If you ever stare at a TV in February and wonder about the existential meaning of an NBA regular season, now you know why it absolutely matters. The object of the competition is home-court advantage, and never has it been more paramount and pronounced — almost eerily so — than in the ongoing flip-floppiness that is the Western Conference finals. The Spurs have dominated the three games in San Antonio. The Thunder have ruled the two games in Oklahoma City. Assuming the pattern holds, the Thunder will win Game 6 and the Spurs will win Game 7, and we will ask why these outcomes have fluctuated so wildly when the players and coaches haven’t been abducted by aliens, as far as we know, and the cities are just 80 minutes apart by plane.
I might offer brainwashing as a theory — each team is convinced it can’t win in the other’s arena and succumbs accordingly — if not for the utter splendor of their performances when they do win. If Russell Westbrook evokes Michael Jordan on a Tuesday night, why is he merely Michael Carter-Williams on a Thursday night? If Tim Duncan is yelling at Gregg Popovich on a Tuesday night, how does he resume his methodical brilliance with 22 points and 12 rebounds on a Thursday night?
“This is the craziest series I’ve ever been involved in,’’ Duncan said.
We know that. We just can’t explain why. Maybe we should go to Popovich, who is said to have a larger brain than the rest of us. “You really think I can explain that? I have no clue, honestly,” he said. “I think every game, it’s a different animal. It really is. We talk to our team about that all the time. You have no clue what’s going to happen, how a team is going to come out, whether they’re going to be lethargic or hold the ball, get 50/50 balls or don’t get 50/50 balls.”
Kevin Durant has scored 35 points in a half. Why did the Thunder score only 34 points in the second half of Game 5? “Our shots weren’t falling for us,’’ he said. “We’ve got to stay aggressive and we’ve got to get stops. When we can’t make a shot, we’ve got to play defense, and we didn’t.’’
Why not? Were they tired? Are these teams so whipped after playing 100 games since early November that they subconsciously take road games off, knowing they need to strategically refuel to make sure they win the next home game? Is that why the Spurs shot 71.4 percent in the paint in Game 5 after making only 45 percent in the pain in Game 4? And what happened to Serge Ibaka’s interior presence after his celebrated return to the lineup, which prompted a religious revival in Oklahoma City? Hadn’t the Thunder won all six previous games against the Spurs this season with Ibaka in the house?
Westbrook scored 21 points in Game 5 after igniting for 40 in Game 4. He drove to the basket only four times in the loss. What did the Spurs do to shut him down? “Nothing,’’ Westbrook said.
The operative word is desire. What I don’t understand is how Oklahoma City, after reaching down for two inspirational and breathtaking performances to tie the series, didn’t seem to care all that much in what could have been a victory that led to a Game 6 clincher at home Saturday. “It’s about playing every possession, and we didn’t have that mentality,’’ said Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who is responsible for that mentality. “We had that for 96 minutes the last two games. If we don’t get that back, it’s going to be a hard game to stop.”
Said Popovich: “What matters in a game is execution and mental toughness. You have to execute and you have to play with passion. So it’s like the old Dean Smith/Larry Brown thing: play harder and smarter than your opponent. It doesn’t happen all the time, but if you can do it, that’s the goal.”
Popovich has an idea for Game 6. “Obviously, it seems like the home court motivates both teams pretty well. They both look pretty comfortable at home,’’ he said. “So that’s why we’ve opted not to go to OKC.”
Might as well stay home and get ready for Game 7. Game 6 is already over.