”
In addition to pouring in an uncharacteristic 19 points, Sefolosha snagged six steals — most in the playoffs against the Spurs in 11 years.
Oklahoma City logged 14 steals in all, scored 20 of their points off Spurs miscues and seemed to deflect even the most routine passes.
Given the overwhelming success the Thunder defense enjoyed in Game 3, the Spurs can expect a similar switch-everything approach tonight.
“We have to use the mismatches we get from that to our advantage,” said Tim Duncan, who is 13 of 41 so far in the series. “Tony and Manu will be expecting those kind of switches, and they have to attack them in a different way.”
If the Spurs can figure out a new plan for dealing with OKC’s defensive alterations, they have an excellent chance of bringing a 3-1 lead home with them.
And if they can’t? The punchline that follows won’t seem so funny.
SPURS VS. THUNDER
Western Conference finals
(Spurs lead best-of-7 series 2-1)
Game 4: Saturday – Spurs @ Thunder, 7:30 p.m. TNT
Game 5: Monday – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
*Game 6: Wednesday – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
*Game 7: Friday – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
– All times Central