Game 2 Thoughts: Yoda-ball
I'm not saying the 2011-2012 Spurs are the greatest basketball team of all time. But nobody was beating them last night. That was as close to an "A+" game the offense could throw out there for about 2.7 quarters. The Oklahoma City Thunder hustled, tried a myriad of different tactics and coverages, different lineups, and different rotations. None of it mattered at all.
People have been going under screens on the Tony Parker pick-and-roll from the first day he stepped onto an NBA court and nothing has changed over the subsequent 11 years. What was true then remains true now: When Parker's consistently hitting that 19-footer, you're simply not beating the San Antonio Spurs.
A couple of earlier contests
There were two regular season games Game 2 reminded me of, probably our two most important ones of the season.
The first was March 16, at Oklahoma City, a day after they traded for Stephen Jackson. They didn't have him in the lineup yet, Manu was resting his strained oblique, Boris Diaw was still anchored to the Bobcats bench and Tiago Splitter played a whopping three minutes before checking out with a back injury. The Thunder were smarting after the curb-stomping the Spurs handed them in their previous meeting, with Parker running a personal lay-up drill en route to a 42 point, nine assist game, and they were determined, Russell Westbrook especially, into not letting it happen again. They got physical with Parker early, cut off all of his lanes to the rim and hounded his jumper too. None of it mattered.
Parker was like Yoda that night, diagnosing the Thunder's schemes in milliseconds and making the right play time and again. He found DeJuan Blair for easy lay-ins over and over, his corner shooters in the second quarter, and finally some space in the third quarter to score for himself. The Richard Jefferson black cloud of indifferential suck was lifted, the boys all had a bounce in their steps, and the Spurs had 92 points through three quarters on the way to a 114-105 win. That game brought the Spurs within two of the Thunder in the loss column and gave them the regular season tiebreaker, and all of a sudden the idea of our guys running them down for the first seed didn't seem like such a pipe dream.
The second was April 17, at Los Angeles, in the middle of a back-to-back-to-back, where the big three had to convince Pop on the plane to let them play. They were eager to get the rotten taste out of their mouths after the Lakers punked them at home six days prior, with Andrew Bynum in particular beasting them to the tune of 30 rebounds. I think it goes without saying that had the Spurs won that earlier game, or maybe even had a more respectable showing, that the fellas would've taken that roadie off to rest.
Parker came out like a man possessed in the return engagement, exploding for 19 first half points, most of them coming on long twos off the pick and roll where Bynum couldn't get out to him in time. Eventually Duncan and Ginobili joined in the fun and Parker started exploiting the Lakers adjustments and finished the game with 29 points and 13 helpers in a 112-91 rout. That was only the fourth of what is now a 20-game winning streak, but to me that was the night the Spurs announced to the world that they were serious contenders for a ‘chip; not just for the way they dominated their supposed kryptonite Lakers, but because that was the first time Pop gave DeJuan Blair a DNP-CD in favor of giving Splitter and Diaw more run.
The twentieth game
Anyway, back to last night. I have been patiently waiting for the Spurs to break out an "A" game for a good long while. It hadn't happened since Game 2 of the first round against Utah (a game I attended and I have to admit it lost some luster for me because Ginobili scored a whopping four points). You could argue that they came close to that standard for the final three quarters in game 3 against the Clippers, when the score was 85-51, but it's still hard to call the performance an offensive masterpiece when they managed only 96 points and shot 46 percent overall.
After increasingly nervier games at LA and the first one vs. OKC, I woke up yesterday morning thinking, "Man, it'd sure be nice to have a blowout so we wouldn't have to sweat out a fourth quarter."
For most of the night, it looked like my premonition was going to come true, but these young alien freaks refused to go away and there were still some anxious moments in the fourth. I suppose that's how it should be and we'll have to deal with that. It's the Conference Finals, and it's supposed to be hard. To quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."
I don't fault Scotty Brooks for the hack-a-Splitter at all. They needed to do something to break up the flow and the rhythm, before the game really got away from them. Every coach in that situation is looking for that "Marty McSorley illegal stick (ugh) moment." In 1993 the Los Angeles Kings were moments away from going up 2-0 on the road in the NHL Finals, clinging to a 2-1 lead when Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Demers told the refs to check the curvature of McSorley's stick. It was deemed illegal, the Canadiens were awarded a power play which they used to tie up and then they won in overtime. They never looked back and won the series in five games.
The move didn't really net Montreal any points, just as Splitter made enough free throws to keep the margin where it was, but I thought Pop erred in going back to Duncan after Splitter clanked the sixth of his 12 attempts. It brought Duncan back into the game sooner than he's accustomed to, and he was a bit out of sorts, I felt. And then Pop went back to Splitter again to start the fourth and the whole thing looked haphazard and disorganized, like some sort of Vinny Del Negro rotation. I would've preferred to see Splitter finish out the quarter as long as he was making at least half of his freebies, and to me it looked like he was building a solid rhythm at the line, having made three of his last four. He was getting nice arc on the ball (Duncan's attempts were flatter, actually) and shooting them straight.
Brooks went back to small ball in the fourth, just like game 1, but this time the Spurs kind of struggled for a while, with Serge Ibaka back there instead of Kendrick Perkins. I can understand why Ibaka - and all the switching - could cut off some of Parker and Ginobili's penetrations, but for the life of me I don't get why we bailed them out with Duncan meekly posting up way on the baseline instead of closer to the middle, where he could really back the skinnier Ibaka down. Or why not leave out Duncan high and have him attempt 16-foot jumpers, draw Ibaka out to him and then go to the cutters on the back door?
Whatever. Eventually the Spurs figured it out. Green missed four threes, but at least three of those were good looks, I thought. Manu and Tim got a couple of pick-and-rolls to work and later on both Tony and Manu found a few cracks of daylight to the hoop. At least the Spurs big three showed that the Thunder and the Heat don't have a patent on the concept of putting your head down, bullying your way to the basket and getting to the line, and that's important because as much as we gush at all the amazing passing, the hail of threes and the artful layups, you need a certain dose of "nasty" to win it all.
Going forward, what makes me happy is that it will be practically impossible for the Thunder to surprise anyone with their adjustments for game 3. Everyone and their mother knows that Perkins is about to be chained to the bench and that the Thunder will be playing small more often than not, the rest of the way. It's pretty easy to predict that Thabo Sefolosha will get most of Derek Fisher's fourth quarter minutes next time around (especially if Fisher isn't shooting well in quarters 1-3). If Splitter is in the game and there's already four team fouls on the board, then he might as well start practicing his free throw stroke. We see these adjustments coming a mile away, so it's going to be easy for Pop to counter them. In this chess game he's always two steps ahead. We also haven't seen a breakout game from Duncan yet, and I have a feeling he's due for one. I betcha he gets at least 24 points in Game 3.
Defensively there isn't as much to feel good about (particularly for Gary Neal), but you have to think the Thunder stickied their laptops in Game 2. Their big three can't combine for 88 points again, right? Right? Even allowing for the crappiness of their supporting cast, 111 points allowed is way too many and not a winning formula for us. They need to do more to take Harden away, especially when Durant and Westbrook are on the bench. He consistently takes the highest-quality shots of the trio and I'd prefer if anyone but he shot the ball.
One story I think is overblown is how Westbrook is supposedly wrecking the team with his selfishness and that he doesn't pass enough. Westbrook takes maybe three or four horrendous shots per game, but you live with that. He still had eight assists and zero turnovers last night. He's never going to be confused with Steve Nash, but he passes plenty and makes the passes that are there to be made. People get on him because he's a hot-head and he's always got that puss on his face, whereas Durant has that "guy you'd want your daughter to marry" demeanor.
Nobody ever wants to get on Durant, but having watched quite a few Thunder games, here's the truth: He doesn't work nearly as hard on either end of the floor as Westbrook does. Westbrook isn't a quality defender by any means, but at least he usually plays hard even if he doesn't play smart. Durant just sags back and give up shots to anyone who wants to take them. He doesn't like guys being physical with him on either end. He doesn't work hard enough to get open, doesn't run around screens that much and usually if Westbrook does give it to him, it'd be 25 feet out and with a man right on him. There are times where he zips around screens to get the ball, but they're never sustained for more than two or three possessions at a time before he dials it back down.
The more I watch the Thunder, the more sense it makes to me how Durant can play 44 minutes night after night and seemingly never tire. It's because, shockingly for a guy who averages about 30 points a game, he just doesn't do a whole lot out there. LeBron James is really in his own galaxy when it comes to work rate. I'm already having a hard time sleeping thinking about this.
I thought Spurs in six before the series began. Now I'm thinking Spurs in five and wouldn't be surprised if it was four. For two straight games, San Antonio has had one of their big three play great, another play pretty well, and the third just there for the ride. As long as two of them don't outright suck, they're going to be in the game. Conversely, if the Thunder can't win with all three of their guys going off, how can they win? If it was a weekend afternoon game, I'd be nervous, but I'm actually feeling pretty good going into Thursday, for all the reasons listed above.
Your 3 Stars...
3) Manu Ginobili: "What's that, Tony? You need some help to wrap this one up? Well, if you insist..."
2) Kawhi Leonard: If he's within 15 points of Durant and equals his rebound/assist total, that's a win.
1) Tony Parker: He brought the physicality. He understood it was a big-boy game out there. Okay, so he made a bunch of 18-footers. I'm just enamored with the new entity, Gregg Popovich: Quote machine. What is going on?
PS: Every time the Spurs have won at least 10 playoff games in the Duncan era, they've closed the deal.
PSII: Every time a No. 8 seed upset a No. 1 seed in the playoffs, a team from Texas has gone on to win the whole thing.
PSIII: Don't know if you heard, but Phil Jackson isn't coaching the Thunder.