Posted May 30 2012 5:46PM
SAN ANTONIO -- Tiago Splitter was intentionally fouled away from the ball by Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins, then again 14 seconds later by Perkins, then again nine seconds later by Nick Collison, then again 17 seconds later by Kevin Durant. Four consecutive Spurs possessions, four consecutive hugs for Splitter.
The third quarter of the second game of the series, and the Thunder were already desperate.
In a related development:
The Thunder are down 0-2 to the hottest team in these or most any other playoffs, the usual conventional approaches are not working, and now neither are the gimmicks of Hack-a-Splitter. The chances of coming back and beating these clicking Spurs in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals are very, very slim. This is a tough spot.
This is a telling spot.
What happens Thursday night in Game 3 as the series shifts to Oklahoma City will say a lot about the Thunder, and not just their 2011-12 aspirations. To anyone who has followed the ascension the last three or four years, through the building into a championship contender that was easy to spot, the answer is simple. They will make a positive statement, as happened Sunday night with a tough fight. They will respond, as happened Tuesday with a final 10 minutes that wiped out the image of a beaten team ready to cash out in the third quarter.
But Game 3 is big because Oklahoma City has the realistic goal of years of long playoffs runs and now we all get to find out together how they handle real adversity. That's how it can be about the 2012 Western Conference finals and a pinpoint moment on tracking the trajectory, because title contenders do not shrink in these moments and the Thunder will still be title contenders into the future no matter how quick the end comes in this series.
They haven't genuinely been in this kind of trouble before. Yes, there was the 0-2 deficit to the Lakers in the first round in 2010, but the Thunder were playoff newbies, learning as they went, and the opponent was a heavy favorite on its way to a second consecutive title. (That was an encouraging result: Oklahoma City refused to go peacefully and won the next two games before losing in six with congratulations all around for their heart and limitless future.) And in the 2011 elimination in the same Western Conference finals, the Thunder split the first two games, another positive response to the first time on such a stage, before losing the next three by six, seven and four points, again to the eventual champion.
None of that is like 0-2 to the Spurs, winners of all 10 playoff games after winning the final 10 of the regular season. And certainly not as part of heading home with the dreams of an amazing fan base dangling by slim hopes.
"We did a better job (in the fourth quarter)," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said after the fourth-quarter rally fell short and became the 120-111 loss at AT&T Center. "But playing against the Spurs, you take away the paint and you give up something. They made 11 threes. They're a good team. That's what makes them a good team. That's why they've won 20 in a row. We just have to figure it out. We've been in this situation once before with this group. That was a couple years ago against the Lakers. We lost our first two and we came back home and won two. We've had some history with it. But we've got to focus on just winning Game 3, and that's our focus going into tomorrow's practice."
Except that they haven't been in this situation. There weren't nearly the same expectations in 2010, not nearly as good a team (pre-Perkins, James Harden and Serge Ibaka as rookies) and never had nearly as good a chance to reach the Finals. This will be different.
This will be telling.
"We get an opportunity to go home and play in front of our home crowd and try to get Game 3," Durant said. "We've got to take it a game at a time, a possession at a time. We'll be all right."
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