Column by Buck Harvey
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder plugged into energy, desperation, and a man named Thabo.
James Harden stared at Tiago Splitter, and the Spurs stared at the floor. About the time Patty Mills checked in, the winning streak looked so wobbly, it needed one of Tim Duncan’s knee braces for support.
The flow of energy is sometimes mysterious in the NBA, but sometimes it is predictable, too. And while Thursday it was the Thunder’s turn, the Spurs got what they wanted from their first loss in 50 days.
Getting embarrassed can be a good thing.
All of it is new to the Spurs, who forgot how these things feel. But this wasn’t the streak of Wooden’s UCLA that was broken Thursday. It was an NBA streak, and they never last too long.
They never last long, either, when the energy divide is as severe as it was. And something Scott Brooks said afterward told of that.
“That was as well,” he said, “as you can play against the best team in basketball.”
The best team in basketball? The Thunder wanted to prove that wasn’t true.
“We never thought these guys had an advantage over us,” Kevin Durant said Thursday, “even though we lost a few.”
It’s an attitude based on more than bravado. The Thunder played well in the opener, taking a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter, then made Game 2 interesting with a late surge.
The Thunder are exactly what the Spurs coaches thought they were before the series began — scary good. And scarier for the Spurs is to let this series become tied heading back to San Antonio for a Game 5.
But the Spurs, no matter how hard they tried, couldn’t create this same kind of fear in their locker room, not after 20 straight wins. Maybe, too, they began to believe this best-team-in-basketball stuff.
So they were overwhelmed, and Gregg Popovich summed up how it happened. “I think they played smarter than we did,” he said of the Thunder, “and I think they played harder than we did.”
Smarter and harder usually wins, and sloppy never does. The Thunder ended with just seven turnovers, and one of those came at the end when Derek Fisher dribbled out the clock to be sportsmanlike.
The Spurs? They are supposed to be the smart, veteran team, and they looked closer to a team that had lost 20 in a row, with 21 turnovers.
A signpost of how much this series had reversed itself came in the third quarter. Then, Manu Ginobili made a slick behind-the-back pass to Tony Parker, who hit a three. The same sequence happened in Game 2, also in the third quarter, also with a behind-the-back pass for a Parker three.
The difference: The three put the Spurs up by 20 on Tuesday, and after this one, the Spurs trailed by 19.
Brooks moving Thabo Sefolosha to Parker helped OKC, and Sefolosha thought his length bothered Parker. But Parker has been defended by taller players before, and Brooks didn’t see that as the difference.
“I thought Thabo did a good job,” Brooks said, “but I thought the biggest adjustment — we played better.”
It’s that simple? Sometimes, in the NBA, it is. At home, where they hadn’t lost this postseason, facing a 0-3 deficit if they had lost, shouldn’t the Thunder have been breathing fire?
The Spurs couldn’t recreate that, no matter how many I-want-some-nasty speeches Popovich gave. And so now comes a telling moment in the series.
The Spurs lost only one game, but it felt like more than that. The Thunder so swarmed them, so took them out of what they do, that the Spurs were emotionally slapped.
This is what Popovich is leaning on: After Harden was staring and Patty playing, the energy for Game 4 should be equal.
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