In 1984, Bruce Brooks wrote the award winning young adult novel The Moves Make the Man. As a pre-teen with basketball as my first true love growing up in a tiny, dusty, West Texas town I probably read the book twenty times.
It is set in the deep south in the early 60's and centers on the unlikely friendship between Jerome Foxworthy and Bix Braxton Rivers. Jerome, who calls himself "Jayfox," loves basketball above all else.
His friend Bix is a troubled young man, tremendously talented in baseball as a shortstop yet eager to learn the game of basketball. There's only one problem -- Bix is physically sickened by anything he perceives to be a lie and believes basketball is full of them. But in order to achieve his goal, Bix has to embrace the lies that give the game it's beauty. In a book review from the Baltimore City Paper:
It's basketball Jerome loves, in all its speed and subterfuge, but Bix is appalled by lying in all its shades, whether it's crumbled Ritz crackers forming a mock apple pie or the fakes and bumps of Jerome's game. Jerome can't understand Bix's insistence on absolute truth.
I was reminded of that book and Bix's struggles as I watched the Spurs pull away from the Thunder during the 3rd quarter on Thursday night. The Spurs, stubbornly insistent on fundamentals and an abiding belief that hustle will carry the day, at last succumbed to the deceptive side of the game. And in so doing they prevailed in glorious fashion.
Now this isn't a preachy article from a spoiled Spurs writer attempting to convince you to embrace the "dark underbelly of basketball." It is not an attempt to convince you that no Spur has ever attempted a pump fake or a flop to gain the upper hand. There is no evil in breaking Westbrook's ankles with a Parker cross-over and the Spurs aren't some NBA anomaly, pure as the driven snow, relying on set shots and a killer zone defense to carry the day.
But c'mon man, the Spurs started Matt Bonner in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. Gregg Popovich moved away from his mantra that smart basketball is all that the world needs and employed sheer gamesmanship coupled with energetic, unending emotion from the sideline.
To his credit, Scott Brooks knew deception was coming and actually prepared for it. Before the game he said that he and his staff had strategized for every possible scenario that Popovich might throw their way, but in the end he and his team were utterly unprepared for the onslaught that awaited them. Not an onslaught from Matt Bonner, mind you, but from the mentality that starting him revealed.
Because starting Bonner in place of Tiago Splitter was only the beginning. In fact, just looking at his stat line would lead one to conclude the experiment was a failure. Zeros across the board save a single 4 (FGA) and a 2 (personal fouls) in 17 minutes. But it was the mentality, not the numbers that made all the difference. I wrote on Wednesday that Popovich had pushed his chips to the center and gone all in, and Thursday night he announced to those seated at the poker table that he's holding at least two aces, if not more.
The Spurs pump-faked, pounded their chests and pummeled the Thunder for the final 30 minutes of the game with the seeming newfound freedom of a group of guys that had no fear, no worries and no memory of their recent failures. Their mood was evident in the hours leading up to the game as they warmed up in their typical business-like fashion but this time with a smile on their face. It was evident in Popovich's pre-game press conference when he excused himself at the conclusion of the Q&A by saying "I'll be back here later, win or lose." And it was evident in the way the Spurs moved the ball during the game, time after time opting for the great shot instead of a good one.
It was the precision, good to great basketball represented by the troubled, yet entitled, Bix Rivers with just enough Jayfox trickery mixed in. The Spurs took the over-aggressive style of the Thunder and used it to their own advantage by being aggressive themselves--a controlled aggression that worked beautifully.
Time again they drew Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams and the rest of Thunder off of their feet and out of position and scored seemingly at will with pump fakes, misdirection and what often seemed to be one pass too many. It was as if every offensive possession in the final three quarters was without any absolute truth. Spinning, reversing, double move after double move, treating no shot as if it were uncontested. Most importantly though, they attacked the rim with purpose and deception, perhaps punctuated best by this Kawhi Leonard gem.
Boris Diaw was asked after the game why he chose at one point to pass out to Kawhi Leonard for a three even though he had a decent, somewhat open look under the basket. "That's something we've been doing all season, that's the good-to-great I was talking about," he said. "There was somebody coming that was guarding me, so I was looking for my teammate who was wide open."
He was then asked about the unusual starting lineup, and whether he thought Matt Bonner should get the nod again in Game 6. "It worked," he said. "But I don't know, that's above my pay grade."
As the series heads back to Oklahoma City, the Spurs appear to have stumbled onto something. They now know that a Thunder team with Serge Ibaka in the lineup can be beaten. Handily. They know that even when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant start their onslaught they can withstand it. And most importantly they know that while they may not be as athletic as the Thunder, they can be the better basketball team as long as they play the game in a manner beyond simple hustle and fundamentals. Instead of lamenting the athleticism and aggression of the Thunder, attack it and turn their strength against them.
If the Spurs play basketball in all its deception-filled glory on Saturday night, they will be fine. And playing the game in that fashion will make the character that lives inside the worn paperback from my childhood proud.
No tricks. Baseball is like those redcoats in that Revolutionary War, standing up and pointing their chins, marching in neat lines, loading up those dumb muskets very calm and up front, with polished boots and polished buckles and all kinds of honor...and getting their ass kicked by the Swamp Fox. Listen, the Swamp Fox had the idea. He used his brain. Running behind bushes with those bent knees, wearing moccasins and muddy buckskin, dangling his hat on the end of a stick and then popping up to flick a knife out from behind his collar, whisssh! I can tell you one thing: that Swamp Fox, if he lived now, he would be a basketball player. Hoops is for tricksters. You can bet if there were another war today and it was the dudes who played baseball against the ones who pop the double pump reverse spin lay-ups, the baseballers would never know what hit them.
Yeah, hoops is for tricksters.
And in a series full of misdirections and dangling hats on sticks, we'll find out Saturday if the Spurs can continue playing with enough magnificent deception to advance.