OKLAHOMA CITY – Win or go home.
The catchphrase the TNT Network adopted for their coverage of last year’s NBA playoffs has a corollary for the Spurs as they approach Game 6 of their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Thunder: Win and go home — for Game 7.
Losses in Game 4 and Game 5 make the math simple: To advance to the 14th Western Conference Finals in franchise history, the Spurs must win Thursday’s Game 6 at Chesapeake Energy Arena to get to Game 7 at The AT&T Center.
They understand the magnitude of the task before them.
“The goal is to play until June,” said Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs regular season scoring leader and runner-up to Stephen Curry in voting for the 2015-16 Most Valuable Player Award, which was announced a few hours before tipoff for Game 5. “But it’s not over yet, so I’m not thinking about (elimination). I’m thinking about winning.”
A Spur for only five seasons, Leonard may not be aware of the negative history n past elimination games under Gregg Popovich. In 12 prior elimination games in Popovich’s previous 19 seasons the Spurs have won only twice.
Re-visiting last season’s first-round elimination by the Clippers provides some historic inspiration for the Spurs. Then, they returned from a 111-107 Game 5 win with a chance to close out the series at AT&T Center. Instead, the Clippers won Game 6, 102-96, and sent the series back to Staples Center for Game 7. Chris Paul made a remarkable shot with one second left to give Los Angeles a 111-109 win.
“We’ll be ready,” said Tony Parker, a five-time All-Star point guard. “We have no choice. There’s a lot of experience on this team and now we just have to go out there and try to do it again.”
Their biggest problems in the back-to-back losses are easy to discern: Horrid fourth-quarter shooting and a big crunch time rebounding deficit. They have made only 13-of-42 shots (31 percent) in the fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5 and have been dominated on the boards in the fourth period of both games.
Worse, Oklahoma City has grabbed 14 offensive rebounds (including team rebounds in the fourth quarters) and scored 12 points on the extra possessions.
“It puts a strain on our offense, them getting those rebounds, getting second-chance points and getting wide open 3’s off those long rebounds,” said Leonard. “It’s just been very difficult.
“We have to rebound and just play great defense; the same stuff we’ve been doing. But make shots as well, and just have pride and know that we can win the game.”
Eliminating Oklahoma City’s rebounding advantage must include paying more attention to Russell Westbrook. The Thunder point guard flew in from the perimeter to grab 11 rebounds – four on the offensive glass – in Game 5.
“He’s probably the best rebounding guard in the league,” said Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili. “He goes after every shot, even his own, and he’s a tough player to box out. Then (Steven) Adams and (Enes) Kanter were very intense, aggressive and got a bunch down the stretch.
“It was a key of the game for sure. They got way too many possessions. In the last three or four minutes they had possessions where they shot three or four times. It’s really hard against a team like them.”
Ginobili believes the Spurs can bring the series back to AT&T Center if they approach Thursday’s game with the same attitude that produced a Game 3 win in Oklahoma City.
“We always think we have a chance,” he said. “We know it’s tough games. We are two very good teams. Whoever plays better, hustles more, gets more rebounds is going to win the next one. Hopefully, it’s us.
“We did it once and we’re going to try to do it again.”
Danny Green, his 6-for-9 3-point shooting gone for naught in Game 5, put it best:
“We’ve just got to go out there and play like it’s our lives on the line,” he said.
Of course, it’s not a real life-or-death situation. It’s just the Spurs playoff lives. But to many San Antonians those are just as important.
Top Image: Spurs forward #2 Kawhi Leonard steals the ball from Thunder Forward #9 Serge Ibaka. Photo by Scott Ball.
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