OKLAHOMA CITY — As Manu Ginobili was finishing up his answer to a reporter’s question, Tony Parker walked up behind him, put both hands on his shoulders and provided his teammate an escape.
“Great job, Manu,” Parker said, having heard hardly a word of Ginobili’s five-minute, question-and-answer session.
After losing for the first time since mid-April, it was time for the San Antonio Spurs to face an entirely different set of questions Friday with their Western Conference finals lead over Oklahoma City cut to 2-1.
No longer was the talk about whether the Spurs — riding a 20-game winning streak less than 24 hours earlier — were invincible. It was about how San Antonio could regroup following a 102-82 blowout loss in time to face Game 4 in Oklahoma City on Saturday night.
“Usually it’s easier to refocus after a loss than after a win. Players usually have a tendency after winning a few games to relax or feel complacent. In the past, we’ve reacted really well to wins. We’ll see now how we do against losses,” said Ginobili, held to eight points in Game 3 after totaling 46 through the first two games. “Even if we react well, it’s a tough place to win and they are a great team.”
The Thunder limited the output of San Antonio’s best backcourt players by deploying 6-foot-7 Thabo Sefolosha to use his five-inch height advantage and wingspan to corral Parker, and by changing up their defense on the Spurs’ pick-and-roll attack.
Oklahoma City players who had been guarding the ball frequently switched to defend the screener, and vice versa. After scoring a postseason-best 120 points in Game 2 and averaging 109.4 during the winning streak, San Antonio was held to a season-low 82 points in Game 3.
“They’re doing a lot of switching. They’re doing a lot of those, so they’re ending up with a lot of different guys on a lot of different guys,” Spurs star Tim Duncan said. “We’re going to have to take advantage of that. We’ve got to use the mismatches that we get from that, and Tony and Manu will be expecting those kind of switches and understand that they have to attack it a different way.
“Their length and their size and their athleticism is a huge advantage for them, so we’re going to have to move their bodies and move the ball and use our passing to kind of neutralize that a little bit.”
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks refused to pinpoint any of his adjustments as the difference-maker in what could be a momentum-changing win. He put more emphasis on his players giving maximum effort and executing all of the defensive plans.
The changes bore some similarities to the previous round, when he used Sefolosha, James Harden and even the nearly 7-foot Kevin Durant to mix up his defense on Kobe Bryant.
Sefolosha made a big splash early in Game 3, recording four steals in the first 3 minutes, and finished with 19 points and six steals — both the best of his career.
“It’s always good to have everybody taking cracks at the good players,” Brooks said. “You can’t have one guy on a great player to give him the same coverage. They’re going to tear that apart. … Ginobili and Parker are the best penetrating decision-makers in the league and they do it where you don’t think that they have opportunities to score or to pass, and they make those passes every time.”
The changes got the Spurs out of that free-flowing offensive game, and Ginobili and Parker both suggested that San Antonio ended up playing too much one-on-one and without enough aggression.
“There are some ways to try to make them pay a little bit more, so hopefully we find them and we have a clearer mind to read the situations better,” Ginobili said.
As San Antonio’s streak kept growing — eventually becoming the longest ever to carry over into the playoffs — players frequently said it wasn’t their focus. But now that it’s over, they’d prefer if it was still going on.
“Everybody wants to win every game. That’s what you try to do: You try to win,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “They played great and they had a lot to do with us playing poorly, but nobody wants to lose a game in the playoffs. You try to win every game.”
Popovich said he thought Oklahoma City had played as though their season was on the line in Game 3. Durant said the Thunder “knew what was at stake, but we weren’t desperate.”
“We just played harder,” the three-time NBA scoring champion said. “We were there for each other, we covered for each other on the pick-and-roll. … We didn’t really make a huge adjustment.”
The Thunder still face the task of winning three out of the next four against a team that hadn’t lost since April 11.
“They’re a great team. They won 20 games (in a row). They’re not going to push the panic button after one loss,” Brooks said.
With a win Saturday night, the Spurs would put Oklahoma City in a 3-1 hole that only eight teams in NBA history have overcome.
“In every sport in every country of the world, when you win everything is great and you were almost perfect. When you lose, you start hearing critics,” Ginobili said. “It’s how the world is run and how it works. We knew and Pop was adamant in showing us that we were making mistakes, even when we were winning. But losing can happen.”