I spent last night before bed, the morbid soul that I am, finally watching the Thunder game. Some aspects were better than I expected and some worse. I see some areas that were fluky and/or correctable and others that may not be and are most concerning. At this stage it's impossible to argue that the Spurs are the better team and a bit of a stretch to suggest that they're equals, subject to the whims of coin flip games.
Still, I'd argue that if Kawhi Leonard played the other night it would've been a much closer game if not an outright Spurs win. And if Leonard played and Danny Green was the one who had dental surgery I'd almost guarantee the win for the good guys because holy hell was Green awful on both ends of the floor.
Let's break the game down into the three separate categories: Correctable, Concerning (i.e. Not Correctable) and Fluky
Correctable: Gregg Popovich said after the team's first meeting at Oklahoma City, a game the Spurs came into riding an 11-game winning streak but lost 94-88, that he thought the guys weren't patient enough, that they rushed possessions and forced bad shots instead of moving the ball and looking for better opportunities. I saw much of the same thing last night, especially early on. I blame most of it on Tony Parker, who was rusty after missing two games with a shin injury and might have been a bit too geeked up for his match-up with Russell Westbrook, when it's usually the latter who's over-caffeinated.
Parker missed three layups early on, a couple of which weren't really good looks, and Green and Splitter threw up some ugly shots as well. Just about all of them came really early in the shot clock and none were what I'd deem open shots. Even Marco Belinelli rushed a few, but he's been so unconsciously hot that it didn't matter. In the second half the Spurs slowed down somewhat, went through Tim Duncan a bit more and it was a more even game, 52-50, Thunder.
Maybe the frenetic pace was the result of Leonard's absence and this instinctive need to have a run-and-gun, up-tempo game since everyone in the arena thought that Kevin Durant was going to go off for the Thunder. Maybe it was Parker's state of mind. Maybe the Spurs as a whole were too hyped and unsettled. For whatever reason they didn't look like the veteran team.
My guess is that for the next game these teams meet, and also in a potential playoff match-up, Pop will make more of an effort to get his point across that they have to calm down and play smart, not just in avoiding turnovers but also not jacking up any old shot. Right now the Spurs look freaked out when playing long, athletic teams. They're so worried about getting the ball stolen away or swatted that they're not working to get the great, efficient looks they're accustomed to. It's a bit of a Finals hangover and it was reinforced in that turnover-fest against the Clippers.
My solution would be to run the offense through Duncan more, especially when Kendrick Perkins isn't in the game. More four-down in 1-4 sets, more post-ups for Leonard, more direct drives for Parker and Manu Ginobili and fewer pick-and-rolls. I think the good teams have scouted the Spurs down to the point where the offense settles for hook shots for Tiago Splitter or Green putting the ball on the floor and we don't want that.
The other problem the Spurs have, as I see it, is that Reggie Jackson is a bit of a match-up nightmare for them. Patty Mills cannot guard really good, quick, big offensive point guards. Against the Thunder I think the Spurs would be better served to give his minutes to Cory Joseph. Maybe against Houston, too. On Saturday they tried guarding Jackson with Ginobili, Mills, Belinelli and even Green and he torched them all. The last of those was particularly rough to see. I'd like to try Joseph.
Finally, and I've harped on this for as long as I've been on PtR, but for the love of all that is good, Pop needs to stop playing "naked" against good teams. The Thunder started stretching out this game in the second quarter when he took Ginobili out and the quintet on the floor was Splitter-Diaw-Green-Belinelli-Mills. That lineup might be fine and good against the Jazz, but especially without Leonard I'm gonna need one of The Big Three on the floor at all times. You just can't produce any offense against a locked in defense without at least one star to worry about. Pop is too smart to not figure this out by now and to not plan his rotations accordingly.
Concerning: I'm starting to worry that Green's struggles are a thing. J.Gomez laid out his opinion of why it's not, but more and more it's looking like Green's season thus far is a microcosm of the Spurs themselves in that he lights it up against the crap teams in the Eastern conference but struggles mightily against the superior West. Not only did Green's shot selection leave much to be desired against OKC, but even a couple of his good looks were far off the mark. Right now he's just not shooting them very straight, and worse still it's affecting his defense and other areas of his game. Green made a number of glaring defensive mistakes in the game, had a couple of awful, unnecessary turnovers and generally looked like anything but a starting-caliber NBA player. Not to put too fine a line on it, but he killed the Spurs on Saturday. Pop played him 34 minutes in the game, but Green might have totaled half that if Leonard was available.
While the Spurs can do as good a job as any team can of limiting Durant and forcing Westbrook into taking some bad shots, their personnel and defensive philosophies seem predisposed to conceding big games from Serge Ibaka and Jackson. Defensively they give Ibaka all the open jumpers he wants, even from the corner three, even though he's worked on his game enough to be a very reliable mid-range shooter. I'd still give him all of those he wants, but I wish the Spurs could tweak their schemes to give him less room from 15 to 18 feet. I'm not sure they can, without inviting a bunch of rim runs to Westbrook, Durant and Jackson. On the other end, they can't seem to get Ibaka out of the paint no matter what they try. The dude is parked there and he's contesting everything at the rim. Worse, the addition of rookie Stephen Adams has given them a fourth reliable big, and he's got the size and athleticism to also bother people. The Thunder only played small for nine minutes against the Spurs on Saturday and just ten minutes the time before. Since the Spurs don't have a fourth big that can even be remotely trusted, I'd go the other way and try going small versus them, trying the aforementioned 1-4 look and trying to find a speed/athleticism mismatch with Leonard.
Jackson, meanwhile isn't James Harden, not anywhere close, but he is a quick guy who can knock down open shots and can get to the rim. I don't really think Joseph would dramatically change the outlook against him but it can't hurt. Mostly though I'm hoping that the Spurs stop sagging off of him on threes, which they did several times. I can't stand when smalls step toward the paint as though they're going to be any hindrance to a driver when they're not even going to challenge shots anyway. It's the worst of both worlds. Just stay at home. Don't enter the paint unless your man is there, ever.
Fluky: This might sound like sad excuse-making, and it is, but I don't think the Spurs have faced the Thunder in ideal circumstances in either of their first two meetings. In the first meeting it was their fourth game in six nights and they had played so many bad teams leading up to that game that the step up in class was too much to overcome. In this one Leonard was out and Parker was rusty. Again, I'm not making an excuse for either game, but I think context does matter. It's one thing if the talking heads make declarative statements about the Thunder being better. As long as the Spurs themselves don't believe that (and they have home court in a playoff series) I'll be okay, I think.
Jackson is good, but he's not this good. Dude has scored 20 points twice all year and both have been against the Spurs. At some point he'll cool down against them, you'll think, though by the same token we haven't seen Durant's best yet either. The Spurs haven't gotten a good game from anyone in two tries against these guys and at some point you'd think the worm will turn and the percentages will even out. They have one elite defender and a bunch of crappy ones. It shouldn't be this hard to shoot well against them.
I'm also skeptical that Adams or Jeremy Lamb will offer much to the Thunder come playoff time. At some point young guys will have stage fright, especially on the road. And don't even get me started on Derek Fisher. Good lord they must dominate Fisher!