OKLAHOMA CITY – The Spurs will go into their Game 4 Western Conference playoff matchup against the Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Sunday night with a chance to become – dare we say it? – the presumptive series winner.
A 3-1 lead doesn’t guarantee they will advance to the Western Conference Finals for the 14th time in franchise history but NBA history suggests advancement would be an enormous likelihood. In 153 best-of-seven NBA series in which the team that began the series with home court advantage had a 3-1 lead, 151 went on to win.
The Thunder understands the historic imperative to win Game 4, scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m., so the Spurs expect an opponent even more desperate than the group that followed a 32-point loss at the hands of the Spurs in Game 1 by stealing a 98-97 win in Game 2 at The AT&T Center.
“We know they’re going to play hard and make some adjustments” said David West, the backup big man who played all but the final two seconds of the decisive fourth quarter in the Spurs’ 100-96 victory in Game 3 on Friday night. “We’ve just got to withstand their first wave. They’re a very good team when they can get you wobbly from that first blow they deliver. We’ve just got to be able to stay on our feet from it.”
West usually delivers more blows than he takes. He is the most physical player on the 15-man Spurs roster and will enter Game 4 having logged 25 minutes and 22 seconds of Game 3, about 11 more minutes than Tim Duncan, the 40-year-old veteran who remains in the starting lineup, even as his role shrinks against Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams, an athletic 7-footer.
Duncan has made only 6-of-19 shots in the series and his biggest contribution to the Game 3 win was coming off the bench with 4.8 seconds left, the Spurs clinging to a 98-96 lead, to make a successful in-bounds pass to Kawhi Leonard.
“That’s what (Duncan) does,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, whose 24 Game 3 points give him 103 for the three games. “He’s basketball savvy. He’s like that makeshift guy that can do it all. To bring him in late in the game to make that pass, it was pretty big time.”
The ultimate team player, Duncan has given up huge chunks of salary over his past two contracts to give the Spurs the ability to sign players like Aldridge. Once a maximum contract player, at more than $20 million per season, he will earn only $5.25 million this season. But he has no problem ceding playing time to West, who gave up s guaranteed $12 million contract with the Indiana Pacers to sign a $1.5 million contract with the Spurs. And when West drove to the basket against Adams and banked in a left-handed hook shot that gave the Spurs a seven-point lead with 1:19 remaining in the game, Duncan jumped off the bench and skipped out to greet him.
West didn’t see himself as a crunch time scorer in playoff games when he signed on with the Spurs last July. He says he just fills a role, but it is a vital role against a team as physical as the Thunder has been in the series.
“(My role) is really just to limit those extra offensive possessions they get,” West said. “Try to keep them honest from over-helping and loading it up. Really, defensively more than anything, make those guys make plays and limit (Russell) Westbrook and (Kevin) Durant as much as possible; force those other guys to make plays.
“I’m just trying to make positive plays. Usually the team that makes the most positive plays, or more positive plays than the other team, wins. So try to make the most positive plays as possible.”
If the Spurs make the most positive plays in Game 4 they’re pretty sure they can secure the 3-1 series lead that all but dictates a positive outcome of the series.
Top image: # 30 David West of the San Antonio Spurs goes for the lay-up through Oklahoma City defenders. Photo by Scott Ball.