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National Columnist

Thunder beat Spurs at their own game, climb back into Western finals


Durant and Westbrook, who score 22 and 10, bookend five OKC players in double figures. (Getty Images)  
Durant and Westbrook, who score 22 and 10, bookend five OKC players in double figures. (Getty Images)  

OKLAHOMA CITY -- To beat the Spurs, the Thunder had to become the Spurs. Lord knows, the Thunder way wasn't working.

The Thunder way works in the free-wheeling regular season and against overmatched teams early in the playoffs, teams that lack the firepower to score with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- and then lack the will to compete. Teams fold against the Thunder, because it's just not fun playing a team that won't. Stop. Scoring.

The Spurs didn't fold. Not for two games of the Western Conference finals. The Spurs played the way the Spurs have played not just for the duration of their 20-game winning streak, but the way they've played all season -- and for years. The Thunder would get a one-on-one bucket from Durant or a bull rush to the rim from Westbrook or Harden, and the Spurs would answer with five passes and an open jumper. The Thunder were putting on a highlight reel. The Spurs were putting on a clinic.

Clinic wins, every time.

And so it was Thursday night in Game 3, when the Thunder beat the Spurs at their own game -- and San Antonio, oddly enough, lost by playing the Thunder way.

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It took both unusual events -- the Thunder playing maturely, the Spurs immaturely -- for the result to be as resounding as it was. This was a 102-82 blowout victory for the Thunder, a game they led by 27 midway through the fourth quarter before calling off the dogs and putting in cats named Cole Aldrich, Lazar Hayward and Royal Ivey.

This was unlike anything we saw in the first two games, and not just because the Thunder won and the Spurs lost. This was foreign territory for both teams, the Thunder sharing the ball and the Spurs hogging it. We'll start with the Spurs, to get this out of the way fast, like ripping tape off a hairy leg. Painful, so let's do it quickly and say up front that classy Tim Duncan was lousy, inspiring Manu Ginobili was lousy, and magnificent Tony Parker was lousy. And they were all lousy in the same way -- by forcing crazy shots, crazy drives, crazy passes. All three players did all three things. This was the Big Three, one of the most successful and savvy Big Three's in NBA history, playing small, silly, stupid.

The Spurs were determined to force the ball into Duncan from the start, and Duncan was determined to miss shots. He was 5 of 15 from the floor, and the stats suggest he gave little effort. He grabbed two rebounds in 26 minutes. He made one trip to the line. Lousy.

Ginobili was one of five from the floor. He scored eight points, handed out just one assist and committed four turnovers. And he was frustrated, embarrassed, after Thunder center Kendrick Perkins blocked his 3-pointer late in the second quarter. The ball came back to Ginobili, and Perkins clapped his hands and crouched low, encouraging Ginobili to bring it, and Ginobili gave in -- attacking Perkins, attacking Serge Ibaka as he slid over to help, attacking the two biggest Thunder players at once and losing the ball.

Parker tied for team scoring honors with 16 points, and he needed just 12 shots to get them, but he was lousiest of them all. He sets the tone for the Spurs, and while it's usually a good tone, this wasn't a usual game. Parker threw the ball away conventionally, he threw the ball away by trying a cute behind-the-back pass, and even one time when he got past Thabo Sefolosha -- whose defense changed the game -- he lost the ball as Sefolosha reached around his waist and poked it free.

The worst of Parker's five turnovers came in the third quarter when he drove the baseline and tried to sneak a bounce pass through the crowded lane, out toward the perimeter. I have no idea who he was throwing it to, because the ball never got there. Westbrook stole it, while on the sideline Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was doing this.

After the game, Popovich was more composed but no more pleased.

"They beat us good," Popovich said. "We played much more poorly tonight than we have, and I thought they played fantastic basketball in every way. They played smarter than we did. They played harder than we did."

Said Parker: "They played with a lot more passion than us tonight."

This was a clinic by the Thunder, very few possessions wasted, very few open teammates ignored. This wasn't their typical game: a bunch of one-on-one skirmishes, and let's tally up all those individual efforts at the end of the game and see if our "team" scored more than yours. This was truly team basketball, Durant attacking the rim and kicking it out to Sefolosha for a 3-pointer ... or Westbrook attacking the rim and kicking it out to Harden for a 3-pointer ... or Harden returning the favor with an alley-oop to Westbrook.

This was the kind of basketball the rest of the NBA should be terrified to see from the Thunder, because they're too young, too energetic, too athletic for most teams to contend with when they play this way. The Spurs hadn't lost in 49 days, but they lost this one by 20. That's a statement, and it was written with a shared pencil.

Durant scored 22 points on 17 shots. Harden scored 15 on 10 shots. Sefolosha was given open 3-pointer after open 3-pointer by his driving-and-kicking teammates, and he hit four of his 10 attempts from that range en route to 19 points.

But the key for the Thunder, as was the key for the Spurs, was their point guard. Westbrook scored just 10 points, less than half his season average, but he nearly doubled his average with nine assists and added seven rebounds and four steals. Westbrook dominated the game without dominating the ball, which should be as much of a revelation to him as it was to the rest of us watching.

With Westbrook controlling the game at one end and Sefolosha shutting it down at the other, the Spurs are beatable. Now the question is: What about this version of the Thunder? Is it beatable?

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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