I have to admit it. As a Spurs fan and a basketball fan, this series has drained the life out of me. In this series we've seen two Spurs teams, the organized, focused team at the AT&T Center that moves the ball and makes open shots and makes solid rotations on defense, vs. the rattled timid team in Chesapeake Energy Arena that holds onto the ball for way too long until they attempt a weak pass late in the shot clock that an out-of-bounds streaking Westbrook can quickly pick off and turn into one of his insane circus dunks.
Likewise, the Thunder have also had a split personality. Despite good offensive efforts from their big two of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the first two games, they got dismantled by the Spurs motion offense in games 1 and 2 and lost by huge margins. The Thunder had the built-in excuse that their best defender was missing from the lineup with an injury, and was not expected to return.
And then everything changed
Serge Ibaka, due to a miracle of modern medicine, good work by trainers, or just a bad original diagnosis, came back to start game 3. Despite seeming to be in some pain, he looked to be physically 100 percent and blocked everything within a 100 foot radius of his insanely long arms. And any time he got the ball on offense, he gently tossed it through the net from wherever he happened to be standing on the court.
It seemed like the Serge Ibaka we had seen during the regular season had been replaced by a 14 foot tall cyborg, capable of erasing any shot by vaporizing the ball with beams from his laser eyes. His mighty powers, fueled by the roar of the home crowd, grew to insane proportions until with just a sweep of his giant smashy claw he could level entire cities. Under his shadow, the rest of the Thunder seemed to grow in stature, and they towered over their cowering opponents for two games. Maybe it wasn't an excuse after all. All of the Spurs hung back, afraid to attack.
And then it changed again
It happened in garbage time near the end of game 4, and it came from an unexpected source. A player who hardly ever sees the floor decided to challenge the creature and he rose up and dunked the ball. His name was Cory Joseph. Many will say that this wasn't a big deal, just a garbage time bucket from an end-of-the-bench player. But you cannot underestimate the importance of this moment.
From that point on, the Spurs saw Ibaka for who he truly is, a very talented, quick, and athletic NBA player, with strengths and weaknesses. He can be challenged, and an agressive challenger can win if they are quick enough and challenge him with strength. He can't both patrol the paint and cover three point shooters at the time. He's only a human being, although a very strong and quick one.
It's only appropriate that Joseph showed the way, because that is the Spurs advantage in this series. The Thunder starters are as good as the Spurs stars but they are younger and can play longer without getting tired.
Tim Duncan is one of the greatest to ever play the game but at this point in his career he can't bring it for 46 minutes in a game like Durant and Westbrook can. I don't know that Westbrook and Durant need to rest at all in a 48 minute NBA game, they are THAT athletic. But the other guys on the Thunder aren't supremely transcendent athletes like Kevin and Russ. Ibaka can give 30-35 minutes, but he can't play the whole game. Kendrick Perkins is there to pound on guys inside and tire them out at the beginning of the game, but he's not going to play big minutes.
The Thunder have a great starting lineup, especially since they made Reggie Jackson a starter. But when the starters have to rest, the Spurs have a huge advantage, not just because the Spurs bench is better, but their players are more prepared to contribute, and that's because Pop has been playing them in situations that matter all season long. Players like Patty Mills and Boris Diaw are ready to go and can deliver blows to the other team instead of just marking time until the starters can come back in. Scott Brooks does not develop bench players, so even though players like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III have NBA-level talent, they're just not ready when they are called upon.
"There's no use crying over every mistake. You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake"--Jonathan Coulton.
I honestly believe that the Spurs figured out what to do against the Thunder starting at the end of game 4, and that continued in game 5. Much has been made of the fact that Pop changed the lineup game 5 to make sure there was a stretch 4 in the game at all times to make Ibaka have to cover more ground and tire him out. That was a big part of the game 5 success. But just as big was the fact that the Spurs realized that they had to be aggressive at all times. Against a team as talented as the Thunder, in order to win, you have to have a nearly perfect mix of aggression and execution, and when it comes together, it's a beautiful thing.
The Thunder are going to play with abandon, and they have nothing to lose in this game. Expect Ibaka and Steven Adams to have great games in front of the home crowd. Durant will shoot better than he has, and Westbrook willl be insanely aggressive. They won't give the Spurs anything, and if they want to win, San Antonio is going to have to take it from them. If they find in themselves the spirit that Cojo felt in that moment when he smashed the ball in Serge's face, they have a chance to win. It's important for them to play well, because if they can't play well on the road, it's going to make the finals almost impossible to win, assuming they can get that far. The Spurs have to prove that they can play well in an extremely hostile environment, which they haven't so far in this series. I think that tonight they find their inner CoJo, and they match efforts with an inspired Thunder team. I expect the best game of the series tonight, and the first one where both teams play well in the same game. Spurs by four.
|Game 6, Western Conference Finals, 2014 NBA Playoffs|
|May 31, 2014|
|Chesapeake Energy Arena - Oklahoma City, OK|
|7:30 pm CST|
|TV: TNT - Radio: 1200 WOAI|
|Tony Parker||PG||Russell Westbrook|
|Danny Green||SG||Thabo Sefolosha|
|Kawhi Leonard||SF||Kevin Durant|
|Tim Duncan||PF||Serge Ibaka|
|Red Mamba aka The Crimson Chucker*||C||Kendrick Perkins|
*Or it might be Boris Diaw or some other random Spur, as determined by the Popovich algorithm.
For the Thunder's perspective visit Welcome to Loud City.
Game Prediction: Spurs by 4.
Line in Vegas: Thunder by 3 1/2.
As always Tony must dominate Fisher, for real this time, and you can get your San Antonio Spurs tickets from Daniel Farias with Spurs Sports & Entertainment:
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