The mental game of the San Antonio Spurs

In Jared Tendler's The Mental Game of Poker, he writes that occasionally after a day of losing money in poker,

"...emotion doesn't completely disappear. So the next time you play you aren't starting from scratch; there's still some residual emotion hanging around from the last time you played. It may not seem like much, but this extra emotion (tilt, overconfidence, doubt) means that your threshold has lowered and less emotion than normal needs to accumulate before you cross it. Consequently, you tilt quicker, you protect a win faster, or your mind goes blank after playing fewer big pots."

While Tendler explains this mental process with respect to poker, the same negative mindset could be tied to the Spurs in dealing with OKC. For a franchise that has been able to sustain dominance over the vast majority of the NBA for almost two decades, the Spurs can't seem to wrap their minds around the Oklahoma City Thunder, and are often forced to play catch-up after the game gets out of hand by a major second half run. San Antonio has lost 12 of their past 18, including the last five in a row against OKC.

There's no need for all of the doom-and-gloom, though. Officially, OKC swept the Spurs in this regular season, but only one of those four games was with the Spurs' roster at full strength. That game was all the way back on November 27, only 15 games into the season, and a six-point loss despite the fact that the starters shot 22/67 (32.8%) from the field. On paper and based on past results, this series should be the Thunder's for the taking, but it just doesn't seem realistic IF the Spurs can solve their mental game issues.

And while the Spurs seem to be in some sort of mental funk against Durant and company, Tendler offers a "5-step protocol" to solve such problems. The protocol provides five prompts to reorient the mind towards a more refined understanding of the game, and I have made sure to take time out of my day to generously answer these questions for you, concerned Spur fan!

The responses to the first two prompts were meant to be based on a typical Spur fan. The final three explain the flaws in the logic.

1. Describe the problem.

The f****** refs, man! OKC has three of the top 25 players in the league, and they certainly don't need any help with silly touch fouls, uncalled goaltends, and technicals for hanging out in pushing range of Perkins. If, by some miracle of Poseidon, Ibaka isn't nailing every single one of his mid-ranged jumpers, the Thunder have a former Yankee or a sheep to do it instead.

2. Why does it make logical sense that you would react, think, or feel that way?

I'll address each problem separately:

  • Refs: With Durant and Westbrook, OKC is one of two teams to have two players in the top 13 in free throws attempted per game. The other team? Houston, which doesn't really count given that one of their two free throw shooters, Dwight Howard, is eternally hacked down low in the paint. Ibaka has also undoubtedly snuck away with some questionable blocks over the years at pivotal moments in playoff games.
  • Role players: The Spurs have been able to keep Westbrook and Durant relatively inefficient over the years, and proceed to get torched by the Thunder's role players. Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, hell, even Jeremy Lamb have had huge games against the good guys. At some point, their scrubs have to stop playing well.

3. Why is that logic flawed?

  • Refs: Oklahoma City actually doesn't get as many foul calls as you may think. They are a mere 13th in team fouls drawn per game, behind the likes of such title contenders as the Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Charlotte Bobcats.
  • Role players: I mean, aside from the fact that Ibaka isn't playing in the series anymore? While guys like Jackson and Lamb torching the San Antonio defense out of a Scott Brooks' "offense" seems rather stunning, isn't it a little off-kilter for Spur fans to complain about random scrubs knocking down jumpers and shredding through the help defense? We root for a team that had Aron Baynes tear the Blazers apart in a playoff game for goodness sake!

4. What is the correct way to handle the situation?

  • Refs: Honestly, OKC is going to get some calls. We Pounders know that going in, and you bet Pop does, as well. It's well beyond a lost cause for players to complain to the refs and psych themselves out, especially against a wily team like the Thunder. Tim and friends learned the hard way in 2012, and Doc Rivers can verify that it will be no different these playoffs. It sounds easier than it will be, but as long as the Spurs are wary not to stand within a 10-foot radius of Westbrook shooting threes, the refs won't be able to hand out any bogus bailouts.
  • Role players: Scott Brooks has the offensive creativity of a dry roasted peanut, and I mean...
    The Spurs are willing to forfeit mid-ranged jumpers and contested shots to drag teams off the three-point line and encourage them out of the lane. Unfortunately, bad shots are the shots OKC loves to take and make. In the regular season, the Thunder took 60 more contested shots than uncontested against San Antonio, and they still swept San Antonio. Perhaps Scott Brooks is just a genius.

    I've often felt that Ibaka is the biggest contributor for the Thunder against the Spurs. Not Durant. Not Westbrook. Ibaka. On defense, Ibaka uses his quickness and athleticism to effectively neutralize Parker in the paint, and force the Spurs to get uncomfortable on offense. He ensures that any easy shot will be difficult. While Steven Adams is no slouch himself defensively, he doesn't have the ability to step out and knock down the mid-ranged jumper and/or three like Serge does.

    In terms of Jackson and Lamb, let them get their shots, as long as they are forced to work hard for each and every bucket. That's all that you can ask for out of a defense. If they're the ones taking the tough shots, and not KD, I say you live with it and accept the game or two where they go ballistic from the field.

5. Why is that correction correct?

  • Refs: When has complaining about the refs ever done something good? There have always been favorable and unfavorable calls in sports games, and this series won't be any different.
  • Role players: In crunch time, I'd much rather have Jackson and Lamb feeling good than KD or Westbrook. The more shots Jackson and Lamb take, the fewer OKC's closeout guys have to get warm for the crucial points in the game. You sometimes have to let the small fish shine for the long-term benefits.

The Western Conference Finals will be San Antonio's greatest test of the season. This is by no means a shot fired at Dallas, Portland, or the Heat/Pacers, but a mere testament to the Teen Wolves up in Oklahoma City and the fits they've given San Antonio since 2011. The mental game is a central component of any competition, and if the Spurs can overcome this, the Larry O'Brien Trophy will be FedEx'd directly to San Antonio.

Side note: A few days ago, I commented about asterisk seasons in sambunnel's Game 3 recap, but I felt it beared repeating especially after the Ibaka injury: "I really can't stand the "if Westbrook weren't injured" argument because the same could be said for the Spurs, or any team for that matter. If Tony weren't injured in the finals last year, who knows what would have happened. If Manu didn't get hurt in 2011, the Spurs would have easily been considered title favorites. If Rose didn't get injured, who knows how many titles the Heat would have won. Every team goes through injuries, and you could put an asterisk next to anything, but where's the fun in that?"

This is fan-created content on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff at Pounding the Rock.

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