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Playoff Assist: Key players in Spurs-Thunder series for Game 5

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

1. The San Antonio Spurs' bench proved Gregg Popovich's point

Gregg Popovich isn't afraid to prove a point to his team, not even in the playoffs. So when he filtered his starters out halfway through the third quarter and opted to stick with the bench even when they cut into the deficit in the fourth quarter of a Western Conference finals game, it shouldn't have shocked anybody who has been paying attention. Pop wanted new blood out there and he wanted to show the starters how they're supposed to play with energy and execution.

It yielded some good results as well. Cory Joseph had great minutes and even a big dunk that made the Spurs and their fans feel some happiness. Boris Diaw had great minutes with both the starters and the reserves. Aron Baynes and Matt Bonner also had a positive contribution against the Thunder, even when they brought the starters back in. This builds confidence for the reserves and resets the starters to remind them of what they need to do.

2. The Oklahoma City Thunder bench is giving a big boost to the starters as well

On the other end of the floor, the Thunder bench was also quite good. It started with Jeremy Lamb coming in early for Reggie Jackson after Jackson rolled his ankle. Lamb had a couple of steals right away, kept an offensive rebound, and had a couple of buckets to boost the offense. Steven Adams came in, provided a solid defensive presence, threw his strength around with some fouls, and even scored a few buckets. The Thunder are getting production from young role players that keep their athletic advantage going.

Heading into Game 5 in San Antonio, they'll need more of this from the Thunder reserves to make sure they can keep runs going or stop runs by the Spurs. They don't need guys stepping up for big scoring production off the bench, but they do need to keep pushing the advantage they have from an athletic standpoint and keep making life difficult for the Spurs.

3. Russell Westbrook should be above the criticism at this point

Russell Westbrook had 40 points, 10 assists, and five steals in the Game 4 victory, which hadn't been done since Michael Jordan before he won championships. That's just an incredibly rare thing to do. People want to claim Westbrook isn't a point guard even though he distributes the ball more than enough to qualify as a point guard. He may take some bad shots, but overall his impact is incredible. He complements Kevin Durant quite well on offense as well, and does a good job of distributing up shots.

Both are incredible scorers and they should have a fairly even number of shots. Westbrook isn't a perfect player but the team is successful enough on the court and his production is rare and elite enough that we should stop trying to break them up as a duo and pretend the Thunder would be better without him.

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