Spurs remain "only hope" in league's Star Wars

Chris Covatta

Never let it be said that Shaq isn't a team player. He took partner Charles Barkley off the hot seat in San Antonio by christening Kawhi Leonard with a really dumb nickname.

You remember the last time someone besides the Miami Heat won the NBA Championship?

On the podium after Game 6, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle called his underdog team's triumph "a victory for basketball," and followed that up with a line straight from the Gregg Popovich playbook:

"This is a true team. This is an old bunch. We don't run fast or jump high. These guys had each other's backs. We played the right way. We trusted the pass."

What Carlisle meant was that his team with one true star on the downside of his career in Dirk Nowitzki and a bunch of role players who fit well together in guys like Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, J.J. Barea, Jason Kidd, etc. proved to be superior over the ballyhooed Heat squad, who were essentially two superduperstars in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, another perennial All-Star in Chris Bosh, and not a whole lot else. (Miami would add better complementary pieces in the following years, with Shane Battier getting them over the hump in 2012 and both Ray Allen and Chris Andersen helping the cause quite a bit in 2013).

Fast forward to the present.

Even though James -- unfathomably -- continues to get better and better, the cast around him has frayed badly around the edges, to the point where it's starting to resemble the situation in Cleveland he abandoned. Wade is a star in name only, playing like one only every fourth or fifth game these days. Bosh has been reduced to a three-point specialist on offense, hardly ever taking a shot inside the paint anymore. Shane Battier is ready for the glue factory, the infernal Ray Allen isn't far behind him and even Andersen plays less imposingly than before, regardless of his biker gang appearance.

But Miami still continues to pile on the playoff wins, because James has been an unstoppable force in the playoffs. He nearly scored half his team's points -- 49! -- in their pivotal Game 4 win over the Nets in the Eastern Semi-Finals, and was guarding Brooklyn's most potent threat, Joe Johnson, on the other end. Their winning formula is James, one other star (either Wade or Bosh but rarely both together) and then just enough from one role guy making a big shot late, usually Allen. James has been their leading scorer in each of their nine playoff games this season. In fact, he has a streak of 13 playoff games where he was the leading point man for Miami, you have to go back to Game 3 of the last Finals where he wasn't.

Then we have Oklahoma City, the ultimate two-man team, with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook just relentlessly playing "your turn, my turn" in their boring, formless, ugly, ISO-heavy "offense." So far this postseason they've combined for 58.1 of the Thunder's 104.5 points per game, 44.8 of their 82.1 field goal attempts and 17.6 of their 27.0 free throw attempts. There's a 14.5 points-per-game game gap between their second and third leading scorer (Westbrook to Serge Ibaka) and a 12.8 shots-per-game gap between their second and third leading chuckers (ditto).

The two games where the Thunder looked the most unstoppable (least stoppable?) in the playoffs was in Games 2 and 3 against the Clippers where not only Ibaka contributed but also Reggie Jackson and Caron Butler. When they spread the scoring around and pass the ball like an actual basketball team, OKC has no peer. It's just not the norm for them though, and it's fair to speculate whether the egos of their stars, Westbrook in particular, sabotage that potential, or if the role players just aren't up to performing that way consistently.

The Spurs, meanwhile, the virtuous example of team ball, who got consistent production on the macro level from nine guys all year and led the league in assists and in bench scoring, won games all year without getting star-level production from Hall-of-Famers Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The first two are very close to the end while the latter has dealt with injuries all season long and did so again in Game 5 against the overmatched Blazers.

San Antonio's stars faced an unexpected burden themselves in the first round against Carlisle's game Mavs, when their role players shrunk under the postseason spotlight. Only Tiago Splitter had a difference-making series, while Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Danny Green all had more bad moments than good and Marco Belinelli was practically unplayable. Ginobili and Parker had to carry the team far more so than they did in the regular season to get them past Dallas in seven games, with only the final one being a laugher.

Parker helped carry the Spurs for the first couple of games against Portland too, but the reason the margins of victory were so lopsided in the series -- San Antonio became just the third team in NBA history to win by at least 15 points in each of their four wins in a best-of-seven series -- was because the role players started contributing the way they had all season long.

At this point it's unfair and plain wrong to label Kawhi Leonard as a role player, since he's probably far closer to being a true star, and he indeed was fantastic all series long -- in Game 5 especially, with 22 points, eight rebounds, stifling defense on Nicolas Batum and five game-changing steals.

However, even setting Leonard aside, the Spurs blew out Portland even with an average showing by Duncan, a subpar one from Ginobili and absolutely nothing at all from Parker, who bowed out after ten useless minutes where Batum again looked quite capable of causing him difficulty. Mills (San Antonio's first true backup point guard in forever) had 18 points and three steals in relief, while unsung hero Danny Green quietly added 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting, to go along with nine rebounds and an emphatic block on Damian Lillard, whom he hounded all game long.

Indeed the Spurs' renewed defensive energy was the real story of the game, with Green on Lillard from jump street being just as important (perhaps more than Leonard's highlight plays) and he was even better on that end of the floor than he was offensively. Hopefully he'll be able to carry that upswing in confidence and momentum into the next match-up with Westbrook (or, less likely, Chris Paul), since he remains the Spurs' best hope to limit the carnage there.

The Spurs got 57 points out of their role players last night and have been led by different guys all season long, with their nine main rotation guys, plus scrub Austin Daye, leading them in scoring at various points throughout the season and 30 different startling lineups employed by Pop. They're going to their third consecutive Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, and doing so with the very real possibility of not having a single player on the All-NBA first, second or third teams. In the playoffs they don't have a top-20 scorer, a top-15 rebounder or a top-10 assist man.

The NBA playoffs have become Star Wars more than ever, but fans of true team basketball are playing the role of Princess Leia, to San Antonio's Obi-Wan Kenobi.

"Help us, Spurs, you're our only hope."

***

Your Three Stars:

3) Patty Mills (2 pts)

2) Danny Green (8 pts)

1) Kawhi Leonard (15 pts)

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