May 31st 2014
Embracing the Challenge

The Thunder knows the stakes. Tonight is all about taking advantage of the opportunity.

With the chance to extend this Western Conference Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs to a seventh game, the Thunder looks at tonight’s tilt at Chesapeake Energy Arena as both a challenge and a chance.

Down 3-2 is not exactly where Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club was hoping to be at this point in the series, but with veterans like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Derek Fisher, the Thunder knows it has both the personnel and the will power to power through the adversity. In order to come away victorious tonight, it will start on the defensive end and it will take a full 48 minute effort.

“We have to keep embracing the challenge overall,” Perkins said. “Bigs have to be up on the screens, guards have to do a great job of getting into the ball. I’m pretty confident that we will tonight.”

The biggest key for the Thunder tonight will be stopping dribble penetration from the likes of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, whose passing, particularly to three-point shooters, has been a problem in the Thunder’s losses in this series.

Maintaining control of the ball handlers, especially in the pick-and-roll, will lead to possessions where the Spurs have to create something at the end of the shot clock. In the Thunder’s mind, forcing difficult, contested shots can lead to defensive rebounds and pushing tempo in transition. It all starts, however, with controlling the Spurs’ ability to get into the paint and cause help defenders to leave their men on the perimeter.

“That is their offense basically,” Westbrook explained. “They move the ball around, drive and kick. If we can slow that down, it gives us a great opportunity to get stops and get out in transition.”

One reason the Spurs can be a challenge is because they make you pick your poison, much like the Thunder’s offense. In this game, the Spurs will likely put four three-point shooters on the floor at the same time, one of which will likely be Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner, who are both stretch power forwards. In order to still maintain its normal defensive shell and discipline, the Thunder will have to choose wisely when it closes out on those big men in order to keep up the integrity of its normal defensive flow. The ability of Serge Ibaka to be a presence in the paint while still keeping the Spurs’ power forward from getting easy opportunities will be a huge factor tonight.

“We know they’re trying to stretch out Serge and pull him out of the paint, but we have to live with something,” Perkins said. “Tonight Serge is going to live in the paint. We’re going to contest late.”

When the ball is tipped, all of those x’s and o’s will be an essential aspect in determining the final outcome, but any mistakes can be mostly cleaned up by one simple thing – energy. In front of its home fans, the Thunder hopes to come out strong with a sense of purpose and urgency, then execute on the principles that have helped the team reach its third Western Conference Finals in the past four seasons. If the Thunder plays with force, intensity and focus for 48 minutes, it likes its chances to take the series back to San Antonio for a Game 7.

“We have to play harder,” Westbrook said. “This time of the year, that’s all that matters. You come out and play with good intensity and you can live with that. If you come out and play hard you can live with the results.”

“It’s win or go home,” Westbrook said. “We start focusing now at shoot-around to get your mind and body right for the game.”