I hardly ever play video games anymore -- my PlayStation crapped out on me a couple months back -- and when I do play it's usually sports games. However, there was a time, about fifteen years ago, where a friend absolutely got me hooked on this popular computer game named "Age of Empires."
I'm sure most of you have heard of it. For those who haven't, AoE was about building and advancing civilizations through different eras, from the Bronze Age to the Renaissance. There are spiritual, agricultural and city-planning elements in the game, but it's mostly military-based, where you strategize the most efficient way to obtain the resources needed to build up the most powerful military possible in order to protect yourself from invaders and destroy the bad guys before they destroy you. There were archers, knights, catapults, siege towers, naval battles, really just describing it to you is tempting me to get addicted to that world all over again.
And make no mistake, I was addicted. I would play the game for four, six, ten hours at a time, to the point where I'd wake up, play it all day, go to my graveyard shift job, sleep for a few hours and do it all over again. My sole obsession was to advance, level by level, to be able to solve the logistical puzzle of each mission, which naturally got harder and more complex as the CPU enemies got stronger and stronger.
Five or six levels from finishing the game, I came upon this level that called for my civilization to build a religious tribute in a timely manner before two separate CPU opponents build theirs. The catch was they were both more advanced militarily and technologically and hostile towards me in the extreme. I had to divest so many of my resources just to protect myself that there was nothing left over to build. I must've tried ten, fifteen different strategies over the course of two, three weeks, and nothing I tried worked. I don't remember getting close, frankly. Either one of the computer's civilizations would finish their tribute well before me or my guys would just get utterly destroyed. Either way, I kept failing, and no amount of racking my brain for a solution helped. I was a pre-algebra gamer and this level was upper calculus.
Completely defeated, I broke down morally and typed "Big daddy," into the game's instruction window.
What's big daddy, you ask?
You wouldn't believe how effective a super fast race car that shoots lasers is against CPU armies still using bow-and-arrows and catapults. All of a sudden I had all the time in the world to build that tribute, what with my opponents' bases in smoking ruins and whatnot.
Of course, the action games we grew up with in arcades and on Nintendo didn't really work the way AoE did. Traditional games like "Double Dragon" or "Contra" or whatever operated under the premise where your guy battles scores upon scores of relatively weak henchmen until you get to the end of a level where you face off against a much tougher and seemingly invincible "boss," of that level. You beat that boss and then it's the next level with tougher henchmen, followed by a tougher boss and so on. Superhero games like "Batman," work like this as far as modern games go.
Where I'm going with this anecdote is this: I think of fellows like Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the basketball equivalent of video game bosses. I suppose Durant would make boss of the penultimate level and James is the arch-nemesis you have to defeat to beat the game.
And I think of Kawhi Leonard as that super fast race car that shoots lasers. He's the cheat code. He's Big Daddy.
Until Friday afternoon, I think it's fair to say that the Spurs were the underdogs in this series, despite having home court advantage, because of their 0-4 record against the Thunder. Then it was revealed that Serge Ibaka, their springy shot-blocking power forward, was lost for the series due to a left calf injury.
Matthew Tynan from 48minutesofhell.com had a great breakdown of what Ibaka's absence will mean for the series, with oodles of stats for what the Thunder did to the Spurs on either end of the floor with and without Ibaka. Reader's digest version: Both teams scored way better when he was off and way worse when he was on, though the differences were more dramatic for the Spurs.
Basically, Ibaka made it ridiculously difficult for the good guys to score at the rim, yet they had no choice but to try it against him because his presence allowed OKC's perimeter guys to stay closer to shooters and run them off open looks. Ironically, without his shot-blocking presence, the Spurs drove it less, shot threes more and connected on those shots more often.
As Matthew pointed out, the reason the Thunder scored better without Ibaka was likely less an indictment of him -- after all, Ibaka gives the Spurs' defense fits with his accuracy from 15-feet and beyond -- but rather the fact that most of those minutes he sat came when the Spurs had their reserves on the floor and those guys can be horrific in their own end. For example, Marco Belinelli's defensive rating was 158 against OKC this season during the 30 minutes he played without Ibaka on the floor. That's not good.
Also, I covered in my second-round grades column the various match-ups we're looking at in this series and how Ibaka's absence will factor into those match-ups. My guess is that the Thunder will elect to play small ball more often than not, with either Steven Adams or Nick Collison as their pivot and Durant at the power forward. If that guess proves correct, then what Ibaka's injury will have accomplished, in effect, is taken a big man from both teams out of the lineup since Tiago Splitter won't have much of a role beyond buying Duncan a few minutes of rest.
Playing small can help the Thunder on both ends. Defensively, putting Collison or Adams on the court invites the Spurs to dump it inside to Duncan and make him the focal point of the offense. It's a trap though. Post-ups are rarely ever as efficient as other forms of half-court offense and giving Duncan open 15-footers is even less efficient for the Spurs. The fewer open threes or rim runs by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili they get, the worse off they'll be.
On the other end of the floor, Duncan would be vulnerable to fatigue from working so hard on offense and will be exposed as the long rim-protector/rebounder with a spaced out floor against the Thunder. You really don't want Durant or Westbrook attacking wide open lanes.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the Thunder will hardly ever play big. Why should they? Where's the advantage in it for them? Without Ibaka the advantage is clearly on the Spurs side as far as the big men go and even if they suffer defensively and on the boards while playing Durant extensive minutes at the four, their offensive explosiveness more than makes up for it, no?
Gregg Popovich will have to figure out how to counter this. If he stays big with Splitter, then either he or Duncan will have to extend far out on the floor to cover a three-point shooter like Caron Butler or Thabo Sefolosha. If he plays it halfway with Diaw, it's the same deal. Of those two, I'm more confident that Diaw can cause Durant problems in the post than Splitter, who doesn't have as reliable a post game and doesn't get much respect from the refs. If Pop goes small then he'll be relying on Duncan, or one of the other bigs, to do too much on both ends and for Leonard to play the four.
The good news about playing small is that in addition to it being the most favorable match-up for Duncan (you don't really want him to deal with Kendrick Perkins for extended minutes), it should also buy Parker room on the floor and Green time on the court, since there will be an opening for both he and Ginobili to play together. Having Green on will be essential since he's probably the Spurs' best bet to guard Westbrook and the one most likely to punish the TMNT on the other end. The hyper-active Thunder point guard is too unstable for coach Scott Brooks to risk having him guard Parker but is liable to lose focus on a lesser light like Green and will give up open shots. If Green is getting 30-plus minutes a game in the series, I think good things are happening for the Spurs.
It's easy enough to conclude that Reggie Jackson is the Thunder's X-factor. He had three of his six highest-scoring games of the season against the Spurs. Having only one big to worry about instead of two makes his penetration even more dangerous, which is why I'd prefer to have Parker or Ginobili on him rather than Patty Mills. If Pop could alter his rotations to have Mills on the floor when Jackson's off, I'd almost prefer that.
Figuring out the Spurs' X-factor is tougher. Is it Ginobili, who needs to have a much better series than the one he just played? Is it Parker, who's nursing a tight left hammy? Is it Green? Leonard? Diaw? My gut says its Ginobili. If he outplays the Jackson/Sefolosha combo, the Spurs should move on to the Finals.
One thing I know for sure is that I'm not at all relaxed or thinking of the Spurs as heavy favorites just because Ibaka is out. For one, we don't really know Parker's status or how he'll hold up. For another, Durant and Westbrook are alien, indefatigable forces of nature. These guys will be down all game and shooting miserably and then come up with 20-0 runs in the blink of an eye. No matter what unconventional thing Brooks does (like electing not to foul down four points with 30 seconds to go, or playing Perkins late) Durant and Westbrook make it work, pulling late steals and four-point plays out of thin air. Of course I'm concerned about what the officiating will be like since both those guys seem to get ten trips to the line before even walking off the bus and I hesitate to give the Spurs any kind of bench edge since Durant in particular never leaves the floor. Brooks plays him 46 minutes instead of 48 not because it makes any difference to the MVP's stamina, but rather because 48 would be gauche.
The key will be Game 1. The Spurs HAVE TO win Game 1. Lose that and the doubt creeps in: We lost all four to these guys in the regular season and can't even beat them at home without Ibaka? The Thunder can lose Game 1 and not be concerned at all. They've been down in series a bunch of times already this postseason, and in the past to the Spurs. They can lose Game 2 and not sweat it, because of what happened in 2012. Be down 3-0? Okay, then we'll talk. But only then.
Spurs in seven.