The Western Conference was a Gauntlet. And the Spurs ran it.
It feels weird to say now, since games three and four of this series seemed to reestablish the convenient "Narrative" of the Spurs' inability to beat a full strength Oklahoma City Thunder team, but it really has felt like the Spurs have activated another level of their psyche since Game Seven of the Dallas series.
Of course this game was in doubt. Yes, at one point the series was tied 2-2, with every ounce of momentum having swung the Thunder's way. Even in this game there were glimpses of backbreaking moments that could've spelled doom for the entire Spurs season. The ease with which Kevin Durant got his layup to put the Thunder up two in the fourth felt like one of those. Russell Westbrook stealing the ball and taking it all the way. The goaltend that wasn't. Serge Ibaka blocks Manu, leading to a Westbrook racing that layup that put...
Wait. Kawhi Leonard blocked him. He blocked him and effectively set in motion the three possessions at the end of overtime that made certain the Spurs were moving on. A backbreaker was avoided. The Spurs dodged another tragic injury, the curse of playing in OKC and the seeming inevitability of Kevin Durant's shot once it leaves his hands. The Spurs took every punch the Western Conference had to offer, and countered with a shot of their own.
This game was all about paying things off from the regular season, and realizing how negligent some teams and coaching staffs on other squads can be. Nothing is easy, but for championship caliber teams, the regular season can often feel like a slow rush of unexpectedly tough games from teams that likely won't make the playoffs. How coaching staffs and rosters respond to these regular season changes might have an impact on what happens in late May and early June.
Case in point, the other Conference Final. The Miami Heat were always going to dismantle this hyper-dysfunctional Indiana Pacers team, Game One be damned. But watching Game Six of that series, I was struck by how utterly discombobulated the Pacers were. Yes, Lance Stephenson was going crazy in a way we haven't seen since the heyday of Ron Artest, but every time a Pacer bench player entered the game, it was as if a weight was added to the already stuck in quicksand Pacer offense. Playing your (admittedly historically great defensive) starting lineup an egregious amount of time in regular season games that don't seem to matter is a sign of not respecting the process of playoff basketball.
Championships are won with stars. This is largely fact, disregarding the odd 2004 Detroit Pistons outlier that almost proves the rule. When the going gets tough, one must trust the reliability of your best player to get the job done in the last two minutes of a crucial playoff game. That's what great players are there for.
Tonight was about those first few months of the season when the Spurs Twitterverse went into a collective tizzy about Boris Diaw being a primary offensive option, contract year or no. Tonight was about the weeks in January and February when nothing seemed to go right; when the injuries just kept piling up and Pop found himself starting Shannon Brown and Cory Joseph. Tonight was about knowing where the safety valves are, and making sure they're prepped and ready to go.
Which is why Cory Joseph became a difference maker from the moment he threw down his vicious dunk on Serge Ibaka. Not only was that showing that yes, Serge can bleed, Cory's dunk proved that the Spurs system can work, no matter what cog gets thrown into the mix. Matt Bonner started the last two games of the Western Conference Finals, despite getting nearly zero important minutes in the first 2.5 rounds. Boris Diaw scored 26 points.
By virtue of this excellence from nearly every point of the Spurs, the Spurs stars (or 3/4 of them) were allowed to wreak their havoc and finish off the Thunder. Kawhi Leonard's steadfast defense, even in the face of being completely gassed on the offensive end trying to assert himself. And maybe one other guy that we'll get to later.
There's so much more basketball left to play before the real fun begins, but instead of levelheaded, Popovichian stoicism I have chosen to drink some very exclusive scotch and get a little misty about what happened in Oklahoma City on Saturday night. I think it would be a mistake for anybody to buy totally into the narrative of the Spurs just keeping their head down and not thinking about the series that just passed. Whatever advantage Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka had mentally or physically over the Spurs has been eliminated. Despite 2012's disastrous meltdown, I guarantee you there are a few Spurs smiling tonight. There's a larger goal at hand. Spurs players know it. Hopefully the fans know it.
For now though, I ask you to look back on the regular season. The times when some Spurs fans were headed to the ledge. All of that consternation paid off, and the Spurs are going to the Finals!
Quotes of the Game
His body is amazing.
- Pop, on Kawhi Leonard. The Bromance continues.
We're happy it's the Heat.
- Tim, on the Finals. I love this mentality. Regardless of whether Indiana would've been easier, I value that Tim wants to beat Lebron like he should've last year so highly it's unreasonable.
Manu Ginobili, accurately assessing the coaching quality of Gregg Popovich.
This victory is really sweet, because we know we played one helluva, helluva team,
Pop, on the Thunder. The Spurs will always be my team,
Tim Duncan - 19 points, 15 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 1 block on 6-14 shooting in 39 minutes.
Gripe all you want about not having Boris here. You may be right. But watching what happened to Tim Duncan in that overtime period was something I will not soon forget. Tim was doing his thing for the majority of the night tonight; picking his spots, letting opportunities come to him through the ease and natural effectiveness of the offense. But when overtime hit, suddenly something clicked. Duncan was aggressive against every post defender he faced, and embarrassed Serge Ibaka in the post twice using nothing but simple intelligence. If Tim Duncan doesn't decide to call his own number, the Spurs likely don't win. Tonight the GOATPUFF shut everything down.
Call it postgame euphoria, but I'm not doing one.
By the Numbers
- 155 - Career playoff double-doubles by Tim Duncan, two shy of Magic Johnson's record. I understand arguments for Russell or Bird, but in my mind the four All-Time Greatest NBA Players are 1. Jordan, 2. Magic, 3. Kareem and 4. Tim. The man is everything I love about the game of basketball.
- 51 - Points from the Spurs bench.
- 5 - Points from the Thunder bench (all Derek Fisher). I don't necessarily agree with the line of thinking that OKC needed some of their supporting cast to pitch in. All of OKC's best four players (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Reggie Jackson) are young, spry and capable of scoring in bunches. The reality that all of them could score 20-30 on a given night is not incredibly far-fetched, and that reality gets OKC a lot closer to winning than trying to involve the chucking Caron Bulter, inexperienced Stephen Adams or (god forbid) Kendrick Perkins in the offense. The disparity between these numbers is egregious, but that's Scott Brooks' system is, by design. I don't think it's a good system, but hey... when you've got the MVP, you tend to lean on him and his pals.
- 16 - Offensive rebounds for the Spurs. Whether it was Kawhi, Tim or Boris, the Spurs were able to get in good position and generate second chances, which is the kiss of death against an offense that works this efficiently.
- 4 - More.
Bird Is the Word
(AP) - Oklahoma City "I just went with my gut," said Popovich, on his decision to play grease-stained rag at guard in Game 6. Rag had 16 po— netw3rk (@netw3rk) June 1, 2014
The Spurs: DEATH BY PAPER CUTS.— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) June 1, 2014
HE AIN'T HEAVY HE'S MY BORIS— Jim Bob Breazeale (@jbbreazeale) June 1, 2014
What a game. What a pair of teams. The Spurs? What can you even say anymore? The standard in pro sports.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 1, 2014
Didn't expect Duncan to suddenly pull out a Joe Namath prediction. That girlfriend's changed things— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) June 1, 2014
Dustin Hoffman plays Pop in the movie, right?— Ari Temkin (@arisports) June 1, 2014
15 years ago Tim Duncan was headed to the Finals and Kanye West was just a guy getting the hook-up from his dog at Taco Bell.— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) June 1, 2014
tim duncan is a miracle he's been in my life longer than everyone except my mom and dad and neither of them are any good in the post— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) June 1, 2014
Four titles, six Finals appearances, 1095 total wins, 17 playoff berths. An unprecedented run of basketball excellence.
— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) June 1, 2014
Odds and Ends
Game 1 vs. Miami Heat - Thursday, June 5 @ 8pm - I don't know how to describe it. We're back. They're back. It feels like revenge but it also just feels like the completion of a grand adventure is at hand. I am typically not a gambling man, especially on matters Spurs, but I will say I feel far better about this team than I do about the team last year. Wade's health concerns me, simply because a hobbled Wade makes Miami infinitely easier to guard. But we are deeper, quicker and longer. Oh, and Manu's not dead.
Chaos reigns in this league, so I won't presume to say anything about the series ahead save this. I am so happy I get to see it. Go Spurs Go. Four.