OKLAHOMA CITY — Down and nearly out less than a week ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder are riding a momentum shift to the brink of the NBA finals.
With three straight wins, the Thunder have changed the conversation from how anyone can stop the San Antonio Spurs’ record-setting 20-game winning streak to how Oklahoma City needs just one win on its home court in Game 6 on Wednesday night to play for the NBA title.
Hundreds of fans waited in the middle of the night for the Thunder’s plane to land after Game 5, and thousands more will pack Chesapeake Energy Arena to cheer Oklahoma City on. Yet coach Scott Brooks urged Tuesday that riding the momentum isn’t enough to get the job done.
“We have a great opportunity, we’re on our home floor but that doesn’t guarantee automatic victory,” Brooks said during a day off at the team’s practice facility. “They’re not going to give us the game. They’re not just going to say, ‘We’ve lost three in a row, we’re going to give in.’ We know we have a tough challenge ahead.”
Brooks stood near the same spot just a week earlier, surprised when a reporter told him that only 6 percent of NBA teams over the years had overcome an 0-2 deficit in a seven-game series. Now, his Thunder could become only the 15th team to pull off the feat — and the eighth since 2004.
“The percentages, you can’t really feed into that because you know that there’s always a chance,” Brooks said. “There’s 48 minutes to prove that you’re the better team that night, and we have an opportunity tomorrow night to do that again.”
A series of defensive adjustments by Brooks helped turn the series, with 6-foot-7 Thabo Sefolosha switching onto All-Star point guard Tony Parker in Game 3 the most visible change. The Spurs have been tinkering ever since to get back in the groove they’d been riding since mid-April but instead have lost three straight games for the first time all season.
Coach Gregg Popovich put sixth man Manu Ginobili in the starting lineup for Game 5, getting a playoff-best 34 points from the Argentine guard but disrupting the bench rotation in the process. He has also gotten DeJuan Blair back in the mix after benching the former starter for the first part of the playoffs.
“I think we have the right game plan,” Spurs All-Star Tim Duncan said. “We just need to play a little better for a little longer.”
After being blown out by 20 in Game 3, the Spurs have lost the last two by a combined nine points and now must find a way to snap Oklahoma City’s seven-game home win streak.
“It’s not that we have a Game 8 or 9 to recover, so it’s either win or go home,” Ginobili said. “So we have to. It’s our job. So nobody is going to feel sorry about ourselves, we’ve just got to go compete. We know it’s hard to beat them there, but it’s what we have to do. We’ve got to step up and play the best game of the season.”
Ginobili downplayed the changes in Xs and Os and said it comes down to making a couple key plays at the right time. For instance, Oklahoma City’s James Harden hit a clutch 3-pointer with the shot clock running down in the final 30 seconds of Game 5, and Ginobili missed a 3 that could have tied it with about 5 seconds left.
Switch those up, and the series looks different.
“It is the first team to four wins, so there really isn’t anything to celebrate or get happy about until you win the series,” Thunder guard Derek Fisher said. “This team made it to the conference finals last year and I don’t think anybody was happy with the final result, so who cares if we are up 3-2 now? If we don’t finish our business, it does not mean anything and that has to be our mentality going into it.”
After all, if momentum swung once in the series, it could again. The Spurs hadn’t lost at home all postseason either — until Oklahoma City pulled off its win Monday night.
“We don’t pound our chests, we don’t tell everybody how good we are,” Brooks said. “We feel that our worth is through our work, and if we continue to work hard and if we continue to play together, we’re going to have some good results. The expectations always have been there for us.”
But never has the reality been so close.