The Thunder defeated the Spurs in six games this past week and soon we must collect ourselves to prepare for the grande finale as OKC takes on LeBron James & the Miami Heat. Before we get to thinking about that however, let's take one long look back at these past two weeks, because and I am still having a difficult time grasping at what we just witnessed.
Heading into the WCF, I and many other analysts believed that the Spurs were playing basketball at too high a level for the Thunder to have a legitimate chance at taking four games off of them. On top of the fact that the Spurs had not lost a game since mid-April, they had also won enough games that they were able to zip past the Thunder in the Conference standings to take hold of the #1 seed and therefore, home court advantage. Yes, the Thunder had clearly grown from a season ago when they lost in the WCF to Dallas in five games, but had they shown enough this season to even stay on the court against the Spurs' juggernaut?
Thankfully, that is why they play the games.
With the help of Ms. Roosevelt, let us once again break the series down into its elements.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
Let's pull that quote apart and then put it back together again.
I. The People
- Kevin Durant - The kid, the superstar in waiting, the anti-LeBron, the guy who probably would have fit right in wearing black and silver. Durant was getting progressively better as the playoffs had gone on, but now he was going to be faced with a new challenge. Simply scoring would not be enough; he had to be part of the defensive solution to slow down the Spurs' attack.
- Russell Westbrook - Westbrook too was playing at a consistent level above and beyond what he had previously reached, and now he was staring at counterpart who in a lot of ways was his predecessor as a scoring point guard. How would he respond to the personal challenge?
- James Harden - Harden was the man who consistently had the Spurs' number, but even with great statistics he wasn't enough by himself to help carry the Thunder bench against the Spurs' second unit. Now, with the Spurs acquiring Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw mid-season, how would Harden be able to keep up?
- Thabo Sefolosha - Often the forgotten man, Sefolosha had spent the playoffs guarding the opposing teams' best perimeter players. Whether it was Jason Terry, Vince Carter, or Kobe Bryant, Sefolosha always knew he would have his hands full. The Spurs had streaky shooter Danny Green with which to contend, and the question was whether Sefolosha could keep Green off the 3-point line...
- Derek Fisher - Fisher is older than Duncan and we are still wondering whether he is a net plus or minus. On the other hand, 0.4 seconds...
For San Antonio:
- Tony Parker - Parker was one of the hidden gems in the 2011-12 season. While things started slowly for him and his team, by mid-way through the post All-Star break he was being mentioned in MVP conversations, and with good reason. He was playing better than ever before and was running the most lethal offense the league had seen in decades. There was seemingly no easy answer for the lightning quick point guard.
- Manu Ginobili - Manu has been one of the key cogs for the Spurs' championship teams, yet it seemed like age was catching up to him. Injuries undermined his (and the Spurs' season a year ago), and lingering health issues seemed to be keeping him from reaching his full value to the team.
- Tim Duncan - Duncan is old. And yet, now that the Spurs were running a perimeter-oriented offense, he seemed to have rewound the clock and was playing his best ball in at least 5 seasons.
- Kawhi Leonard/Danny Green/Gary Neal/Matt Bonner - These four players are the Spurs' secret weapons. The teams' trio of stars are great in their own right, but things got taken to the next level when these four began to make a plenitude of open shots all over the court. With these guys shooting open 3-pointers, the team as a whole shot 42% from the 3-point line, and they would be useful since OKC was one of the worst at defending the 3-point shot.
II. The Events
Game 1: Missed Opportunity
We had just witnessed the Thunder dispatch Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in 5 games in a series that was closer than it might have seemed. Meanwhile, the Spurs had completely run over the Lakers' city counterparts, vanquishing the Clippers in a sweep which was stunning in its resoluteness. What would we be in for? Did the Thunder have a secret recipe to slow down the Spurs?
For three quarters, the answer appeared to be, 'yes.' For those three quarters, the Thunder took it straight at the Spurs, catching Tony Parker and the gang off-guard. The Spurs were shooting poorly, late in their box-outs, and looked all-together disheveled.
Then the 4th quarter happened.
It was as if the Spurs had been driving in 2nd gear all game and suddenly jumped into overdrive, but all aspects of their game jumped up to a level the Thunder had not seen since, well, the last time they had played each other. The Spurs put up 39 points in the decisive 4th and the Thunder went from being up 9 to down double-digits in the blink of an eye. Don't let the 3 point win fool you; this game felt like the Spurs were putting OKC on notice - yes the Spurs were now awake, and yes they were ready to run this thing hard.
Game 2: Oh No
If Game 1 served as a wake-up call for the Spurs, Game 2 served as a referendum for the Thunder that involved one single message - 'the young'uns were out of their league.' From the get-go, Parker pounced on the Thunder defense and did his best Barry Sanders impersonation possible. At times he looked like he was running around Thunder trees, the OKC defense had become so stationary. At one point, he and Manu Ginobili were running so many little improv pick-and-rolls that Manu sprung Parker for an open 3-pointer, and the bewildered Thunder players could only stand underneath the rim and stare, so demoralized and ragged were they at that point. Maybe Parker would miss (he didn't miss).
The Thunder fell behind by 22 points midway through the 3rd quarter, and if that weren't enough to torture their fanbase, they then had to make it worse by...catching up. The Thunder made it all the way back to within a couple of possessions, only to see their scant opportunities float away like dust in the wind.
In the end, it was not that the Thunder had played so poorly in getting blown out; rather, it was that they had played so well, and never had a chance. Durant, Harden, and Westbrook combined to score 88 points, yet they still trailed by a huge margin throughout.
There was only one lesson to take away from this game - Tony Parker was the conductor of this amazing Spurs offense, and if the Thunder continued to allow him to do what he wanted, they were about to enter the off-season very quickly.
Game 3: Expected
At this point, the Spurs had won a remarkable 20 games in a row heading into Game 3. They appeared all but invincible. The only way for the Thunder to have a chance was to dent that feeling of invincibility for both teams' sakes. If they could alter the Spurs' trajectory, even just a little bit, the smallest of doubt would be coupled with a sliver of hope.
Coming into this series, a series buoyed by some of the biggest names in the NBA, who would have thought that one of the most important pieces to the Thunder puzzle would be a soft-spoken Swiss player who was often afraid to shoot?
Tony Parker, meet Thabo Sefolosha.
Scott Brooks decided to make sweeping changes in how the Thunder defended the Spurs, and the point of attack was to be Sefolosha, the Thunder's designated perimeter stopper. He was to be the man who had to check Parker, to make him veer off course, to challenge his near-automatic mid-range jumper, to keep him away from the rim.
Sefolosha responded by stealing the ball 4 times in the first 3 minutes of play.
Parker became completely flummoxed by Sefolosha's excellent positional defense, his long reach, his physicality, and most importantly his defensive intellect that skillfully kept Parker from going where he wanted to go. Parker ended up scoring only 16 points in the game while committing 5 turnovers against 4 assists. The Spurs, suddenly without their main rudder, tried to compensate by running the offense through Ginobili, but by the 2nd half it was too late. OKC had run up the score, the Spurs were wavering, so Gregg Popovich raised the white flag. He would not burn his aging veterans' legs in a blowout loss, and the Thunder cruised home to victory.
The Spurs' armor had been pierced.
Game 4: Is This Something?
We all new/hoped the Spurs' winning streak would have to end at some point, and it so happened to be Game 3. How much did Popovich leave on the table? Was the game an anomaly, and were they about to right the ship and then cruise to the Finals? Most importantly, if the Thunder could not follow up their Game 3 performance for a win, as great as it was, it would all be for naught because they would have to return to San Antonio down 3-1.
The Thunder thought they had a formula, but would it actually work?
As it turns out, the formula does work.
OKC once again held Parker to 12 points on 5-15 shooting, and this time even went to work on Manu as well, as Ginobili only managed 13 points on 4-7 shooting. Cat was in the bag, right? Not exactly.
Old timer Duncan and young blood Kawhi Leonard helped mount a comeback in the 2nd half, and before we knew it, the Thunder were clinging to a 2-3 possession game. Suddenly all of those fears that haunted us from last last season came flooding back. Would the offense stagnate and disappear? Would the young Thunder players lose their nerve? Was this series about to tilt irreversibly?
The Thunder had plan in mind, and more specifically, a play. It was a play designed to spring Durant loose and allow the team's leader to evaluate and make the right decisions. Durant answered the bell by making the right decision time and time again, and as it turned out, the right decision was calling his own number. Durant scored 16 straight points in the 4th quarter (18 overall) and the Spurs could never get close enough to overtake the Thunder.
The best players play their best when the lights are brightest, the stage is biggest, and the stakes are highest. Durant reached the level he HAD to reach in order to keep his team in the series, and the end result was a 2-2 series tie headed back to San Antonio.
Game 5: Script Flipped
When a series is tied at 2-2, Game 5 becomes everything. It is a step away from a close-out moment. It puts the losing team in a must-win situation.It is the chance for the lower seeded team to change the entire complexion of the series. In this game, the Spurs were finally reeling, having lost two consecutive games in OKC. Their record-setting offense had fallen off the rails and they were looking for their home crowd to get things on track once again. Meanwhile, the Thunder's confidence was growing by the game, because they seemed to have found the key to stopping the Spurs. Which way would the needle tip in the end?
Once again, the Thunder applied the formula that had worked so well, challenging Tony Parker all over the court. The Spurs' role players were slowly disappearing from the series, unable to get the open looks that they had had all season. Because of this, an even larger burden fell upon the Spurs' big 3 of Manu, Parker, and Duncan. Entering the 3rd quarter trailing by 8, the Spurs did the same thing they did at the end of Game 1. Ginobili started hitting his shots from every spot on the court, the Thunder looked confused and lost, and we began to wonder if the Spurs were going to regain the momentum. The Spurs turned an 8 point deficit into a six point lead in just over 6 minutes of play.
The Thunder responded by going to their own 'big 3' again and again. Over the remaining 5 minutes of play, the trio scored 18 of the team's 20 points, clamped down on the Spurs' offense once more, and when the quarter ended, Durant nailed a buzzer-beating jumper that pushed the lead back up to 9. The Thunder had withstood the Spurs charge and not only resisted it, but actually increased their lead.
All of these momentum shifts and lead changes set the stage for one final moment. Dagger, inserted.
Time for the knockout blow.
Game 6: The Best Team Materializes
Almost everything in sports comes full circle. I think this is so because in the small universe that professional ballers occupy, they will end up seeing the same teams, players, and scenarios again and again. Earlier in the season, twice the Spurs had run out to big leads in the 1st halves of games and skillfully fended off the Thunder comeback attempts. The Spurs were about to do the same thing again, on OKC's home court, and they were going to do it in order to send the series back to San Antonio for a Game 7.
Tony Parker, bottled up since Game 2, morphed back into the Thunder killer of the regular season. He met little resistance in darting in and out of the lane, piling up 21 points and 10 assists in the 1st half alone. Duncan was controlling the paint, the Thunder looked lost again, and the big question was, what happened to that wonderful defense?
An earlier version of these Thunder would have fought gallantly, haphazardly, recklessly, probably would have gotten the lead down to 2 points, and then lost their nerve. Those Thunder teams are no more. THIS Thunder team knew what it had to do.
In the first half of the 3rd quarter, OKC played like the better team that they had become. In a matter of minutes, they erased what was once an 18 point lead, and they did it without even playing perfect basketball. They had solved the Spurs riddle though, and found holes in the Spurs defense time and time again. Sefolosha once again started to lock up Parker, and Parker's amazing 1st half was soon a distant memory as he only managed 2 points in the 3rd and 6 points in the 4th. Outside of Stephen Jackson, the Spurs' bench players were practically catatonic. When Durant nailed a 3-pointer to give the Thunder their fist lead since the opening moments of the game, the writing was on the wall. The Spurs did not have enough in their reserves to play at the level the Thunder had risen to.
Nothing is easy though, and the Spurs went down swinging. Jackson, Duncan, and Parker all continued to put points on the board, even as the Thunder slowly pulled away with superior athleticism, shot-making, and energy. The Thunder put the final moments of the Spurs' season in the record books with both the older (Fisher) and the younger (Harden) hitting key shots that put the game out of reach. When Harden secured a final rebound that all but sealed it, Durant ran and embraced...nay, fell into...the arms of his family at court side. He had played all 48 minutes of the game, carried his team throughout, and it was finally at this moment when he felt the need to let his family carry him, if only for a few seconds.
The comeback was complete.
III. The Ideas
I've had the good fortune of watching the NBA for a long time, over a quarter century. My eyes have witnessed a lot of great basketball, and it didn't matter whether they were 10 year old eyes watching Larry BIrd, 20 year old eyes watching Michael Jordan, or 30 year old eyes watching Tim Duncan, I had learned to recognize greatness when it presented itself. I was not able to watch as much Spurs basketball this year as the guys from PtR, but I watched them enough to know that I was observing something I had not seen in a very long time.
The Spurs had the same essence of the "7 seconds or less" Suns from the mid-'00's, engaging the offense at a lightning quick pace and running high screen and rolls all day as Steve Nash/Tony Parker used his big men and his shooters like toy army soldiers. The difference though was that unlike the Suns, the Spurs had three seasoned veterans in Ginobili, Parker, and Duncan, all who understood intrinsically what the Spurs were trying to accomplish on offense at all times. The mind-meld allowed the team to go from quarters 1 through 4 and never suffer any sort of offensive letdown, because they all knew how to make the offense go. Duncan and Manu were nearing the ends of their respective careers to be sure, but the emergence of Parker as the perfect engine for the Spurs offense made each of Duncan and Manu's job both easier as well as more efficient.
I am reminded of a quote uttered by the great, late John Wooden, who said, "Be quick, but don't hurry." That quote seemed to encapsulate, to me at least, what the Spurs offense was all about. Everything, whether it was the initial engagement, the dribble-drive, the kicks, or the ball rotation, everything happened fast. As fast as it went though, the Spurs were never rushed in what they were trying to do, because they always knew where the ball was supposed to go. At its finest, the offense was breathtaking to behold and I felt like I was watching a latter day version of the 1986 Celtics, who likewise had a great understanding of how to create space, mismatches, and open shots for everyone.
In short, the Spurs' offense during the second half of 2012 and through 10 games of the playoffs was the best team offense I had seen in some 25 years. And as much as I wanted the Thunder to compete, when I thought about their team in that historical context, I did not see a reasonable way to win 4 games. After the Game 2 debacle, I wrote, "The Spurs play Spurs basketball better than the Thunder play Spurs basketball." In other words, no matter how well OKC was able to play fast, their best at that pace would never be enough to overtake the Spurs when that style of play was the dominant characteristic. When this series started, the Spurs were the superior team. Even now after watching how it unfolded, I still believe that to be true.
So what happened?
In retrospect, I made one oversight in considering the Spurs in light of those '86 Celtics. As great as these Spurs looked, they were lacking one thing. In 1986, we called that one thing, "Larry Bird."
In other words, the reason why those Celtics were able to play at such a high level was not just because they had a perfected offense. It was also because they also owned one of the greatest players of all time who could raise his game at will depending on the circumstances. These Spurs, wonderful as they are, have future Hall of Famers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Those players are great, but they are not transcendant. The Spurs' leader, Tim Duncan, is arguably the greatest power forward of all time and was once that transcendant player. Unfortunately, Father Time has eaten away at his skills and athleticism and Tim cannot do those things that he did in the 2003 or 2005 FInals. Duncan could no longer rescue the team when things got tough.
On the other end of the court, OKC had the best player in the series in Kevin Durant. The question I raised early on was, can one player be great enough, in the likeness of Michael Jordan in '93, to actually carry a lesser team to a win over a greater team? I didn't know if Durant could, but I really wanted to see him try. Durant responded by getting better and better as the series went along, and that was incredible to watch, even though I kind of knew it wouldn't be enough in the end.
What really changed the trajectory of the series though was when the young Thunder team, led by 23 and 22 year olds, actually adopted the Spurs' way of offense almost on the fly, and they matched that offense with better defense than the Spurs could muster. Suddenly OKC was the team making the extra pass, hitting the open shot, grabbing the key offensive rebound, and executing better in the 4th quarter. Meanwhile, the Spurs' role players had wilted under the pressure (except of course for Stephen Jackson, who was making love to it all series long) and San Antonio turned into a 3-man show, the very model that the Thunder were abandoning in order to compete with the Spurs. On top of this, the Thunder seemed to maintain the proper perspective on how to win games in the playoffs, and especially when facing a series deficit - one game at a time. Meanwhile, as I was perusing Pounding the Rock, I came across this quote offered up in the comments after Game 2:
"It’s a great run, but we’re only worried about the next two wins in this series," Duncan said (when asked about the winning streak). "That’s all that really matters at this point. If that makes it 22 in a row, that’d be great. We’re just worried about getting these next two wins."
That attitude is why I like the Spurs’ chance to get to 22, then 26. It’s the same take-care-of-business approach that permeated a brief locker room conversation between Leonard and Gary Neal as they dressed following the game.
"Two games down, two games to go," Neal said.
"Six more," Leonard said.
It was when I read that that I considered the Spurs might be in trouble if they had to rely on their role players to stay competitive. The right attitude can never be "six more." It has to be "one more." And then "one more." And "one more" again. Because what happens if the team loses? What then? The fabric of the foundation begins to crumble, and that is precisely what we saw out of players like Neal, Leonard, and Bonner.
This amazing flip-flop in team personalities meant one thing: the Spurs, who started out the series as the better team, had been supplanted by the Thunder as the better team mid-stream, both mentally and performance-wise. This reversal has happened before, but I have never seen it happen to a team that was head and shoulders above everyone else. This change was a first.
By the time Game 6 rolled around the dual metamorphosis was complete. An air of inevitability had overtaken the series that suddenly the Spurs, as great as they might play for stretches, were simply not good enough to win anymore. Think about that - the team that most NBA fans were speaking of in historic terms had turned into the team that was not good enough to hold an 18 point lead. They went from Jazz/Clipper/Thunder destroyers to a team that, from head coach on down, looked defeated long before the final horn sounded.
Kevin Durant, leading his team of hungry, aggressive, and young players, consumed the Spurs' essence, digested it, and then spit out the husk.