The Thunder finally earned the right to negotiate at the Spurs' dinner table by knocking them off in last year's Western Conference Finals in six exhilarating games. Heading into the offseason, we Thunder fans thought we had finally put those old guys out to pasture and OKC was ready to take over the world.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. One thing that never seems to change is Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his stalwart GOAT, Tim Duncan. Here they are again, knocking off the Thunder in the first game of the season on a Tony Parker buzzer beater, and here they are again invading the Chesapeake Arena looking to keep the Thunder on notice.
To get ready for tonight's game, we once again turn to the great Spurs site Pounding the Rock and one of their lead writers, J. Gomez. This time around, he and I had more of a conversational flow, so we're posting the first half of our discussion on WTLC, but for you to catch the end, you have to jump over to PtR.
Without further ado, let's get this thing underway. Part I is here, and when you're ready for Part II, you can go here.
Welcome to Loud City: OKC and the Spurs met in the first week of the season and Tony Parker helped exact a small measure of revenge on the post-Harden Thunder. Where have the Spurs gone since that early win and what did that game show you about the two teams?
Pounding the Rock: That win was sweet but I think I speak for all the Spurs' faithful when I say that it wasn't exactly revenge. An early season win is no match for a playoff series.
The Spurs have been bitten by the injury bug since then, losing Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson for extended periods. Even without both their small forwards, the Spurs have been able to stay afloat thanks to their depth. Boris Diaw, if you can believe it, slid down to SF and Danny Green and even former first round pick and D-League call up James Anderson have given the team some quality minutes at small forward. On Monday against the Thunder, Stephen Jackson is supposed to return, which is fantastic since Kevin Durant would just destroy Green in the mid-post. Leonard is questionable but might be available as well.
So as you see, it's tough making any conclusive statements about the Spurs since they haven't been healthy enough to actually gauge their potential. Now Manu Ginobili is questionable after getting a thigh contusion against the Celtics, so even if Jack and Kawhi return, it might be a while before we actually know how good this team is. And that's not even taking into consideration Gregg Popovich's lineup experiments. Parker and Duncan have been fantastic but until the supporting cast is healthy and Pop settles on a rotation we won't know if the Spurs are a great team or just a good one that will get exposed in the playoffs.
How about your guys? I know Kevin Martin has been playing well for the Thunder and I'm sure you are tired of discussing the subject by now but, please, indulge me. Do you think losing James Harden would hurt OKC in a potential match-up against the Spurs in the playoffs or do you think the Thunder are still the favorite against the Silver and Black?
WTLC: The Thunder's losing James Harden to the Rockets mere days before the season began had massive ripple effects across the OKC fan landscape. So much of who we thought the Thunder was as an organization and who Harden was as a person were suddenly called into question. Wasn't OKC about continuity, taking care of its young players, and keeping its core together? Wasn't Harden happy as the Thunder's answer to Ginobili and competing for championships every year? The change certainly effected the Thunder over the first two weeks, as every player, especially Kevin Martin, was scrambling to try and figure out what the best style of play was.
Since then, the Thunder have found their groove as a greatly improved offensive team, building on the momentum they found during last year's Western Conference Finals. While OKC still falls short of the way the Spurs offense operates, the ball movement, offensive IQ, and ease of scoring opportunities have greatly increased. Martin is actually an exceptional fit for this metamorphosis. Yes, Harden is a tremendous player and he created all sorts of problems for the Spurs, but he was still a ball-dominant offensive player who had to wait his turn between Durant and Westbrook. Martin nearly replicates Harden's offense, but does it in a remarkably efficient manner where he does not need the ball in his hands to find scoring opportunities.
From a pure scoring standpoint, I think Martin fits the bill. However, where he (as well as the entire Thunder 2nd unit) falls short is in consistently creating offensive opportunities for secondary players the way the Spurs bench does. OKC must continue to work to develop its secondary bench scorers if they are to keep up with the pace the Spurs are setting (yet again).
Next question - We've gone through another "That's so Popovich!" moment this season in regards to the Heat game. How did that scenario look to the Spurs faithful and does it actually help or hurt the team, long term?
PtR: Oh, the whole Restgate thing. I personally didn't think it was a big deal. Pop had done it multiple times in the past and no one complained too much. But this was a nationally televised game, so "substantial sanctions" followed. We had a good time with it, for the most part, just making fun of the ridiculousness of it all but everyone had an opinion and it got to a point where we, or at least I, wanted nothing to do with the subject, especially after hearing a lot of misplaced righteous indignation from both sides. Bottom line is, Pop did what he thought was best for his team. He should have been a little more tactful about it and he probably will be in the future because even for an NBA franchise, $250,000is a lot of money.
As for whether it helped or not, Spurs fans have a lot of respect and trust for Pop to the point where nobody really questions if what he does is good or bad. Honestly, I think he was smart about it: win the easy games and give the guys that had been logging a lot of minutes on the road the night off against a Miami Heat team that is amazingly good at home. The rested Spurs beat the Grizzlies after that, so I guess you can claim it worked. In the long run, Pop limiting guys' minutes during games probably helps more than him sitting his stars for a night, but his players appreciate it when he takes care of them, so as far we see it, he did the right thing.
Speaking of coaches, what's your opinion on Scott Brooks? Some Spurs fans would say he more than held his own against Pop in last season's series. He made adjustments that really paid off. Now he's making it work with a roster that has seen its fair share of turnover and, if the numbers are not deceiving me, is even making Hasheem Thabeet look like an actual NBA player, which might mean he's some sort of wizard. Is it a question of just having a great roster that includes two of the very best players in the league? Or is he a good coach? Can OKC win a title with him at the helm?
For my answer to his question, jump to Pounding the Rock where Gomez and I continue our conversation.