Game 76 @Oklahoma City: Thunder 106, Spurs 94 Rec: 59-17 Southwest Winners, 1st in West Streak: L-1
Today's rehash is going to be a bit different. There won't be any of the cutesy features you're used to. No "By the Numbers," or "Tweets of the Night," or "Sequence of the Game" or any of that other stuff. Not today. Instead, you're gonna get an old school, classic Stampler rant.
I'm a bit peeved, you might say.
No, not that the Spurs lost. I was expecting them to lose. I think anyone with a rational mind should have been. Gregg Popovich was all but pleading with the basketball gods for his team to lose. If the Spurs won tonight, Pop was was liable to march into owner Peter Holt's office Friday morning and just quit on the spot. "Peter, I truly appreciate all that you've done for me and my family more than I can ever express," he'd begin in his typical humble style. "I have to tell you though that in all good conscience I just can't take your money anymore. It'd be like stealing. The team is just too good. They've solved basketball. They don't need me anymore. Promote Jim Boylen to the head spot and pay him a fraction of what I was getting and the result will be the same. Or better yet, just have Timmy be a player-coach. He'd just love that."
With that Pop would offer his hand for one final shake, flash his trademark grin and ride off into the sunset, never to be seen again.
For better or for worse, we'll never know if my little one-act play would come to fruition because the Spurs did indeed fall to the Thunder Thursday night. A scan of my Twitter timeline showed there were quite a few folks pleased as punch about this, but none more so, I suspect, than Pop himself, the naïve little boll weevil that he is.
To me, it looked like the third quarter was an engineered farce for the Spurs. You think Pop was going for win here? In the first half it was plain to see who his two softest, least-prepared-to-counter-OKC's-intensity players were in Marco Belinelli and Splitter.
So what happens in the second half? Even though Kawhi Leonard only had three fouls, Pop sat him, opting to start Belinelli instead. You know how much a Duncan-Diaw-Belinelli-Green-Parker lineup played all season prior to Thursday's game? 35 minutes. Not the kind of rotation a coach trying to win game 75 would use in a big spot. Spoiler alert: Belinelli continued to struggle, a bit overwhelmed by the Thunder's quickness.
So Pop subbed in Splitter. As if the time to play Tiago, is against a smaller, ultra-athletic horde of aliens when the refs aren't calling anything. Even better, Pop kept Diaw in the game, so we were treated to a slow-footed three-big lineup of Duncan-Splitter-Diaw-Green-Parker. No wonder the floor spacing was poor with that quintet. You know how many minutes the trio of Duncan, Splitter and Diaw had played together prior to Thursday? Four. Four whole minutes. You'll spend more time reading this column. Even then, they shared the court with Parker and Manu Ginobili, not Green.
But feel free to think that Pop was taking this game super-serious.
Finally, he brought Leonard back into the game, but closed the third quarter with a lineup of Diaw-Jeff Ayres-Leonard-Belinelli-Mills. That unit's played all of 14 minutes together on the season. Indiana's starters played 18 minutes together Thursday alone and the Pacers didn't even have a game scheduled. (And they only scored 13 points.)
Even with all that, it was still a six point deficit when Duncan and Parker checked out with 3 minutes to go out in the third and the deficit was just nine points when the period ended. But Pop had no intention of ever bringing either Tim or Tony back into the game. He got everything he wanted from this one, a chance to rant and rave, bemoan their lack of focus and preparation and physicality. Most of all, he got a loss to take the attention off his team. If anything, he'd probably have preferred the loss to be even more lopsided.
Pop is happy for the first time in over the month.
That's not to say there aren't very real concerns about the Thunder. They present several match-up problems. Offensively the Spurs have to make very quick decisions, really whip that ball around the perimeter and be on point with their threes. No team in the league packs the paint as aggressively as the Thunder do and it's almost impossible to score on them inside. Not only is Ibaka a shot-blocking menace, but they just don't call many fouls against those guys. It makes the drive-and-kick game hard. Other teams get all the open threes they want against the Thunder though, but I think the Spurs will have to do it the old-fashioned way, by posting up Duncan or Diaw and drawing doubles. They can also be vulnerable in transition.
Still, it has to be mentioned that Parker played just 25:34 and Ginobili not at all. That's 23 minutes on the floor without our best or second-best ball-handlers and play-makers, which will bog down the offense against any team, let alone the swarming hell-bent Thunder. In a playoff matchup, Parker will probably be on the floor around 36 minutes and Ginobili in the high 20s and always one or the other, one would hope. They'll also overlap quite a bit, giving the Thunder two ball-handlers to worry about, so they can't focus on just one.
This much I know... Scott Brooks would be quite foolish indeed if he dared try that three point-guard look he used Thursday, playing Westbrook together with Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson in the second quarter. Quite a few times Leonard had Jackson on him and never posted up. I feel confident saying that's a matchup the Spurs would go out of their way to take advantage of, and a sure sign that Pop wasn't going all out to win the game. Count on the Spurs being considerably more aggressive with their post-ups and drives to the hole if the Thunder go that small when it matters.
Defensively, I was happy with the effort on Durant. You can live with 28 points on 26 shots from him. However, I think praising Leonard too much for that would be a mistake. He only really guarded Durant in the first quarter, and he earned two quick fouls for his trouble. After that, it was mostly Green checking him in the second and third quarters, or even Diaw. Leonard did guard him again in the fourth -- and he was solid -- but by then the game was a lost cause.
I was a bit less happy with the work against Westbrook. I thought they let him get to the hole too easily too often, and hopefully this isn't a trend. The Spurs have defended him better many times.
The biggest problem, again, was Jackson. The Spurs just seem to have no answer for him. They used Green quite a bit on him and he wasn't too effective, but Mills is a worse alternative. Pretty much the only recourse the Spurs have when Jackson is on the court is to be equally effective on the other end. Mainly though, they have to prevent turnovers and easy run-outs. Easier said than done, of course.
Now I'm not quite arrogant enough to think that the Spurs should be huge favorites in a series over the Thunder, or that a playoff meeting between the two would be a mere formality. I'm also not foolish enough to take much from this game. It was a scheduled loss, nothing more. The team ran out of gas in the second half. I'm convinced the only reason Pop let Duncan et al play was because he wanted them to suffer a loss so that he could lay into them. Having nominal scrubs Austin Daye, Aron Baynes and Matt Bonner hurt kind of forced his hand anyway. There just weren't enough healthy bodies left to sit the frontline players for the game, and it makes no sense to run guys like Mills, Diaw and Belinelli ragged when you need them in the playoffs too.
Anyway, good thing that the Thunder are the only super athletic team in the NBA. I mean, from what I read the Spurs have no chance against those types of teams, and they've beaten everyone else so...
That little string of asterisks above signals the end of the article for everyone who's not interested in hearing me gripe about the media and the referees. Proceed at your own risk, ok? Alright, don't say I didn't warn you.
It amused me to no end how many otherwise-rational basket-bloggers attached any real meaning to this game, especially since the Spurs were playing their fifth in seven nights, on the road, while the Thunder hadn't played since Sunday and their two previous opponents were home romps over Sacramento and Utah. Anyone who pays even scant attention to the Spurs and how they do things couldn't have watched the second half of this garbage and thought to themselves, with any objective thought, "Oh yeah, this is legit, Pop is totally playing to win here."
Before we dissect that fateful third quarter, in which the Spurs were outscored 32-20 and shot just 30 percent, I think we have to backtrack somewhat to the second period, more specifically to the 3:23 mark, where a Patty Mills pull up J made it an eight-point game, 46-38. From then on, the refereeing took a sharp turn for the worse for the visitors, eerily reminiscent of Game 6 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals, where one team was allowed to play "aggressive and physical" and one was not. Tim Duncan drove repeatedly to the rim, getting pushed by Serge Ibaka on one play and then Kevin Durant on the next, with no whistles.
In the second half, Duncan was blatantly held by Kendrick Perkins, allowing a free dunk off a pocket pass to Ibaka, and there was no call. I mean, it wasn't even a subtle move. Perkins was full-on hugging Duncan from the back. Next trip down the floor, he caressed dear Timmy once more, refusing to let go of the manly embrace even well after the echo of the referee's whistle. Naturally, Duncan found this annoying after a bit, like anyone would, and pulled Perkins' arms away, which quickly earned a forceful shove in the back from Perkins.
Yeah, that makes sense.
[Editor's note: Watch to the end to see a slow-mo version of what Duncan did for his technical. Essentially, remove Perkins' arm from being wrapped around him. Ridiculous. -jrw]
Uncalled fouls on Tony Parker followed. He was smacked on the head by Ibaka on one drive, and got nothing. He was repeatedly knocked to the floor by Russell Westbrook and others and never got one call. Tiago Splitter, of course, couldn't dream of getting a call. And in the fourth quarter, Westbrook blatantly threw down Mills in plain view of everyone and was allowed to pretend he got a clean steal and stroll his way to a dunk.
In fact, the Spurs didn't get to the line from 3:15 remaining in the first until 10:40 remaining in the third quarter, and that foul was on Perkins. Not Ibaka, not Durant. Perkins. Six minutes later, after the Thunder had established a lead, Duncan got back to the line when Nick Collison was called for a foul. Yup, that Nick Collison, Oklahoma City Thunder cornerstone. The Spurs drove to the basket repeatedly and got all of four free throw attempts in the meat of the game.
Adam Silver may be the new commissioner but it seems to me that David Stern's NBA is still alive and well. I don't know if television executives are influencing them to favor the marquee Thunder or if the zebras are just intimidated by that crowd, but I see no way the Spurs are ever gonna get a fair shake in that building. If this game doesn't drive the point home that the guys better be diligent in securing home court advantage, I don't know what will.