Welcome to the conference finals, ladies and gentlemen, where no team is invincible, no group unshakeable. The San Antonio Spurs' 20-game winning streak feels like ages ago, not because it received a comprehensive thumping to halt the run, but because the descent back to earth was punctuated by a second straight loss at the hands of an Oklahoma City Thunder team maturing with every minute, it seems.
Sometimes, when you're in a dream state, the waking stage does not pull you immediately into complete consciousness, back to the land of the living. Rather, the sight looks cloudy, eyes glassy like a boxer who just received the brunt of a thudding lucky punch. It seems that the only recourse by then is to go back to sleep, to try and go back to the dream. And then you realize you're now fully awake and wondering what in Kevin Durant's name happened.
As with Game 3's loss, there will be a bevy of reasons that can be pointed out why the Spurs lost, along with question marks that the team has yet to provide an answer for. Let me put some of them in bullet form for you:
OKC's trio of big men melding together, "volting in" so to speak, to form a monster that combined for 49 points that shot a crazy efficient 22-for-25. The head of that beast was Serge Ibaka, who had the golden hand Midas would kill for, shooting 11-for-11 and scoring 24 big points. He could've taken three-point shots and they would've gone in.
The Spurs defense on those big men proving too relaxed, allowing jumpers in spaces as wide as the ocean. I thought the main culprit on these were one Tim Duncan, who inexplicably regressed to his 2009 version when the Spurs were resoundingly swept by the Phoenix Suns. Duncan failed time and again to provide even the least bit of resistance to Ibaka's jump shots, not even bothering to raise a hand. The Spurs' defensive anchor's miserable night was punctuated with Ibaka driving past Duncan for a ferocious dunk. It was that bad.
Speaking of defense, the overall defense. In the past 4 games, we've found out that the Spurs have proven to be anything but capable of stopping OKC's point barrage and wide open looks from pretty much anywhere on the floor. That ineptness was highlighted by San Antonio getting repeatedly killed on the same misdirection/off-ball screen play that freed up Durant for exquisite looks at the basket.
The team never adjusted. I keep hoping that at some point there's going to be a turnaround, but after 4 games, perhaps there's nothing to hope for. The Spurs will just have to score a lot more and with more efficiency, and if this sounds like living dangerously, it's because it is. There will obviously be nights like Game 3 when nothing is working on offense, and a team will need its defense to keep the game close. Does this team have that kind of defensive resolve in them, if at all?
The Spurs' backup big men being thoroughly being outclassed on both ends - I'm looking at you, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner. In just a matter of a few sequences, Bonner passed up a terrific look from three to drive the ball, then got outmuscled by Kendrick Perkins for an offensive rebound and the putback. Matt was banished after that. On Splitter, I barely remember anything he did except -- surprise, surprise -- miss both of his free throws.
Danny Green being Mr. Unconfident, Mr. Invisible, Mr. Free Agent Value Taking A Fast Dive. I honestly don't know what's wrong with him. Pop has been afforded the luxury to still have Manu Ginobili come off the bench because Green has developed into a solid contributor, but when he's reduced to a non-threat on offense, the starting lineup is incredibly weaker, Tony Parker's driving lanes, a lot tighter.
Ginobili turning the ball over 6 times. There were points in the game where it felt like he was just throwing passes because he was sure a teammate was sitting on a spot, mindless however, that there could be defenders lurking and waiting to intercept the ball. This was none more obvious on one of the last few plays, when Manu lofted a cross court pass intended for Gary Neal into the mother-like cradle of Thabo Sefolosha, effectively ending any hope the Spurs had of getting a come-from-behind win.
Tony Parker not matching the hero the Thunder have in Kevin Durant. Yes, I know, the Spurs and its fans abhor the topic of hero ball as Pop absolutely dislikes Craig Sager sideline interviews. But on nights when a team on its backside needs inspiration, it will inevitably need one. It may not come in traditional hero ball fashion like demoralizing isolation plays. It could still be in the form of crisp passes leading to buckets, the timeliness of scores to break through a psychologically tough to mount 4-point deficit, or a critical defensive stop. I do think Parker tried, but maybe at one point, he kept on trying to prove a point to the refs that he was being fouled as he repeatedly penetrated, threw the ball up fishing for a foul that never came.
I'm sure a lot more of these will be discussed in depth, but to wash the bad taste in the mouth, I thought there were still bright spots. Yes, I completely believe in the saying that "until there is life, there is hope." Here's a few nuggets of goodness that still exist:
- Kawhi Leonard continues to be a blessing to this team. Even though Durant was putting Kawhi and Stephen Jackson in the fourth quarter meatgrinder, Leonard remained extremely determined. He went after offensive rebounds like a madman and sank corner threes with confidence. All while maintaining that same implacable, stoic demeanor. This young man is maturing quicker than most rookies, and while the lessons provided this year may not immediately bear fruit, they are priceless and will bode well for the rest of his career.
- Fairly good three-point shooting. The Spurs took 23 shots beyond the arc and made 48%, probably a big part of how the 15-point deficit was overhauled and kept the team in it despite the piss-poor defense. Danny Green made this stat lower by shooting a ghastly 1-for-6. - The Spurs got back to scoring a lot of points inside. They scored 52 points in the paint (an almost even 50% of the total), a big difference from last game's 24 points, and they outscored the Thunder in this area by 4 points. It didn't seem that many, but I can assure you that the Spurs worked very hard for every point of that total.
- Russell Westbrook continues to be checked. Westbrook "only" took 10 shots and got 7 points. Or maybe this is bad...we'd want Russell to be beating his own team by shooting more shots early in the shot clock.
- There might be one more ace in the pocket, and his name is DeJuan Blair. Not trying to put undue pressure and expectation on the former starter, but in limited minutes this game, he provided the energy that Bonner and Splitter have failed to give. After all, Blair has had really good games against OKC in the past. I can't put my hand on it though why he manages to do well against them. Boris Diaw is still the rightful starter with so many things he brings to the table, but Blair might be itching to prove to Pop that he can still make a difference in this series. If he can channel that dogged determination, he can be that Steve Kerr who suddenly surprises and kills the opponent. Minus the long-range daggers, of course.
- This team is coming back to the comforts of home. As a fan, I already experience undue stress watching the game, what more the players in the league's loudest home court, with the stakes as high as they've ever been. It's almost impossible to not get rattled, and on the flip side, the home team to feel as if they can make every kind of shot. We shall see if the Thunder role players can keep up their impeccable shooting, and conversely, if the Spurs' own role players can wake up from their road-induced stupor.
- The Spurs were right in the thick of things, even as Durant went supernova. I want to believe this is still a positive takeaway, as OKC needed each and every point KD made to pull the win out. There might be no moral victories anymore, but for fans such as us, winning on the road -- should it come to that point -- is very much possible. Mortality is such a tricky, fearful thing when it hits you like a runaway train. It seeds doubt, moving you to feel inadequate and seemingly incapable of hitting back with the appropriate force. It always leaves you staring into nowhere, trying to figure out if escape is the next best, most logical thing because retaliation looks futile.
The good thing is, the Spurs are not dead. And it's not even close and deserving of adding the word "yet". If you break it down into the simplest of playoff basketball molecules, both teams just held serve and protected home court. The Spurs' veterans have been here before -- past playoff series with the New Orleans Hornets and 2005 Finals with the Detroit Pistons serve as wellsprings of experience to draw down from and let the rest of the team know that it's still anybody's Western Conference Finals.
In the next few games, we'll now clearly see what this team is made of, if their balls have been forged into steel by the fires of playoff failures past, or unfortunately softened and turned into molten metal. While this is a ridiculously nerve-wracking time, it can also serve as a source of appreciation of the process undergone by a team -- does it have the championship pedigree or one that was eventually unable to bottle up lightning (or Thunder?) for so long?
For now, we can only twiddle our thumbs and wait.
*I have no three stars, but major props to Kevin Durant's fourth quarter performance. Those 14 straight points were the stuff of legends, and shows incredibly prowess and ice-in-his-veins clutch from what... a 23-year old? If he wasn't playing my team, I would have cheered him on. Now, please Spurs, don't make the game THAT close for Durant to be able to replicate the performance.