The Thunder, to the surprise of many still, knocked off the San Antonio Spurs, 4 games to 2. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. I'm actually saying that to myself. We all watched this Thunder team from the outset in the most frustrating fashion. Every step forward that gave us the same feeling the protagonist in the PG-13 movie gets when he thinks he has a shot at the prom queen, immediately followed by Mikey teaching us all a very valuable lesson about follow-up phone etiquette.* They seemed oh so very close to putting it all together only to run into the All-Star break, or deal with injury, or try to help the new trade acquisition fit in, or figure out how to manage the final 2 weeks of the season, and things would just fall apart.
We entered the post-season knowing that Dallas was a favorable match-up, but as that series went on, there was that pesky thing called defense that couldn't seem to hold the line when the situation really called for it. While the Spurs' offense wasn't the same vial of rocket fuel as in years past, they had embarrassed enough teams this season to remind us all that they at all times have their act together. And with a defense as fierce as it has ever been since their older versions of Duncan + D = championship, and featuring the league's only true KD-stopper, how would OKC cope with their inability to maintain consistent focus?
These questions all deserved answers. Answers were delivered. And now we are reminded: the Spurs began this season with a loss to the Thunder. They ended it the same way.
Let us try to make some final sense of it all by using the framework of Eleanor Roosevelt before we finally move on to face the next great challenge in Golden State.
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt
We endeavor to be masters of all three - the people, the events, and the ideas. Here we go.
*20 years later, I still can't re-watch that scene from Swingers and not cringe and yell, "Mikey, please stop calling!!!"
I. The People
Kevin Durant has not looked like Kevin Durant for most of the season. To be sure, he's put up the same kinds of shooting percentages as in years past and his basic metrics have remained the same, but there was an element missing. A fear factor. The kind of thing that certain players possessed - Bird, Jordan, young Kobe, Lebron - that would put the opposition on notice. That no matter where the game stood in the final 6 minutes of regulation, the mere presence of these guys could almost singlehandedly alter the outcome. Durant had this presence in 2013 and 2014, but that is the last we saw of it.
He spent most of the 2015-16 season trying to re-learn how the league had evolved after being absent for barely a season. More threes, more drives to the rim, less of everything else. The numbers mostly didn't change, but KD's fear factor was in stasis. Until game 4.
Game 4 was the first time we saw KD, MVP. The man who was completely in control of his offense. Where, as opposed to the improvisational ability of Westbrook the dragon slayer or Stephen Curry the Miles Davis of the hardwood, Durant is the perfect calculation of his physical attributes, skill, and mental acumen wherever he is on the court. And the beauty of it all? Every single one of us who watched the 2nd half of game 4 knew it. We did. For the first time in the series, Kawhi Leonard did not matter. Only KD.
Who could have predicted that Kanter would become the X-Factor in this series? Anyone? Leading up to it, everyone would have reasonably argued that Serge Ibaka, not Kanter, would be the guy who could have a breakout series. While Ibaka had a meaningful impact, it was the pairing of Kanter and Adams - Stache Bros Inc. - that ultimately tipped the scales in OKC's favor. Even nuttier, it wasn't even about Kanter's offense, as he didn't even average double digit scoring in the series. But rather it was Emmet Brickowski's elite rebounding coupled with his not being terrible on defense that allowed OKC to completely overwhelm the Spurs front line.
In the words of the immortal Clark Griswold, If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am now.
This is the series where the running meme, "Dion's inbounding!" began. Before, we only had the step-back. Now, we know that there is the 10% chance that when Dion inbounds the ball he might slug a defender in the chest to create space. Must watch TV.
Oh, and Dion got the job done, no joke.
This series was supposed to be the one where the rookie college coach was utterly exposed by the game's best coach of the last decade plus. Instead, Donovan deftly moved Popovich into a corner where his only hope was that his three offensive stars would hit enough shots to overcome the Thunder's strategy. Sound familiar?
As improbable as Donovan's coaching experience has been in these playoffs, I think what will get lost amidst all of the noise is that he treated the regular season as a training ground for everybody leading up to this moment. Donovan and company saw something in players like Kanter and Waiters that, not only did he think that he could use, but that the team absolutely needed if they were going to progress through the playoffs. Kyle Singler was given every opportunity as well, but unlike Kanter and Waiters, he never manifested a definable trait or asset that Donovan could plug into his system and extract some value. And I think that's what it comes down to for every successful coach - can you look at your collection of players, find one thing that they do well, and then put them in a position where they can do that one thing to the benefit of the team?
Kanter has an elite post game and rebounding ability. Waiters has playmaking ability and a defensive dog in him. Donovan put those guys in a position to succeed, and not only did they do those things well that they were already good at, but they started to do other things that OKC had not counted on them to do. The net result was an elevation of the bench to where it outplayed the supposedly deeper Spurs bench in a resounding manner, helping to carry OKC to a series win.
And here is one last thing that has been glossed over but absolutely should not - Donovan led the first team in 30 years to suffer a 30+ point defeat in game 1 and then go on to win the series. The last team to do it? The 1985 Magic Johnson-led Lakers over Larry Bird and the Celtics. It is fitting, is it not, that OKC replicated this effort being led by an unparalleled point guard who tied Magic's triple-double regular season mark at 18. Donovan makes the grade in round 2.
Kawhi is a monster on the court. I think that should be obvious to everyone by now, and he was left with the unenviable task of carrying the Spurs down the stretch against an increasingly voracious Thunder defense, and did it about as well as you could ask of anyone not named LeBron. I've loved watching Kawhi play since the first time I saw him step up to KD.
Amidst the annual MVP debate, there is always the discussion, "If you had to start a new team with one player, who would it be?" There are plenty who would pick Kawhi over most, including even Durant this season. Here is my question going forward. To be the foundation of a franchise, you not only have to possess the desire for greatness combined with consistent utility, but you also have to own the locker room. Kawhi has both the desire and the production, but does he have the ability to own the Spurs locker room? Will the man who hardly ever speaks have the ability to get teammates to listen? To follow?
Truthfully, and somberly, we may be about to find out.
So here's a theory for you to disregard...completely.
Manu and his joyful desire to bend the physics of basketball to his own reality is really just the other side of the same coin that bears the visage of Mr. Westbrook.
In other words, I am going to miss Manu a great deal when he finally hangs up his sneakers.
I can't remember who said it, but I think it was a basketball guy. Jerry West, maybe? The quote paraphrased is this: a player should benefit to experience every aspect of a full career, from the early growth, to the physical and mental apex, to the downward decline, to where the game moves on without him.
II. The events
I turned on the game with about 6 minutes left in the 1st quarter. The score was 30-10. I really didn't even need to know much more beyond that; with that score, I pretty much knew everything that both had transpired and would transpire. I could have switched it off at that point and practically predicted the final score.
Unfortunately for me, I had to recap the game and stay with it to the bigger end. There really wasn't even any analysis to it; the scheme was flawed and the effort was entirely missing. It was the absolute best of the Spurs, flawless in every way, and the absolute worst of the Thunder.
How do you go from a game one blowout loss to winning a clutch game 2 on the road? Well, how did the Mavericks do it?
In the words of Steven Adams, the biggest difference was:
"We came out and actually tried. That's pretty much it. We actually tried this time."
This game will be remembered as "The Russell Westbrook Experience, Part 1." Kind of like Guns n Roses' "Use Your Illusion I" but if Slash suddenly forgot how to solo. Memorable, yet flawed and ultimately incomplete. You know, I hate it when pop writers use music albums to express sports analogies, so I have no idea where I'm going with this.
We shall remember this game as the night when joy returned to OKC. We had been waiting all season long for the moment when the Slim Reaper emerged, and emerge he did. After falling behind by double digits, the moment of reckoning had arrived. Either OKC was going to find itself in the next 24 minutes, or the Spurs were going to take a 3-1 lead back home with the chance to close out. And for 24 minutes, it was the first time Durant looked like, well, himself.
Just like in 2012, this is the game where everything shifted. While many people will remember with frustration the two calls at the end of the game that the NBA concluded were missed calls in the Thunder's favor, it overlooks the thing that was really happening - the Thunder finally had found their defensive rhythm. Even though their offense still went in starts and stops, it was the defense that was beginning to wear down San Antonio, who was only able to manage 19 points in the deciding quarter. It was the 2nd half of this game which bled into game 6, deciding the series.
After watching Russ in the game 6 post-game afterglow smartly adjust his giant gold 'W' dangling from his neck and adjusting to expose just the right amount of chest behind his black pajama tops, I have come to realize that one of the great unknowns in life will forever be...what did Prince think about Westbrook???
III. The ideas
This portion is difficult to write because every evaluation and sentiment that was wrapped up within this series has already been written. I would encourage everyone to spend some time at PtR to get the full effect of how that fanbase views Tim Duncan the player and the individual. He is uncommon in every sense of the word.
What was most uncommon about Duncan in my opinion is how he seamlessly shifted from being one of the top 2-3 players in the NBA in the first half of his career to becoming the best teammate in the league during the second half of his career, enabling his talented teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to shine. He also infamously said to LeBron James after the Spurs had whipped the Cavs in the 2007 Finals, winning their 4th title in 8 years, "Thanks for letting us win this one. This is going to be your league in a little while." And then Duncan proceeded to play 10 more years.
Here is the thing that gets me though, and it is something I always remind myself and always say to others when we reflect on the Thunder's performance on a year to year basis. Winning a title is remarkably, brutally, hard. And I think that after we witness the Warriors' run after the past two seasons, scorching the earth wherever they go, that it has somehow become easy. To be sure, Golden State can make it look easy, but only after being collective failures for 40 years. That's right, the last time the Warriors won a championship, it was the year before I was born in April of 1976 (alert Spurs fans might draw a reference here). Think about that. The Thunder have been in OKC for 8 seasons. They were bad for two of those, and since then have truly modeled themselves after big brother Spurs, enjoying winning seasons and playoff runs. Success can come and go in a variety of forms, but one thing that should be obvious is that to reach the top of the mountain, even if you are the best in the league over the course of decades, you may only be the last man standing once or twice.
Tim Duncan will retire with 5 rings (probably) over the course of nearly 2 decades. LeBron James, if my predictions run true, will ultimately finish his career with a Finals record of about 2-6. Larry Bird, one of the 5 best players of all time, only won the title 3 times. I believe that it is through this lens that we revere Michael Jordan and Bill Russell differently; that when they hit their peak, they stayed there and owned the league until they were finished.
So what keeps a team together? What has kept Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Matt Bonner together for so long? After all, in between championships 4 and 5, nearly a decade had passed.
I think the answer is in something that Ginobili said after being asked about his off-season decision:
We all enjoy playing with each other. I'm so proud of having played with those guys for so many years and winning so many games, and even playing with the new guys. If there's a reason why you always want to come back and keep being part of this, [it's] because of the amazing chemistry, the good times and the good people that you play with and spend time with. It's not always about winning a game or winning a championship. But you learn from losses, and it's important to enjoy every day. Being a part of this team, I'm very proud of it, even if sometimes it doesn't go our way.
That is the perspective that only a life lived can bring, because truth be told, most of us will encounter with regularity the feeling that the Spurs had after falling to the Thunder. Not failure necessarily, but a disappointment that we couldn't get a little farther in something, whether it be our career, our relationships, raising our children, or even something as trivial as learning to play Van Halen's Eruption. What kept the Spurs core together? As Manu says, it is because of the good times and the good people that you play with and spend time with. And when Manu asserts that he has spent time with them, he isn't kidding, as they have all spent nearly the entirety of their careers and a majority of their waking lives working together.
A good friend of mine whom I like to refer to as Sir Christopher the Kindhearted once said to me that in a Heavenly economy, money, houses, vacations, and stuff don't matter. People matter. Spend more time caring about people and you will watch your own economy and value system transform. And I think that's what Manu says so well, and that's what Tim Duncan meant after they won their last championship when he said that winning in 2014 made losing in excruciating fashion in 2013 worth while. How they were able to learn from their failure in 2013 and turn in one of the most memorable Title runs in NBA history. And if I had to guess, it is also the reason why Duncan gave us the saddest expression of the playoffs, and why Pop was so salty afterward. It's not always about the win. Sometimes it's about something much more. Because soon, if not next month or even next year, but soon, they will all set down their legacies and move on with whatever life next gives them. Which is, of course, life.
You might think this portion was written about the Spurs.