If you had talked to me yesterday about what kind of the game Wednesday night's was going to be, assuming you were able to get me to talk about it -- seeing as I wasn't feeling very hopeful or communicative as to the fate of series -- I would have told you that if Thunder didn't win in a blowout, then it would be a game where the Spurs jumped out to a big lead, and then lost it over the course of the rest of the game, coming up just a bit short of victory. Since I don't like making predictions, and I dislike pessimism even more, I didn't want to share my angst with the site.
But I must tell you that I had decided not to watch game 6. I had reasoned myself into believing that there was nothing of lasting value that could happen in a sixth game when the Spurs trailed in a series. Win, and you have to win another. Lose, and it would be the fourth straight loss in a row. Not a prospect encouraging enough for me to give up yet another evening with my kids, I told myself.
It felt so weird to follow through with my decision once I knew the game had begun. I have not intentionally missed watching a Spurs game all season long. I can't even remember the last time I did it. But once the kids had settled down in front of the TV to watch the Superfriends (1970's Hall of Justice version) my phone gave me an update that the game had reached the end of the first quarter and I made a decision even as the alert tone from the ESPN app hung in the air: if the Spurs were winning, I would turn on the game.
After two straight years of being asked the same thing in nearly every Fraternizing with the Enemy I've done with another blog, and every radio interview I've given, I finally have an answer to the question that I seem to have answered differently every time: How do the Spurs do it? How does Pop have them playing so well, year after year? Figures that I'd figure it out just at the point that no one wants to ask me anymore. Nevertheless, here's my answer.
San Antonio is so good because...
The Spurs are the best prepared team in basketball, and it's not even close. There's no other way to explain the fact that with aging stars and role players they continue to redefine themselves and turn in one amazing season after another. It's clear now that Pop has a system into which he's able to fit players that the team can identify from afar, acquire, and plug-in. But it's also become obvious that he can change his system in order to make better use of the players on his roster and that he can do this with a relatively short turnaround.
But not immediately.
And that is the rub. It's also the reason that the Spurs lost in the Western Conference Finals. As well as the basis for understanding how they were ushered out of the first round by the Memphis Grizzlies last year. If you're not sure what I mean, stay with me and I'll explain.
When the Spurs played through this season and got into their winning streak, it became clear that they were on a level that few NBA teams ever have the privilege of reaching. Simultaneously, every player on the court wearing the Silver and Black would read the defense and make the correct decision based on every defender's motion and position. They did this as a single unit, at game speed, and with such smooth fluidity that at times, it looked like a video game. When you can get an entire team to the point where just about any combination that the coach chooses to throw onto the floor is able to execute in that way, where it looks as though they are being driven by a single mind, then that is something to get excited about.
And we did.
Once it had continued far enough into the playoffs, the rest of the basketball world got excited too. And that got the fans even more excited because the coverage the team was getting differed from the previous Spurs runs to the Finals. Probably because the style the team was winning with was judged to be more palatable for mass consumption.
Regardless of the media, the way a team gets to that kind of level is by having a coach like Popovich (good luck finding another) who is able to design around every individual, and for every player. A taskmaster who will then drill that team to fine-tune everyone's performance to the point where you get a season full of excellence that can culminate with the kind of success the Spurs had this year. And with the number of new pieces that were integrated into that system: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Steven Jackson -- even given the fact that a number of them had previous experience with at least portions of the Spurs system -- it's pretty impressive in regards to the speed with which it was done. But it wasn't immediate, and that turns out to be a really big deal.
See Popovich's system relies on an understanding of NBA defenses that allows him to prepare every individual player to make decisions based on what is in front of him and what play is being run. Those accumulated decisions will yield, if acted on quickly enough, the open looks, uncontested jumpers and lay ups that are the mark of the Spurs motion attack.
But what happens when what has been prepared for, isn't what the team sees?
What the Thunder did
The last time I wrote on the subject, I said the rest of the season was in Pop's hands, and I referred to Zach Lowe's description of the changes that Oklahoma City made to their defense for game three. They didn't just make the kinds of tweaks that are seen in the regular-season from teams who are trying to win a single game against the Spurs. They made extreme adjustments that sometimes involved bringing rotations and double teams from incredibly odd places. Places that it was obvious the Spurs did not expect. I believe that this signaled the beginning of the end of San Antonio's run. To me, it explains nearly everything we saw in the four straight games the Spurs dropped to lose the series and get bounced out the playoffs.
Time and again the Spurs looked hesitant. Over and over they made bad passes that ruined the flow of the offense at best, and became turnovers cashed in for instant points by the Thunder at worst. They didn't just look like a different team than the one that had cruised to one of the four longest win streaks the NBA has ever seen, they looked like five guys thrown together in a pickup game that had never played with each other before.
That kind of transformation doesn't just come as a result of a couple of younger players getting nervous and showing their lack of experience. The Spurs were running their offense as well as they could. The problem was that they couldn't run their offense as they had been trained to do under the circumstances that OKC forced. The openings they were expecting to drive into didn't appear, and the players who were supposed to be available to get the ball to in order to move to the next progression were covered.
It was very like the situation they found themselves in during last year's series against Memphis. Suddenly, a team that had looked unstoppable on offense suddenly could not get an open look to save their lives. Certainly last year's Grizzlies team and this year's Thunder have a number of things in common: young players who have tons of athleticism, speed to burn, and the energy to play all day. But those are just nice things to have; mere tools to be wielded, and not enough to affect the kind of collapse San Antonio suffered for the second straight year.
No, in addition to all of these things, there has to be a defensive scheme put in place that effectively trumps that of the Spurs. But no defense is perfect. Every time you take something away from an offense you give something else back. And I'm sure that, given time, Pop and his coaches could have devised a system, or merely tweaked the one they use, that would have taken advantage of the Thunder's schemes in the same way (if not to the same extent) they did in Games 1 and 2. Maybe they even came up with it the day after the loss in Game 3. Problem is, they didn't have an entire season to perfect that system and make it fluid to the point where everyone was operating without thinking, and the points flowed like wine on a Friday night during the off-season at Pop's vineyard.
No, they didn't have the time to implement it. They had to run out there with the best that they had. It was pretty good, but it wasn't good enough. In Manu and Tony, the Spurs have players who are able to think on their feet and freelance into creating easy buckets for themselves and their teammates, but they are not a team full of those players, nor has the team been built around doing that as a matter of course in the way that the Thunder have been.
And so we are in a very similar position to the one we were in last year, only this time with a bit more perspective. I believe that PATFO reacted to the loss against Memphis, not just with the excellent and well publicized changes to the roster. I see that he improved the offensive system based on the deficiencies that Memphis exposed in last year's loss. And I think that those changes, both on the roster and in the system, led directly to the amazing season that we just experienced.
Success can be built on the rubble of failure: success as far-reaching as the Spurs' 20 game winning streak, and failure as complete as dropping four in a row to end the season.