Western Conference Finals Game 6 @OKC: Spurs 112, Thunder 107 (OT) Spurs win: 4-2
By now, you're probably all too aware that Charles Barkley is a nitwit. The thing is, I am too. When am I ever gonna stop doubting these San Antonio Spurs?
Barkley keeps picking against the Spurs: first in their Western Conference Semifinal against Portland, then against Oklahoma City and finally again late Saturday night, when he predictably picked the Miami Heat in their Finals rematch. His reasoning, as always, is that the Spurs are less athletic, they're older than dirt, and their opponent has the best player in the series, if not the best two.
Barkley cannot come to grips with the concept of a team making the Finals without all the stars -- pun fully intended -- aligning perfectly. He happened to lose in his one Finals trip to a team not only with the best player in the world at his absolute peak in Michael Jordan, but also a couple of other stars in Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in their primes as well. And it's easy to connect the dots with the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat.
How can Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, at 38 and 36.9 years-of-age, respectively, get through the gauntlet of the Western Conference in general and past the mind-bogglingly talented tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in particular, especially when Tony Parker is also on the wrong side of 30 and Kawhi Leonard is still too early in his developmental curve?
Barkley can't grasp the concept because he is, just like me, a loser. That's why.
And a loser can always spot another loser from a hundred yards away. I'm always expecting the other shoe to drop, always expecting the worst. Politely, we call this way of thinking "being pragmatic," but really it's just a loser's mentality. I was fearing the worst after two blowouts on the road and thinking the Spurs would lose Game 5 at home. And when they won it by 28 points, my first thought was, "rest the big three, don't even put 'em on the plane, save 'em for Game 7. It's not like they can get a call in OKC anyway."
Blaming the refs preemptively. It doesn't get more loser-ish than that.
Sir Charles fully committed himself to winning (doing everything it takes mentally and physically, playing both ends of the floor, accepting his coaching, and trusting his teammates) for maybe two or three years of his career. When that didn't work, when he felt his physical decline coming, he quickly abandoned that mental dedication, put on weight, didn't take it seriously enough and never really gave himself or his teams a full chance to get back to the Finals.
A minute into the game, Kawhi Leonard showed what he thought of Chesapeake Energy Arena, the supposedly "intimidating" Thunder fans and OKC's superior athleticism by spinning around Durant, brushing aside Westbrook and dunking over Serge Ibaka. The last thing on his mind was the warm comfort of a Game 7 at home. Duncan, pushing forty, beat Steven Adams, 20, down the floor and dunked on his head on a fast break.
As they did in Game 5, the Spurs shrugged off an early seven-point deficit and refused to let the Thunder run away and hide, and they did it mainly thanks to stingy half-court defense and the versatility of Boris Diaw, who sparked the offense from its doldrums. Neither team shot it a lick in the first quarter, but at least the Spurs matched the Thunder's energy defensively and on the boards.
About midway through the first quarter, the Spurs locked in defensively, to the point where the Thunder were only scoring in transition or off sideline-out-of-bounds plays. One illustrative play in particular with 8:45 to go in the first half had Leonard driving past Durant on the baseline and then sneaking past him to collect his own miss before passing it out, only to materialize moments later on the opposite corner to knock down a three. Still, he and Boris Diaw seemed to be the only Spurs with a pulse offensively and they were finding it hard to score with Parker noticeably lacking in zip and not at all looking to impose himself on the game, and Ginobili his trademark Casper-the-exhausted-ghost self in a road Game 6.
Durant hit a few jumpers over Green, Reggie Jackson went back to being a Spurs-killer and some late sloppiness from Parker caused the Spurs to close the half badly, and they trailed 49-42 at intermission, teetering on the brink. Here we go again, Loser Me thought. Once I found out that Parker was going to miss the rest of the game with an ankle injury, it was fait accompli, surely. I was fully expecting a repeat of Game 4, an early surrender by Pop, and the very real possibility of the starters making a quick cameo before checking out and for Ginobili to not play at all in the second half.
The Spurs, starting Cory Joseph in Parker's stead and Matt Bonner, naturally had other ideas. Leonard canned three mid-range jumpers and threw down another dunk off a sweet fast break feed from Green. Bonner drilled a three. Joseph did what Parker's balky ankle wouldn't allow him to do, driving into the teeth of the Thunder's defense and drawing their bigs, allowing Duncan an easy tip-in of his missed layup. He then shook free of Westbrook and sank a jumper. It really became a party when Diaw checked back in and he swished a pair of threes. Ginobili not only played but actually showed signs of life with five points, a pair of dimes and a steal. Even forgotten man Tiago Splitter got into the act. In all eight Spurs scored between 2-8 points en route to their 37 point third quarter, while their active defense took advantage of the Thunder's terrible spacing and turned over Durant and Westbrook seven times in the quarter. Green, personally stripped Durant three times.
The key sequence came with less than a minute to go in the period, when Patty Mills -- who was fantastic defensively -- stole the ball from Adams, leading to a tic-tac-toe Ginobili-Mills-Duncan-Diaw passing exhibition for a three pointer and then, following a missed layup from Jackson, Gino found Green for a three-and-one with Durant fouling Verde.
Out of nowhere, the Spurs led by 10 going into the fourth quarter of a close-out Game 6 on the road. How sick is this?, Loser Me fretted, of course, my thoughts drifting back to Miami last June. Seemingly in a blink the Thunder shot 14 free throws in the first five minutes of the period. I couldn't even blame the refs. They all looked like reasonable calls. The feeling was more like... not again. Not like this.
Going into Game 6, which I fully expected the Spurs to lose, all I wanted was for them to either make me look an idiot and win or to get annihilated by 30 and to save their legs for Game 7. The worst of both worlds would be a heartbreaking loss, which is just what appeared to be happening. The only reason the Spurs were holding on at all, was because Scooter Brooks thought it'd be a swell idea to play three point guards at once, leading to several easy post-ups of Diaw against Derek Fisher.
The Spurs led 97-91 with 2:28 to go, even though Duncan, Leonard, Ginobili, seemingly everyone but Diaw, had gone dry. The defense was hanging on. The precocious Leonard, who couldn't buy a bucket down the stretch, had four of the team's six assists in the final period.
Then came a nightmarish 8-0 run by the Thunder. First Westbrook drove for a layup, then after Ginobili swooped in out of nowhere to snatch an offensive board so the Spurs could reset up four and 1:45 to go, Westbrook easily stole Green's careless, telegraphed pass intended for Diaw and sprinted for another score. With just under a minute to go the zebras missed an obvious Durant hack across Duncan's arms moments before Ibaka swatted his shot and the ensuing loose ball foul on Diaw gave Durant two free throws to tie the game. When the refs missed a clear goal tend by Ibaka on Ginobili's layup attempt on the next possession, you can guess where my mind was at.
Conspiracy! Rigged! The fix is in!
Loser. Loser. Loser.
Durant drove for a layup over Duncan's outstretched arms with 32 seconds to go to give them a 99-97 lead. A thousand thoughts swirled through my mind about what the next possession would bring and precisely zero of them were "Ginobili coolly drills a quick three." Not in a road Game 6. Not the way he had shot all night. Yet that's exactly what happened.
Before I could even believe what was happening there was Durant on the floor, like a fish on the deck of a boat, with Leonard on top of him and Ginobili pouncing on the loose ball. Manu was fouled and if he made both the Spurs would be up three.
He missed the second. Ugh. Flashbacks to Miami. Game 6 is gonna haunt us forever. Why Manu, why? Of course Pop took out Duncan for that last possession and of course Westbrook immediately took it to the rim and got fouled, sinking both. At least it wasn't an and-1.
Ginobili hit the back iron on the potential series-winner. Duncan's put-back floater was a fraction of a second too late. How cruel can the basketball gods be? They're actively trolling us now.
I fully expected the Spurs to lose in overtime, just as they had in Miami. I didn't have an ounce of hope or faith in my entire body. They were toast. Not only that, but the way the game went, I was way less confident about a potential Game 7 too. Too many minutes for Duncan and Ginobili. Too much energy expended. Too much of an emotional toll.
You know, it's funny. Through four games a few people, including yours truly, made the comparisons to the 2005 Finals, and after Game 5, the fifth consecutive home blowout Duncan mentioned that he couldn't ever remember being in such a lopsided series, but one flashed to my mind immediately and the only reason I didn't mention it to anybody was because, infantile idiot that I am, I didn't want to jinx it.
Nobody brought up the Hornets in 2008? The home team won the first six games of that Western Semi-Final, and the closest of them was by 11 points. The other five had margins of 19, 18, 20, 22 and 19. As you may recall, New Orleans had home court advantage in that series. Here's how Game 7 went. We got so hung up on the team plane being stuck on the runway that we forgot about the actual game preceding it.
So yeah, I was a wee bit paranoid that the Thunder would do unto the Spurs what the Spurs did to Hornets, looking utterly feckless for three road games before dropping the hammer in a Game 7.
Duncan had obviously forgotten all about the circumstances of that series and he had little use for how overtime in Game 6 at Miami went either. While losers like me were drowning ourselves on those soul-crushing memories, he was outscoring the Thunder by himself in the extra period, even though Reggie Miller was absolutely convinced that he would spontaneously combust any second. Miller, another un-coincidentally ring-less pundit, couldn't believe what he was seeing, someone Duncan's age doing what he was doing right then at that moment, with those stakes on the line, having logged nearly 40 minutes, often as the only big man on the floor. He scored over and around Ibaka on one end while Leonard saved the game on the other, with a huge block of a would-be Westbrook layup with 42 seconds to go. Durant and Westbrook finally ran out of gas, combining to make 1-of-10 shots in overtime, and that was that.
Tim Duncan is a winner. The Spurs are a team of winners. Our kind watches them, some of us even cheer for them, but we simply cannot relate or process what we're seeing. Their will and mentality are as foreign to us (ha), as alien as the Thunder are with their athleticism. It took six tries but we finally got a back-and-forth slugfest, with neither team at their best or their worst and in the end the Spurs prevailed, on the road, without their best player for the second half. They had 15 steals to the Thunder's nine and 16 offensive boards to their seven, leading to 13 and 14 point advantages in points off turnovers and second-chance points, respectively over the younger, faster, stronger team.
Barkley and Miller may see no need to change, but I'm never doubting these guys again.
Your Three Stars:
3) Kawhi Leonard (17 pts)
2) Boris Diaw (16 pts)
1) Tim Duncan (25 pts)