OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – In a Western Conference finals filled with established stars, Thabo Sefolosha used a stretch of defensive excellence to turn the momentum in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s favor and stop a dominant seven-week run by the San Antonio Spurs.
Kevin Durant scored 22 points, Sefolosha set playoff career-bests with 19 points and six steals, and the Thunder snapped San Antonio’s 20-game winning streak by beating the Spurs 102-82 in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night.
The Thunder’s fears of falling into a historically insurmountable 3-0 series deficit faded quickly as Sefolosha got four steals to power an 8-0 Oklahoma City run in the first 3 minutes and set the tone for San Antonio’s worst offensive outing of the season.
“We need everybody to be aggressive and Thabo stepped up tonight and kind of sparked us,” Durant said.
Sefolosha, a guard from Switzerland, has been Oklahoma City’s defensive ace on the perimeter since coming over in a trade with Chicago midway through the Thunder’s first season after relocating from Seattle.
Coach Scott Brooks assigned him to clamp down on All-Star point guard Tony Parker, who had 34 points in Game 2.
“That was Scott’s idea. The whole time, we’ve been thinking about it and we made the adjustment tonight and it worked out good,” said Sefolosha, a veteran of the Swiss national team.
Parker and Stephen Jackson led the Spurs with 16 points apiece. Tim Duncan had 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting, taking 11 of San Antonio’s first 25 shots as the offense went through the All-Star center instead of Parker.
“It’s not about Tony,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s about our team, and we played much more poorly tonight than we have and I thought they played fantastic basketball in every way.”
The Spurs, who already set an NBA record for the longest winning streak carried over from the regular season into the playoffs, were trying to match the league mark for most wins to start the postseason. The Lakers won 11 straight to start the 1989 and 2001 playoffs, getting swept in the NBA finals the first time and winning it all the second.
The Spurs hadn’t lost since April 11 against the Lakers at home. They had been averaging 109.4 points during the winning streak and had been held to double digits only twice.
“They played like it was a closeout game, both offensively and defensively,” Popovich said. “They were very active, physical, they moved the ball well on offense. They did all those things better than we did. They beat us good.”
Parker and Duncan didn’t play in the final 15 minutes, and Popovich pulled the plug after a series of three straight turnovers allowed the deficit to reach 23 points early in the fourth quarter.
Sefolosha had a right-handed dunk off a lob pass from Russell Westbrook, who followed with his own two-handed jam on an alley-oop pass. Sefolosha followed with a reverse layup on another turnover-fueled fast-break to push the lead to 86-63 with 9:48 left.
All of Sefolosha’s big stops helped feed Oklahoma City’s transition game, and ended up leading to his own uncharacteristically high scoring output. Sefolosha had never scored more than 12 points in the postseason, and he only reached double figures in six of 53 games this season.
But scoring his own points has never been why the Thunder wanted Sefolosha around.
“He’s a great defender and he always does a great job. I think maybe a little more size might have helped,” forward Nick Collison said.
“But it’s just one game for us. The Spurs have still won 20 out of 21. We have to be able to do it again. They will probably make adjustments.”
The Thunder put together another 9-0 run coinciding with Manu Ginobili coming out of the game, and featuring Serge Ibaka sticking his tongue out after nailing a jumper from the top of the key. Brooks soon followed suit and pulled his own front-line players with the game well in hand.
A day earlier, Brooks had called out his players during a team meeting for not giving their all — specifically failing to make extra efforts to close out on San Antonio’s 3-point shooters.
“We knew what we had to do. We were not going to lay down and roll over just because we’re down 0-2,” Durant said. “We’re going to keep fighting. The coaches said we just needed to play harder.
“I can’t keep emphasizing enough that we just played harder on both ends of the floor.”
After Game 3, Brooks said he would “be shocked if there’s possessions we didn’t play hard” when he goes back over the video of the game.
Popovich couldn’t say the same, assessing that “I think they played smarter than we did and I think they played harder than we did.”
“They did definitely play with a lot more energy, a lot more passion than us tonight,” said Parker, who committed five turnovers.
Oklahoma City outscored San Antonio 28-8 in the paint while building a 54-41 halftime lead, then never let the Spurs get closer than 11 in the second half. San Antonio had averaged 46 points in the paint while winning Games 1 and 2, and 47.8 during the playoffs before being held to 24 in Game 3.
“We wanted to bounce back after two losses like that. We had to play better and we did that tonight,” Sefolosha said. “We played with energy, we played with passion in front of our home crowd. They did a great job giving us a lift.”
Sefolosha set up Ibaka’s two-handed dunk and hit a 3-pointer during a 13-1 run early in the second quarter that gave Oklahoma City the lead for good, with San Antonio’s only point coming on a free throw by Ginobili after Durant was called for a technical foul while arguing a call from the bench.
“We just played a good basketball game,” Brooks said. “We played with a lot of force, we played with good energy, but we played defensive-minded basketball.
“That’s who we are. That’s how we win.”
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