OKLAHOMA CITY – It may have been coincidence that veteran referee Monty McCutcheon was the crew chief for the trio of officials who worked Game 3 of the Spurs-Thunder Western Conference semifinals playoff game at Chesapeake Arena.
More likely, it was by design.
McCutcheon has been the league’s highest-rated referee for several seasons. After the comedy of official errors in the final 13.5 seconds of the Thunder’s win in Monday’s Game 2 it made perfect sense to have the league’s best whistle blower in charge of such an important game.
This time the Spurs made enough plays at both ends of the court to render the referees inconsequential in the final two minutes of a 100-96 Game 3 win.
They found what they needed in crunch time from Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker. The three combined for 24 of their team’s 28 points in the fourth quarter and the Spurs find themselves with a 2-1- lead in the best-of-seven series.
Parker had scored only nine points and made only 4-of-12 shots in the first two games of the series but in Friday’s game he made 7-of-14 shots, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range, and scored 19. He also had 8 rebounds and 5 assists and committed only one turnover in 34 minutes.
It was precisely the kind of breakout game the Spurs had been hoping for from someone other than Aldridge and Leonard, who had carried too much of the scoring burden in Games 1 and 2.
“He’s been in these games, in this position before,” said Aldridge, who scored ‘only” 24 points after totaling 79 points in the first two. “He’s a top point guard. He came out tonight and controlled the flow for us. He found his shot tonight. I thought he played perfect.”
Parker also took over a time out huddle with 1:19 remaining, aggressively reminding his teammates of the need for crisp execution at both ends of the court, lest they suffer another meltdown of the sort that had cost them a chance at a comeback win in Game 2.
“I just wanted to make sure that everybody knows what we’re doing on offense, defense, where we want to go,” Parker said of his oration. “Because I really felt like Game 2 where we lost the game is because we didn’t execute, and took quick shots and we were not doing what we were supposed to do. So I just wanted to remind my team all the time what we’re doing defensively, offensively, if something happens, what we’re going to do. Just make sure we’re ready.
“It’s all about details. In the playoffs, one play, two plays can win you a game or lose it.”
It was exactly the sort of crunch time reminder the Spurs usually hear from Gregg Popovich, delivered with less vitriol and with a French accent.
The Spurs coach appreciated Parker’s vocal input in the huddle almost as much as his persistence on the court after a tough start to the series.
“He started out a little bit rough but he kept his poise, he kept his focus and had a great second half,” Popovich said. “He ran the show. He scored here and there when he needed to.
“He did a wonderful job.”
So did Leonard, who scored 13 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter. He also had a game-high 11 rebounds, and his offensive rebound with 23.9 seconds remaining put the finishing touch on a victory that was difficult to secure.
A seven-point Spurs lead had withered to two points, at 96-94, and with 46 seconds left Spurs coach Gregg Popovich signaled for a play designed to get a shot for Aldridge near the end of the 24-second clock.
Aldridge’s 13-foot jumper from the right side, well contested, was long, bouncing high off the rim. Leonard beat Thunder forward Andre Roberson to the ball and grabbed the rebound, then pivoted away from a steal attempt by Westbrook and got the ball to Parker.
“Just attacked the glass, jumped and grabbed it,” said Leonard, who always has a simple explanation for even the most extraordinary of plays.
Because fewer than 24 seconds remained after Leonard’s rebound, the Thunder had no choice but to foul Parker, with 18.9 seconds left. Parker made both free throws to extend the Spurs lead to 98-94.
After missing 9-of-22 free throws through the first three quarters, the Spurs missed only 1-of-12 in the fourth.
“I thought that was pretty nice,” Popovich said.
According to Danny Green, the Spurs played a trick or two with their defense on the play the Thunder tried to execute out of a time out called after Parker’s free throws. Surprised, the Thunder needed 14 seconds before they could get off a shot, Dion Waiters throwing up a wild runner that banked in, only 4.8 seconds left in the game.
“We kind of played it differently than I think they assumed we were going to play it,” Green said of the Spurs scramble defense on the play. “And I don’t think they wanted to take that much time to shoot a shot, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Game 4 is to begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Spurs will try to keep the referees out of consideration at the end of that one, too.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball. Related Stories: