Gregg Popovich had that "here we go again" look on his face as the throng of reporters gathered to ask him questions on media day at the Spurs' practice facility. Most of the interrogation process was centered on the query, "what happened?" Why did this team, after winning 20 consecutive games, fall apart on both sides of the ball to end a season that seemed destined for an NBA Finals appearance?
"There was an identity theft that took place in that playoff," Pop said. "Oklahoma City, I believe, learned from (us) and played like we did, sharing the ball and trusting their teammates. And we lost our identity.
"We want to make sure we understand that and get that back."
I pay $15 a month to Wells Fargo to protect my identity, and I'm glad I do. A few months ago, someone in Florida somehow managed to charge $75 to my card six different times. The bank refunded my money within a week or so, but I'd have preferred this protection to involve some sort of missile-like object colliding with the offender's vehicle in a SAM site scenario. At the very least (since I'm with Wells Fargo) perhaps a prospector in a covered wagon towed by reindeer-horses could have flown out of nowhere to flatten the son of a biscuit who decided to mess with my account. The point of this story is there's a way to protect yourself from the theft of your identity, but in a situation like the Spurs faced, it's going to take more than San Antonio's aging core to accomplish.
It's not like it wasn't obvious. The Spurs' game was night-and-day different from Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals to the final four games of the series. In those first two games in San Antonio, the ball was moving, the pace was fast and players like Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha supposedly didn't have the requisite set of skills or athletic ability to keep up with the supposed juggernaut dressed in silver and black. Then the offense went from a humming engine to one with a banana stuffed in its tailpipe.
Looking at a 2-0 deficit, the Thunder learned from its opponents; OKC even said as much. These ultra-talented, youthful, soon-to-be NBA Finalists said they had learned from the old, been-there-done-that Spurs by watching film of those first two games. (Ugh, video cameras.) Oklahoma City averaged a league-low 18.2 assists per game during the regular season, an oft-criticized stat for a team whose detractors didn't believe in the mainly one-on-one approach of superstars Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. (James Harden is believed by most to be this team's best playmaker, though much of his time is spent coming off the bench in a scorer's role with one or both of the team's other two stars off the court.) The Thunder averaged 18.5 assists per game to the Spurs' 24.5 over the first two games of the series, a number on par with that to which we had become accustomed.
But that number changed quickly as Oklahoma City began moving the basketball at an unfamiliar pace. Its 22.5 assists to San Antonio's 19.5 over the final four games was not only a nine-dime swing, but it represented the aforementioned theft of identity that Popovich referred to.
The diminishing assist rate for San Antonio became a direct result of a single factor: the San Antonio role players, who at times carried the team through the regular season, faded from sight. Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal (I won't even mention Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair) headlined the group of Spurs who basically disappeared during the biggest moments of the season. And for a team whose stars are aging and no longer able to expend 40-plus minutes of playoff-type energy, that lack of contribution is destructive against a team like the Thunder.
"We're still feeling the pain of that loss. When you're in the conference finals and you're up (2-0) and you don't get it done, that hurts. They're a heck of a team, but that doesn't take the hurt away," Pop continued on media day. "I think we still all feel it very, very much, and that's a good thing. We've got to use that as fuel. But that was a very, very, very tough loss. We think about it now, as we have all summer long, and it's our job to see what we can do to combat that youth and that talent.
"We've got some ideas and we'll see what happens."
Now, let's be fair. Duncan, Ginbobili and Parker are not Durant, Harden and Westbrook. At least not anymore. When you have a core of superstars with that kind of talent at such a young age, it's much easier to thrive off the sheer attention they require from a defense. While Parker is arguably still in his prime and playing at the highest level of his career, Duncan and Ginobili are battling to keep up the pace for an entire season. I'm not saying the team's elder statesmen haven't been special, because they have. They have defied the aging process to a certain extent, especially Duncan. At 36 and 35 years old, respectively, Tim and Manu are once again giving the Spurs a chance to win. That's all you can ask from a team that hasn't sniffed the lottery since Duncan's arrival in the River City nearly 16 years ago. The Big 3 can still play at a high level, but unlike OKC that triumvirate can't sustain the same pace for 40-plus minutes every night.
San Antonio's identity was, and still is, defined by the inclusion of ancillary players in a constantly moving offensive system. Its depth and overall level of talent could still make it the favorite to complete the regular season with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. But we now know from experience that depth usually matters little in the postseason. Winning in the playoffs - especially Larry O'Brien trophies - is all about star-power, something the Spurs still have in a well-aged form. (The Dallas Mavericks' title run was an anomaly by recent standards.) No, Duncan can't beat you one on one the way he used to (though you better not sleep on him) and Ginobili won't explode through the paint the way he could at 25, but they're easily effective enough to create opportunities for their teammates. And therein lies San Antonio's persona.
The Spurs' most effective style of play was taken from them and duplicated by Oklahoma City in early June of 2012. And not unlike the brief inconvenience I experienced, this theft was temporary. The right system is in place for San Antonio to thrive with the personnel involved, but it's going to be up to the youthful role players to back up their veteran leadership and convert on the opportunities afforded them throughout the upcoming season. San Antonio must move the ball to beat the NBA's best, but this gameplan is only worth it if the recipients of the passes involved are hitting shots. If they aren't, the Big 3 will once again be forced to win on their own. Despite past success for the Spurs in this capacity, this is a recipe for disaster against the Thunder, Lakers or Heat with the current roster.
If the shots are falling, the ball will keep moving as a result of instilled confidence. If the ball keeps moving, it'll be nearly impossible for the opposition to dictate the game's tempo. That dictation is the base of this team's personality more than it ever has been before. It's what has separated them from their counterparts who lack equal depth.
So as Duncan and Ginobili work toward one more run at bringing another trophy to San Antonio, the cure to what has ailed them is evident: the Spurs as a whole must hit outside shots when it matters most.
Their identity depends on it.