SAN ANTONIO (AP) – In the span of three days, the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the San Antonio Spurs as many times as they had in the last three years.
And now the Western Conference finals are suddenly up for grabs.
What once seemed like the continuation of one of the most dominant runs in NBA history has turned into a genuine toss-up of a series after the Thunder stopped San Antonio’s perfect stretch with two convincing victories in half a week.
Game 5 is Monday night in San Antonio. Oklahoma City needs at least one road win to advance, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Sunday there’s no time like the present.
“We have a great opportunity in Game 5,” Brooks said.
Seldom have the Thunder been able to say that when they faced the Spurs.
Since James Harden joined Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in 2009, the Thunder had been 2-8 against San Antonio heading into this series. Now they return to Texas with a chance to hand the Spurs three straight losses for the first time all season.
“We’ve just got to go down there with the mindset that we’re going to play hard every possession, play together like we’ve been playing these last few games, and we’ll see what happens,” said Durant, who is averaging 29 points this series after scoring 36 in Game 4 on Saturday. “We’ve just got to keep believing, man. We’ll be fine.”
Spurs players didn’t meet with reporters Sunday. Coach Gregg Popovich, back at Spurs headquarters trying to solve his team’s first skid since April 9-11, said their attitude hasn’t changed from when they were winning 20 straight games.
Also not likely to change much are the defensive looks the Spurs threw at the Thunder in a 109-103 loss on Saturday. That’s because, as far as Popovich is concerned, there is little to plan for when three typically unheralded offensive players shoot a combined 22 of 25 for 49 points.
That’s what Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison did in Game 4, giving the Thunder a rare dose of balance on a team that leaned on its Big Three for nearly 70 percent of its scoring before this series. Ibaka was especially unstoppable, going 11 for 11 and finishing just one basket shy of the most perfect-shooting playoff game in NBA history.
“Maybe they’ll do it again, but I don’t think so,” Popovich said. “We’ll play the same defense, and if they don’t shoot as well it won’t be because of our defense. It’ll be because they don’t do as well.”
Then there’s Durant. Popovich called him “arguably the best player on the planet” on Sunday after the three-time NBA scoring champion turned in the most magnificent playoff game of his career, scoring 18 in the fourth quarter in the breakout game the Thunder were waiting for this series.
Among those tasked with the increasingly impossible task of slowing down Durant was Spurs forward Stephen Jackson, who said “it was kind of too late” to stop the 23-year-old superstar by the time he got rolling. As far as Oklahoma City’s big men emerging as new scoring threats, Jackson said most of their looks are ones the Spurs will take their chances on.
Popovich also wouldn’t commit Sunday to using DeJuan Blair more back home after finally taking his longtime starting center off the end of the bench Saturday. Blair, whose mobility and relentlessness has historically given the Thunder fits, played his most meaningful 10 minutes of the playoffs since the opening round against Utah.
Popovich said Blair “did a good job” but his role in Game 5 would depend on how things are unfolding.
It’s not the first time a streaking Spurs team has gone from being toasted to the brink of trouble. In 2004, the Spurs went up 2-0 on the Lakers in the West semis and extended a winning streak to 17 games before dropping the next four.
The Thunder are 7-0 at home in the playoffs and 3-3 on the road. Oklahoma City held first place in the West for nearly the entire season before being overtaken by the Spurs in the final weeks, thereby losing home-court advantage.
Having tied up the series at home, Brooks said Sunday there are no new regrets about the top seed slipping away.
“It’s always nice to have it,” Brooks said. “I said a month and a half ago, I don’t think we blew the No. 1. I think San Antonio, they won just about every game.”
They’re not anymore.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)