Game 1 Thoughts: Meaningless Regular Season is Meaningless
Among the popular reasons to pick the Spurs over the Thunder - and I admit to being as guilty as anyone - was their regular season success over them in 2012. The Spurs won two of three meetings, including a romp in their only home date, and blew OKC's doors off from downtown, shooting a blistering 51.8% (28-of-54). Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were both critical, of course, but our real difference makers in the regular season series were Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 11.0 and 14.3 points against the Thunder respectively, and shot 15-of-22 (68.2%) from three against them.
You know who wasn't good against OKC? One Tiago Splitter, who actually combined for 15 points (and 7-of-8 from the free throw line!) in the first two games but was also -31 in 37 minutes. His "best" game against the Thunder was the last one, in which he got injured after three minutes and had a three trillion on the stat sheet, but was a +7 nonetheless.
You know who else wasn't good against OKC? Three of the top eight guys in our rotation, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, though they all had the convenient excuse of not playing them at all. What I'm trying to get at is that we had limited information to go off of, due to various circumstances, and we had to make our best guesses from what was available.
I feel kind of stupid for doing it now, actually. I get mad all the time when "experts" point to San Antonio's mediocre regular season defensive stats as though it's their fatal flaw, when so few account for the fact that Jackson and Diaw joined the team during the final third of the season. Once they were mixed into the rotation (jettisoning Richard Jefferson and greatly diminishing DeJuan Blair's role) the defensive numbers improved dramatically, to the point where the Spurs were a top-five team in efficiency from then on.
The point I'm trying to make is that none of the regular season stuff against the Thunder matters. It's not valid at all. The Spurs played in those games, yes, but they weren't these Spurs. That team would've gotten the second or third seed and probably have been bounced in the second round by the Lakers. These Spurs are pretty decent.
Or they were, until game 1 against the Thunder, anyway, where day was night, white turned black, up went down and James Harden (59.4% FG vs. Spurs and 20 FTA) actually missed a few jumpers and didn't go to the line. The only reasons I knew this wasn't some bizarre dream were that Russell Westbrook was still playing like a total jackass and Derek Fisher was once again killing the Spurs in a playoff game.
Much (like ridiculously too much, find another angle guys) has been made of Pop telling his guys that he "wants some nasty" but to me the story of the game was the Spurs defense basically bailing the team out for three quarters and keeping the game from becoming an insurmountable blowout. Through three quarters the Thunder were 28-of-67 (41.8%) from the floor despite all the easy run-outs and fast break points they had from our turnovers and their nine offensive rebounds. Their triumvirate of Harden-Westbrook-Durant was particularly awful, shooting a combined 16-of-45 (35.6%). Of the three, I thought only Durant was getting decent looks - how can he not, considering his length? - but Harden was forcing a few things in the lane, clearly looking for whistles, and Westbrook had all kinds of buffoonery.
There was no way the regular season Spurs could've played as poorly as they did on offense, shooting 26-of-67 (38.8%) and 6-of-20 (30%) from deep, with 16 (ugh) turnovers, and been anywhere within hailing distance from the Thunder, or too many other Western playoff teams, really. Instead of 71-62, we'd have been looking at 83-62 and have a safe drive home, everybody.
In the fourth quarter, where they flipped the script and turned a nine point deficit into a ten point lead, it's not like the Spurs magically started playing appreciably better defense. The Thunder actually shot 44% in the fourth, boosting their overall percentage, and yes, I know their 5-of-7 finish in garbage time boosts that. Still, their 2-of-9 start to the period didn't strike me as remarkable because you don't shoot 41.8% through three quarters without a few 2-of-9 stretches sprinkled in. The Spurs did draw four offensive fouls in the final stanza, but again, the Thunder had nine turnovers the first three quarters, so it's not like it's a huge bump to go from three to four in the final 12 minutes.
No, ladies and germs, here's what happened in Bizarro Game 1: The Spurs went from a team that executed superbly and consistently for four quarters on offense and saved their defensive efforts for the final quarters to one that played consistently in their own end the whole game and waited for their offense to show up in the fourth. In other words, they played like the good ol' championship Spurs teams of yore (momma).
Obviously most of the roses are falling at Manu's feet (we'll get to him in a minute) but I think it's important to note that the catalysts for the comeback from nine down were Gary Neal and Splitter, who erased the first seven points of the deficit while Ginobili was on the bench. Then Parker, who was unspeakably awful in the first half, had the second of his two second half bursts, hitting a top of the key jumper and then a nice up-and-under against Kendrick Perkins to give the Spurs their first fourth quarter lead.
I thought it was awesome that our bench came right out of the gates playing so well since the first two series they were so poor until the closeout games.
Jackson's physical defense on Durant drew a few fouls, but he didn't give the Thunder superduperstar an inch of room and was strong enough to not allow any post-ups, unlike Leonard, who let Durant get in the lane on him all Dirk-like, a few times. I think it's odd how Jackson hardly ever looks to shoot anymore, but if he's happy with his self-designated "Durant-stopper" role, who am I to argue?
Neal hit his usual assortment of clutch shots and it didn't even bother me when he took that pull up 26-footer. At least it was open, unlike some of the threes that Green and Leonard forced. I've seen Neal make plenty of those shots all year. The only issue I had with Neal's play was that he didn't close out on Fisher a couple of times, but at the same time he drew two charges by sagging in the paint.
Splitter, who's struggled with his post moves all postseason, tossed in a couple from close range and finished off a couple of his usual pick-and-rolls from Manu as well. The Brazilian big man came down with a half dozen boards in 12 minutes and drew a charge too. Still, his free throw shooting has become so putrid that I fear they're gonna start hacking the Brazilian out of him now any time he touches the ball, so we'll see how that goes. One way or another, some of our foreign-born dudes are gonna be fouled hard in this one, probably by Perkins, who'll then make more incredulous faces when the refs blow the whistle.
(Perkins may be even more annoying than Westbrook. He's gonna become the league's first player ever to get whistled for a flagrant-two and insist he didn't even touch the guy).
Bonner, I thought, exposed a coaching hypocrisy last night, and I'm not writing that as a critique of Pop, because every coach does it. Coaches always say they're never gonna pull a guy for missing shots as long as he takes the ones he's supposed to take and plays hard and smart in all other facets. Well, that's exactly what Bonner did. He defended well, rebounded well (for him) and took his two open looks. He clanked them both and hardly saw the floor the rest of the way. I thought he played pretty well, all things considered. He was a +7 in his 10 minutes, before a -6 in the last 22 seconds obscured his effectiveness in spacing the floor. We'll see what kind of run Bonner gets as this series goes on.
I'm forgetting a bench guy. Oh, right, him. Manu's first four minutes were cover-your-eyes awful. I was yelling in the bar, imploring him to touch the ball after the second of Parker's two horrid jump pass turnovers, and what does Gino do in his first touch? You guessed it, a jump pass turnover. Then another sloppy one, where the only guy in the world who knows that he's going to cut sharply left - Harden, because he does the same thing - easily stole the ball from him. Then a dumb step-back that Durant easily swallowed. I was wincing, Ginobili looked so bad.
Out of nowhere came a seven point spurt. Another step-back, this time on the shorter Thabo Sefolosha. Then an awkward drive into traffic where the ball somehow rolled in. Then that ridiculous turnaround three at the buzzer. I actually am glad that was his first three-point attempt of the series. He didn't have time to think about it. I think it was the key for the rest of his game.
You'll notice that Ginobili had an unusually high amount of lay-ups in this game, five by my count. I think the key for this was that, finally, he wasn't stagnant at the top of the key, running down the shot-clock, waiting for the trap to come. Rather, he was on the move, attacking. He got one reverse on a sharp cut and another lay-in on a nifty out-of-bounds play where he lost Harden, and Perkins was too slow to rotate over. Two late drives in the fourth quarter, including his three-point play which basically iced the game, came because Manu surprised the Thunder by attacking earlier in the shot clock than he typically does.
Parker tried to do the same thing in the first half, and I think it was a part of the game plan, but the team was just too rusty, too unused to the speed, length and athleticism of the Thunder, to make it work. I think over the long run it's a good strategy though, and one that will pay dividends. Attack them before they're set, before they can trap. They just have to be sharper, and to hit their wide open shots, to pull it off.
Going forward, it's hard not to be confident. All night long, the Spurs consistently got better shots than the Thunder. If they get those looks night after night, eventually the percentages will "regress to the mean," as DeJuan Blair put it. Nah, just kidding, that was Manu. The moment may have been too big for Leonard and Green (who wasn't even close with his misses and also had a couple of terrible turnovers and some perplexing defensive miscues), but I'm not about to give up on them after one game. I recall them struggling in game 1 vs. Utah too, and then they lit it up in game 2.
The only thing that worries me (and just about the only thing I got right as far as predictions go) is that maybe Scott Brooks will be... I want to say smart but that's not the word... will be not stupid enough to play small for so long the rest of the way. When the Thunder are small, Duncan will be way better than their opposing big, regardless of who it is. They'll be limited in how much they can trap the pick-and-roll because they won't have anyone to protect the paint. They'll leave themselves vulnerable to the drive-and-kick game. There's really no reason they should ever use it, even if Perkins is terrible, because like I wrote in my preview, I think the Spurs will score against it almost literally every time. Which they did.
If you tell me that they're gonna play with two bigs for 46 minutes a night, meaning that the 6'19" Durant will be their "small" forward, then yeah, I'll start worrying, because then it's going to mean that the Spurs will have to win some 88-84 rock fights. Those games will come down to free throws and who makes more contested jumpers. DO. NOT. WANT.
Your Three Stars (Make your free throws, Tiago):
3) Gary Neal: If you told me he was going to play the final 15:15 of a close game, without injuries being a factor, I would've thought you were a stupid person.
2) Tim Duncan: I bet you thought I was gonna put Jackson here, didn't you? Calm down with the Cap'n Jack hysteria. He was aight. The Thunder still would've scored 214 points on 83 dunks without Timmy's involvement. Quit listening to the media doofuses and watch the games.
1) Manu Ginobili: If not for one 35-point outing (also against Memphis) last year, this would've been the second straight season that Ginobili had his season-high in points during a playoff game. Cut that Robert Horry stuff out, Manu.
P.S. More bizarre-ness: Westbrook and Durant both missed emphatic dunks, while OKC's best dunk of the night was registered by Nick Collison.