We are nearing the final regular season match-up between the Thunder and Spurs. Amazingly, after 70+ games of a long regular season, the difference between the two teams is a single game, and if OKC wins tonight and the two teams stay even the rest of the way, OKC takes the #1 seed. Suffice to say, we're really hoping that the Thunder show up tonight.
What though of our counterparts? How is San Antonio holding on, enduring some untimely injuries to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? We turn to SpursfanTN at Pounding the Rock, who sheds some light on the situation and what we can expect from the Spurs here on out.
You can check out my answers to PtR's questions by clicking HERE.
Update: bonus question
I asked J.R. Wilco, the PtR head honcho himself, this question:
Is San Antonio more frightened or less frightened of Derek Fisher than OKC?
Keeping in mind that the Spurs have to live with this play for all of infamy, and because of it they have coined a phrase that that PtR invokes before every single basketball game, this was his response:
The thing I am most frightened of is Derek Fisher on the floor of a tight basketball game in the playoffs with very few seconds on the clock.
More than anything else, that is what terrifies me.
Now...doesn't that make you feel better?
1) I've noticed that Pounding the Rock has had an occasion this past week to do a bit of freaking out, especially after that Heat loss. Where do you think the Spurs are as a team right now? Are they waiting in earnest for the playoffs, or hobbling toward the regular season finish line?
To be honest, I don't know. The Spurs seemed to be playing great, and then Tony went down with injury. They played great for a few games after that, but then things started to deteriorate. The offense doesn't flow as freely, passes aren't sharp, screens and picks are sloppy, guys aren't hustling back on d or hustling into position on the motion offense, are floating away from and losing their man on D, spacing looks bad with two guys standing almost on top of each other, both watching the ball, seemingly oblivious to the other guy, and all in all, we look pathetic a lot of nights.
I've been thinking for about two weeks that the team looks tired. Like every game is the fourth in five nights on a road trip. We've had a lot of home games recently, so maybe Tony Parker's been holding too many all night bashes? Who knows? It feels like we are hobbling for the finish line. We come out against the best team in the league (or at least the team with the best record), and play uninspired. Um, really? And they beat us with their extras. And we're fighting injuries - or else we're being extra careful to nurse little injuries in preparation for the playoffs. So, I'm HOPING that we are just waiting for the playoffs to start. Although, there is this growing suspicion in the back of my mind, that CIA Pop, might be angling for the number 2 seed in the West, because he likes the potential first and/or second round matchup, at the same time, mucking up our offense because these later games are the ones from which teams are going to be pulling tape. And then another part of my mind thinks that is crazy talk. Still . . . .
2) Injuries are obviously a concern for every team, but the Spurs have to pay particularly close attention. Tony Parker is coming back from an injury, Manu Ginobili could miss a month of action, and Tim Duncan is still OLD (as Pop likes to say). How healthy is this team really, and can their offensive system carry them through at least 2 rounds of the playoffs?
I think the killer offense is still there. We're just not running it. And I think it is a plan. We've been running a lot of isolations for Tim and Tiago. We've been running PnR for a lot of guys that aren't very good at PnR. It's frustrating for me to watch, but at the same time, Pop said at the beginning of the year that they have tried to add some things to the offense to make them a tougher out, and I can't help but wonder if they are just running a lot of variations right now, to try to get those polished, and will reintroduce the plays that they already know that work when playoff time comes around.
3) The Spurs have looked to be the better team this season against the Thunder. They execute better on offense, have a better defensive plan, and much better balance in their roster. However, the same could be said about last season, and we saw what happened in the playoffs. Do you think this year will be different, given especially that James Harden is now in Houston?
Yeah, I would agree that we saw the same thing last year. This team relies so much on system though, that keeping the team together for another year means so much more than it would to most any other team. And last year was a first year with the team for many of them, and the first time in the playoffs, or past the first round for many of these guys. Plus they were destroying teams so thoroughly for so long, they hadn't really faced a lot of adversity. The WCF, game 3 on, was the first time that many of these guys had much pressure to perform in the bright lights. With the season on the line, when the free-flowing offense jammed up, when the game was being played even and the shots they were taking were important, several disappeared, crumbled, froze, and/or choked.
Kawhi is so much better. Green is shooting lights out from 3, and perhaps more importantly, is making much better decisions in the fast break. Both are good defenders. Tiago has been really good. And Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw have been solid, sometimes even clutch. So, yeah, it is similar to last year, but different. This year there are 4 guys not named Duncan, Parker or Ginobili capable of putting up 20 points depending on what the defense is giving up, and a couple of them can create their own shots.
The most important difference, is that the Spurs defense, while middling last year, is now sometimes elite, and averages out at very good. That's on our side. On your side, K-Mart may score as many points as Harden. But he's not Harden. And for the most part the Thunder don't and won't miss Harden. But there are those few times where you need an unconventional, difference making playmaker, that's where he will be missed. If you go back and watch the games from last year's WCF, and look at some of the plays Harden pulled off (things that K-Mart couldn't do), and the difference that it made on the scoreboard, how many of those games do the Thunder win? I'm thinking without Harden, it's Spurs in 6 or 7. I can't predict what is going to happen, that's why we play the games (except in the Eastern Conference), but I think the Spurs aren't going to get a better chance to win the WCF.
4) The Spurs defense has figured out how to handle Durant and Westbrook better than last year. What do you think the keys have been, and do you think that San Antonio can continue to frustrate the Thunder's two most important offensive players?
Um, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Shhhhh. Of course this is my opinion, because for some reason, Pop doesn't consult me regarding defensive schemes. I think the Spurs defensive plan is two-fold. The first is easy to understand. Kawhi and others, become a new set of clothes for KD. They play deny all the way out above the 3 point line. If KD gets the ball, he's almost at half court. They apply pressure all over to try to get the ball OUT of his hands. He is still KD, so nothing works entirely, but wearing somebody else around as a suit of clothes for an entire game, must be . . . wait for it . . . wearing.
The second part is to AVOID frustrating Westbrook. Make it easy for him to take it himself. They want to avoid pressuring him on the outside, and avoid putting him in situations where he feels like he needs to give up the ball. They want the ball in Westbrook's hands. They want to funnel him toward the basket, but cut off access to the basket, leaving him wide open for a jumper in mid-range, while making the outlets less than desirable. He is most effective when he is getting to the basket, or in threatening to get to the basket is able to pass it off, and get others involved. If he gets hot from mid-range, it is a bad day for Spurs fans. But we'd rather have him shoot 20 shots from mid-range (plus all of his other shots) than have KD shoot 20 shots from the locker room. The way the plan has worked, KD seems to get less shots than Westbrook (good for Spurs) and while KD and WB still get their points, the rest of the team doesn't get involved much. At least, that's how it seems to this layman observer. (Pop, I'm here when you need me. (I work cheap.)) Plus Parker probably makes Russell work harder on defense than many of the guards in the league.
5) Who do you think wins tonight? We seem to never get a clean match-up between these two teams this year (injuries, back-to-backs, etc), so how much does it matter? Do the Spurs see this as a must-win to retain the #1 spot, and do you think they really care?
I'm not sure it is a must win to retain the #1 spot, but it would sure help. A lot. If the Spurs win, then they are definitely in control of their own destiny, 2 games up, with 7 or 8 games remaining. They could afford to lose 2 games even if the Thunder win out, and still have #1 seed. So if they win, I think the odds are good they emerge at the top spot.
If the Thunder win, then the teams will be tied in the loss column, and will have split the season series, and I believe the tiebreaker would be conference record. Thunder would have a 2 game lead in the conference record. If the Spurs lose, then the chances of the Thunder passing them for number one are probably about 60/40. Since Pop mostly played the bench against Orlando, it looks like he might have been saving everybody for the Thunder game. (It is this observer's contention that the Spurs bench, coached by Pop, could pretty easily make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. (But to put that in perspective, Pop could probably take me, you and 8 random guys from the bleachers, and coach us to a berth in the NIT tourney.))
But, as I said, with CIA Pop, you never know what is going on. Do you know that Miami and SA haven't played a game against each other with full strength rosters since 2011? You gotta think that isn't a coincidence, but the why of it isn't obvious to me. Parker and Kawhi were out vs. Orlando. That could be to keep them fresh for the Thunder game. Or not. You might see everybody out there, or we might have two or three guys out with "injuries". Honestly, I kinda wonder how many of these 1 game injuries are Pop's response to the Miami debacle. "Hey we tried to be honest and you fined us. So, we have just been having a rash of injuries.
Many thanks to SpursfanTN and check out Pounding the Rock when you have a chance. Their crew and commenters are fantastic.