Durant and Westbrook get unexpected help, and Spurs unexpectedly crater

As the Oklahoma City Thunder shocked the San Antonio Spurs right out of the NBA play-offs on Thursday night, it was hard to pinpoint quite how.

Oklahoma City Thunder players Kevin Durant, right, and Russell Westbrook react during their Game 6 win over the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA play-offs on Thursday night. Larry W Smith / EPA / May 12, 2016
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Throughout the NBA play-offs, The National’s resident NBA dudes Jonathan Raymond and Kevin Jeffers will be breaking down the key talking points of the night before, plus looking around the scope of the league. Here are our NBA Play-off takeaways.

Thursday’s score:

Oklahoma City Thunder 113, San Antonio Spurs 99 (Thunder win series 4-2)

• Read more: Doubting the Oklahoma City Thunder was bad and we should all feel bad | More play-offs coverage

The end

Maybe the most shocking part of how this Western Conference semi-final series devolved over the past days for the Spurs was just how overwhelmed they looked.

In Game 6 their precise ball movement faltered, the orderly pace they typically dictated ran away from them and all of the Popovich-ian discipline, so well-honed over so many years, abandoned them.

By the end, the Thunder weren’t just winning these contests, they were dominating them. They were stomping all over one of the great defensive teams in modern basketball history.

Even now, it’s hard to quite pinpoint what Oklahoma City did to San Antonio. We know the Thunder went from scoring 100.6 points per 100 possessions and allowing the Spurs to score at a 109.3/100 rate in the first three games of the series, to flipping that on its head to 111.2/100 to 98.8/100 in the final three contests. Why?

Was it the rebounding of that vaunted Enes Kanter-Steven Adams pair sparking things? Eh, the Thunder were the best rebounding team in the league in the regular season (54.7 per cent), pulled down 52.2 per cent in losing two of the first three, and only improved to 56.7 over the last three. Hardly a sea change.

Passing? Regular season: 55.8 assist percentage; Games 1-3 49.5; Games 4-6 54.4. So, no, it wouldn’t really have been some sudden change in Oklahoma City’s passing tendencies.

Three-point shooting? Regular season: 34.9; Games 1-3 29.2; Games 4-6 33.8. Better, but wouldn’t quite chalk it up to that, either.

Did they just run them off the floor? The possessions per 100 for San Antonio in the regular season registered at 94.31 and 95.60 for Oklahoma City. In Games 1-3 it was 96.31 and in Games 4-6 it was 96.23. Practically no difference in there at all.

So what did Oklahoma City do?

Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe it's what happened to San Antonio?

They cratered, across the board. Their assist percentage (61.1 regular season) went from 62.1 (Gms 1-3) to 43.5 (4-6). Their rebounds (52.0 per cent regular season) dried up (47.8 Gms 1-3 to 43.3 Gms 4-6).Their three-pointers (42.9 per cent regular season) stopped going in (43.9 Gms 1-3 to 34.0 Gms 4-6).

Bizarrely, this series might have turned on the role players. The Thunder, who have long been and for most of the play-offs mostly looked like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Ten Other Dudes, found a revelatory pairing in Kanter and Adams (they were plus-32.7 points per 100 in 47 minutes on the floor together the last three games), Dion Waiters – Dion Waiters – stepped up with big contributions in Games 4 and 5, even the offensively dreadful Andre Roberson brought some value in Game 6, somehow hitting 3-of-5 threes (career three-point percentage: 27.4).

After the first quarter on Thursday night, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had, in his typically blunt style, but one observation of the opening period to his team’s do-or-die contest: “As soon as we substituted, it went to crap.”

"As soon as we substituted, it went to crap." -- Spurs' Gregg Popovich on Q1 of Game 6 vs. Thunder pic.twitter.com/lgUeZ0eMNq

Maybe it boils down to being that simple. Durant and Westbrook outplayed LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio’s top two scorers, and the rest of the Thunder actually outplayed the rest of the Spurs.

Here is how San Antonio performed per 100 possessions with their top reserves on the floor in Games 4-6: Manu Ginobili (minus-16.9); Boris Diaw (minus-26.1); David West (minus-21.8); Patty Mills (minus-21.9); Kyle Anderson (minus-24.3).

When they substituted, it went to crap.

The Spurs were built to exploit a top-heavy team like the Thunder. Command the middle, isolate Durant and Westbrook into inefficient hero-ball, spring on their second unit.

Except Adams and Kanter dominated the middle, Durant had two, and Westbrook one, incredibly efficient hero-ball performances, and in effectively playing just a seven-man rotation there was never enough Anthony Morrow or Randy Foye or Nick Collison or Cameron Payne for the Millses and Diaws and Wests to feast on. In fact the opposite happened. By consolidating their minutes among their top seven, the Thunder turned San Antonio’s depth into a liability.

This scenario, by myself and by no shortage of others, was pretty much discounted out of hand before the series. That Durant and Westbrook could carry such a load to four wins in seven against this Spurs team (turns out they did it in six) and that the Thunder had the depth to play with the Spurs (turns out they didn't need it).

The Thunder executed a simple counter to cover their biggest weakness. The small handful of players that Oklahoma City required to play their part, did, and Durant and Westbrook pretty much took care of the rest.

And San Antonio just kind of had a bad run at the worst possible time.

"I've been in the NBA for 15 years and to the conference finals half of my career, five NBA Finals," said Tony Parker after, "and stuff is going to happen.

“Sometimes, it’s not meant to be.”

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