The Oklahoma City Thunder continued to exploit one persistent flaw of the San Antonio Spurs as they turned a 63-48 halftime deficit into a 107-99 win that wrapped up the Western Conference Finals in six games and completed a stunning turnabout where the Spurs went from coronated champs to losers of four straight.
While TheSportsNotebook pleads guilty with the rest of the sports media to the charge of picking the Spurs to win this series and the NBA title, I also plead for mercy on the grounds that this was one of the few outlets that at least noted the Spurs were having some issues with their defense that are not characteristic of great championship teams. Even in winning the first two games of the conference finals the problem nagged and finally a team as a talented as Oklahoma City just broke through and poured on the points.
OkC shot 50 percent from the floor in the Game 6 win and they also attacked the glass, winning that battle 42-34. Just as impressive was that they took away the Spurs’ depth edge, which is the biggest reason they were the #1 seed in the West to begin with. San Antonio’s offense was exclusively reliant on Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, who each played like veteran stars in a survival game, combining for 48 points, and Stephen Jackson with his 23. But without the customary scoring balance, San Antonio was in a 3-on-3 battle with Oklahoma City and that’s a battle the Thunder will win 11 times out of 10. Kevin Durant was at his best, knocking down 34 points and crashing for 14 rebounds, while Russell Westbrook had 25. Just as important, each star shot better than 50 percent from the floor so the points came efficiently and James Harden kicked in 16 off the bench.
What impresses me the most about this Oklahoma City team is their obvious hunger for a title, even though they’re young and presumably have more shots left. They play these games with the sustained intensity that people keep waiting to see from the Miami Heat. We’ll look more into the Thunder next Tuesday morning when TheSportsNotebook previews the NBA Finals, but for now let’s segueway into Miami and their survival battle in Boston tonight.
Miami has, quite frankly, embarrassed itself by being in this position. That’s not the cocksure comment of a Celtics fan like myself—to the contrary I’m a quivering ball of nerves this morning waiting for the game. I’m saying the Heat are an embarrassment if they win this series, since a seven-game win over Boston proves only that the Heat are marginally better than Philadelphia. Of course it gives LeBron, Dwayne Wade & Co., a chance for vindication, but the Celtics have a moral victory and a half just by getting to this point.
What I’m wondering about with the Heat is their mental stamina. We talk a great deal, as we should, about Boston’s physical stamina. But mental toughness and playing hard, cohesive basketball for four quarters at a time, an entire series at a time, takes conditioning as well. As any coach will tell you, you can’t turn it on and off. I watch Miami and wonder if they’ve developed the mental conditioning necessary to make it all the way to a championship. Because when this team is locked in, they are unstoppable, particularly at the defensive end where titles are won. If they’re locked in for four quarters tonight, they’re going to win. But right now the fact they only play 2.5 to 3 quarters of basketball at a high mental level has counterbalanced Boston’s physical shortcomings. Somewhere along the line the coach has to be held accountable. There’s no doubt Erik Spoelstra will be accountable if his team’s season ends tonight or Saturday night back home—or for that matter, anywhere short of a champagne celebration after the Finals. Maybe the real question is whether or not Miami team president Pat Riley should make history and fire his coach mid-series and come onto the bench himself. Because Riley knew as well as anyone that mental toughness is developed over a season, not flipped on with a switch. Miami now has to show it for two straight games just to avoid an embarrassing loss.