Confidence is an integral piece to success not only in basketball, but in anything in life. That's pretty intuitive: if you don't think you can succeed, your chances for success is pretty darn low.
The Thunder have owned the Spurs of late. In the last 11 matchups between the two heavyweights, nine have gone to the bad guys. Prior to last Wednesday's game, the Spurs averaged 94.7 points per game against them in their past 10 contests. At some point this has to be concerning... right? It's got to be time to ask, "What's so special about OKC?"
Sure their squad could be more talented than San Antonio's, but that sort of thing hasn't stopped a Gregg Popovich-led team before. The guys in silver and black have competed with the likes of the Kobe-Odom-Gasol-Bynum Lakers, the Wade-Bosh-LeBron Heat, and the offensive juggernaut in the 2006-7 Phoenix Suns back in the day. The Thunder aren't that more intimidating than any of those teams. So if it isn't athleticism, what's the real reason the Thunder have had the Spurs' number?
If you had asked me a few months ago, I would have told you that it was Tony Parker's selfish mindset. I thought Parker didn't believe in his teammates enough when the going got tough, and that his best shot to win was by taking all the shots. As it turns out, it was the exact opposite.
For those Spurs fans who have forgotten/suppressed the past few seasons, Coach Pop coined a catch phrase during his call-to-arms huddle in a first half timeout of Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
This speech has been analyzed and praised to death. "Get nasty" is not only a staple of generic, prurient rap music, but has also become a trademark of San Antonio Spurs basketball. And as famous as this quote has become, what stands out to me more in the interview is the penultimate line, "Shoot with confidence".
In that playoff series, Parker wasn't taking all the shots against the Thunder because he didn't believe in his teammates - his teammates didn't believe in themselves. They consistently deferred to the Frenchman until the offense was so predictable and stagnant that scoring on a possession against the Thunder seemed to be an enormous feat.
In the most recent matchup between the Thunder and Spurs, Parker was a major part of the offense again, but it wasn't because of a bailout -- most all of his points came straight out of the offense. Tim Duncan, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw knocked down their jumpers, which opened up the paint for Tony's drives. It was as if the role players began with the same confident mindset they'd have against the Bucks, making the offense multi-dimensional and unpredictable. The Spurs started to look like the offensive monsters that they are when playing mediocre teams. For once, the offense flowed well against OKC, and the Spurs looked great. And as well as the offense was rolling for San Antonio, it turns out playing a game without three of your best defenders makes it difficult to win against an offensive juggernaut.
While the offense was clicking, it must be noted that the Thunder weren't at their best. It was a SEGABABA for the Thunder, and their second best player was in
street clothes hipster apparel on the sideline. Even with these excuses, this Thunder team was still deadly. They were raining jumpers from anywhere short of the half court mark, and swatting shots away at a rate that made me question what a goaltend really is.
But for every insane Kevin Durant jumper, for every Derek Fisher pull-up three, for every Kendrick Perkins fade-away post move (seriously, what was that about?), Patty gave Fisher a taste of his own medicine by drawing a charge, Diaw confidently swished his threes, and Parker penetrated hard to the rim. If San Antonio has had a tough time playing confident against OKC, for once, Parker and company played like they believed they should beat the Thunder.
Confidence is more than half the battle in the NBA, and any game where the Spurs can put such heart and tenacity into a game despite all of the injury adversity is a win in my book. The result may not have been what we would have liked it to be, but for the first time in a long time, the Spurs unleashed some nasty against OKC. And it was refreshing.
The Spurs, yet again short-handed, faced another serious title contender on Sunday against the Miami Heat. Things didn't stack up well for San Antonio, what with Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green injured and Dwyane Wade returning. This was just about as much of a guaranteed loss as you could get.
But that's what makes this Spurs team so special. They could have been blown out of the gym from the start of the game, but this band of ballers held fast. Jeff Ayres viciously attacked the rack. Diaw aggressively looked to free himself up for open shots. Belinelli even tied his season high with five free throw attempts. In the first half, one of the premier defensive teams in the NBA (albeit struggling of late) had a tough time locking down a Spurs squad sans three key contributors.
At the end of the day though, the Heat broke the game open courtesy of a 25-8 third-quarter run keyed by LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen. Even during this stretch, the Spurs continued to get good looks -- they just weren't going in. And when LeBron is literally making shots from behind the backboard, what can you do? This was the type of effort that I haven't seen from the role players since the NBA Finals (and perhaps aptly so, given how much of a nightmare game Manu had).
Injury-riddled even further, the Spurs headed into Houston looking to sneak away with a win against a James Harden-less Rockets team. What ended up killing the Spurs was the lack of big men. The bigs' depth chart last night was Duncan, Ayres, Diaw, Bonner, then Baynes. Duncan is the only man on that list who can consistently guard Dwight Howard, and he can't play too much in regular season games because he is, after all, 37 years old. Without Tiago and Kawhi to help grab boards, the Rockets won the rebound battle 55-39, and an insane 42.2% offensive rebounding rate. To put that number in perspective, the Detroit Pistons are the league-leaders in offensive rebounding rate at 31.3%.
Even without Harden, the Rockets are a top-10 offensive group. What is encouraging was that this hobbled bunch of Spurs led through the first two quarters with some more confident shooting from Diaw and some aggressive defense, in particular Duncan's fantastic one-on-one coverage of Howard. Without three of their premier defenders, the Spurs managed to hold Houston to a mere 39 points on 34% shooting.
In the fourth quarter, there was a span of three or four minutes where almost all of the offense was exclusively run through Boris. And it wasn't just some crackpot idea by Coach Pop -- it actually worked. The fact that the coaching staff was willing to let a role player take over in the final minutes of a close game is an indication of trust. In my eyes, this game killed two birds with one stone. Namely, Diaw should use this game to build his confidence come playoff time and Kawhi should look at this game as motivation for how to take over games in the post.
Honestly, I'll gladly take heartbreaking losses or disastrous blowouts to the NBA's finest where the guys play with confidence over a game that the good guys don't deserve to win, like the 86-84 victory against the Thunder last year where Tony Parker knocked down the game-winner. When you're a fan of a team as consistently successful as the San Antonio Spurs, you don't worry about regular season wins and losses. You worry about the progress and process of the role players, and how they handle hardship.