2014 NBA Playoffs: Fraternizing with the Rock Part II, discussing Thunder vs Spurs and game 3

Pounding the Rock's JR Wilco and Sherman continue their ongoing discussion about the Thunder and Spurs in the WCF. Check it out!

This is a continuing discussion between Pounding the Rock's J.R. Wilco and myself. We have divided our pre-game 3 discussion into 2 parts. You can find Part 1 at Pounding the Rock here.

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J.R. Wilco

[...] I just watched the post-game presser for Durant and Westbrook, and - yikes, was the press hard on those guys. Is it like that after every loss? Every tough spot?

J.A. Sherman

That's good insight on what can happen when a franchise finds the right coach and the right player to anchor everything while being willing to trust them to evolve, even as more often than not a season does NOT end in a championship. It's definitely lightning in a bottle; how many times across the entire sports landscape can we see something similar happen, in part or in full? The handful that I can think of would be Phil Jackson/Michael Jordan, Pat Riley/Magic Johnson, Jerry Sloan/John Stockton, and maybe in the NFL with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.

Yes, the post-game 2 presser with Durant and Westbrook was tough to watch, but I would counter with two positives:

1) Yeah, it's only sports....but isn't that the press's job? The natural relationship between the press and their subject matter should be naturally adversarial. Granted, within sports, the two parties depend on each other, both to produce content as well as offer a microphone for a player/coach to say his peace, which furthers the overall business model. However, without getting too political or anything, we've also got ample evidence, both in sports journalism as well as in the media at large, of what happens when a media company becomes too vested to the story's outcome. I'll leave that there, but suffice to say that when media-subject interaction is contentious, that's actually a sign that the process is working.

2) As uncomfortable as it may seem to watch your players get grilled like that, my hat goes off to KD and Westbrook for a willingness to put themselves into that position knowing what the outcome will be. That is a big part of what leadership is about - accountability - and for two 25 year-olds to accept it both in good times and bad bodes well not just for the future of their team but the NBA overall. They took their medicine.

Now let's just hope that medicine produces a positive benefit.

My question for you - can it? I'm going to toss out something that may sting a little. As great as this Spurs franchise has been, there have also been, shall we call it..."hiccups" in the process. The 2012 collapse is a relevant example, but the 2011 loss to the Grizzlies also stands out. These might be anomalies, but for a team that is led by Pop and anchored by Duncan, it makes them all the more striking. Do you have any theories as to why they have occurred, and whether or not there is a potential for a repeat in this series?

JRW
Yes, I have a theory.

San Antonio is so good because the Spurs are the best prepared team in basketball. I see no other way to explain the fact that with aging stars and a bunch of role players they continue to redefine themselves and turn in one amazing season after another. Pop has a system into which he's able to fit players that the team can identify from afar, acquire, and plug-in. But he can also change his system in order to make better use of the players on his roster -- and he can do this with a relatively short turnaround. But it's not immediate, and that turns out to be a really big deal.

Popovich's system relies on an understanding of NBA defenses that allows him to prepare every individual player to make decisions based on what defense is in front of him and what play is being run. Those accumulated decisions will yield, if acted on quickly enough, the open looks, uncontested jumpers and lay ups that are the mark of San Antonio's motion attack.

But what happens when what has been prepared for, isn't what the team sees?

Well, in the WCF of 2012, OKC didn't just make the kinds of tweaks that are seen in the regular-season from teams who are trying to win a single game against the Spurs. They made extreme adjustments that sometimes involved bringing rotations and double teams from incredibly odd places. Places that it was obvious the Spurs did not expect.

Time and again the Spurs looked hesitant. Over and over they made bad passes that ruined the flow of the offense at best, and became turnovers cashed in for instant points by the Thunder at worst. They went from being a team that had cruised to one of the four longest win streaks the NBA has ever seen, to looking like five guys thrown together in a pickup game that had never played with each other before.

The Spurs were running their offense as well as they could. The problem was that they couldn't run their offense as they had been trained to do under the circumstances that OKC forced. The openings they were expecting to drive into didn't appear, and the players who were supposed to be available to get the ball to in order to move to the next progression were covered.

Certainly the Grizzlies team of 2011 and the Thunder of two years ago had a number of things in common: young players who have tons of athleticism, speed to burn, and the energy to play all day. But those are just nice things to have; mere tools to be wielded. In addition to all of these things, there has to be a defensive scheme put in place that effectively trumps what the Spurs are ready for. But no defense is perfect. Every time you take something away from an offense you give something else back.

Two years ago, Pop and his coaches could have made tweaks that would have taken advantage of the Thunder's schemes. Maybe they even came up with them the day after that first loss in Game 3. Problem is, they didn't have an entire season to perfect those reads so that the players could be comfortable and fluid to the point where everyone was operating without thinking.

Without the time to implement those tweaks, they had to go with the best they had. In Manu and Tony, the Spurs have players who are able to think on their feet and freelance into creating easy buckets for themselves and others, but they are not a team full of those players. The team needs the system, and the system needs time.

Which brings us to today, and the current series between the Thunder and the Spurs. The question of whether San Antonio could drop four of the next five games is this: Has Popovich been able to adequately prepare the Spurs for anything that OKC can throw at them? Without being able to see the future, every fan is free to come up with their own answer to that question. But seeing as how the system has been continuing to evolve this whole time, my guess is that they're ready.

Even if Ibaka does play

[Much of the above section was originally published (in a slightly different form) two years ago, just after the 2012 WCF.]

Sherm
Well put, and I think a big reason why we've witnessed it is because of the commitment of key individuals to the franchise. I'd be interested to know from you whether Manu, Parker, or Duncan have had to deal with the kinds of incessant questioning that Durant & Westbrook have about if/when they will leave OKC. I believe that Durant is cut from the same cloth as Duncan and really wants to play out his career in one place and be in a system and have that kind of relationship that Duncan has with Pop and enjoy the fruits of the product they can create over the course of a decade or two. But sometimes it is almost as if the onlookers are wishing against it. Maybe it's simply a defense mechanism to prepare them for heartache if Durant or Westbrook ever feel like they have to make a "Decision."

I agree that the Spurs are better prepared now than they were in 2012, but I also think there is another factor that was at work in that series. It is something that I addressed with Steve Perrin of Clips Nation shortly after game 1 of the OKC/LAC series. After the Clippers embarrassed the Thunder on their home court, Perrin wrote to me something to the effect of, "you guys realize you're in trouble, right?" And my response was, "yeah, maybe. But the Thunder have a very unusual ability to adapt and learn on the fly." That too is what happened in 2012. They actually learned to play Spurs ball as the series went on, and by the end of it were doing Spurs-like things against the team that was previously using these tools against them. It was incredible to watch. We saw it again vs the Clippers. It might happen again Sunday night.

We Thunder fans can only hope.

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