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Morning rehash: Watch out for the jellyfish

In his 19th NBA season, Tim Duncan was 17-1 on opening day, only losing in 2008 before last nigh. Last night, 2015 was added to the list, when the Spurs played well on offense but failed to execute down the stretch as they fell to a motivated Thunder team in Oklahoma City. Billy Donovan, in his NBA coaching debut, outcoached the master.

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"What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get in the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that's not true at all. The real world is a much darker and deeper place than this, and much of it is occupied by jellyfish and things." ― Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Tim Duncan is a master at winning the opening tip of an NBA game. At this point in his career, he barely leaves the ground when he jumps but through some sort of Jedi magic, he almost always directs the ball towards the backcourt, where his teammates can retrieve it and start the offense. Last night, he did his part, but Andre Roberson beat Tony Parker to the ball and got a layup with just 4 seconds gone in the game.

This was indicative of what was going to happen in the rest of the game. While the Spurs played well and did most of the right things, but there were lapses when they just weren't sharp and played the right way for the most part but then execution would break down and the Thunder, as a well-coached team with great players will often do, took advantage of them

The Spurs look like a team loaded with talent, and they quickly erased the deficit. For the most part, it was an incredible display of NBA basketball, as two very good teams played exquisite basketball with very few lapses. Unfortunately, the lapses by the Spurs, while infrequent, were costly. They didn't get to the rebound after they caused a miss.  The silver and black played efficiently and sharply most of the game but just had lapses when they couldn't afford them.

Tony Parker looked good on offense, but Westbrook and the Thunder are the worst defensive matchup in the league for him, and while he can hide on Roberson when he's playing, when the Thunder put in Morrow or Waiters, he's just overmatched.  Usually you want Dion Waiters to take shots, but last night he was making good decisions and hitting shots at key times. I think that's one more example where Billy Donovan has made the Thunder better.

LaMarcus Aldridge had a really good first half and between him and Kawhi, the Spurs outplayed the Thunder, pulling to a 55-50 lead at the intermission, with Ginobili hitting a quick shot with 29 seconds left to initiate a two-for-one, followed by an incredible three-point shot by Westbrook to bring the Thunder within three.  The Spurs brought the ball quickly up and Aldridge scored on a putback of a Parker miss.

The starters played the Thunder pretty evenly as the third quarter began, but the Thunder chipped away at the lead behind solid play from Westbrook, Ibaka and Durant.

With about 6 minutes left in the third, Popovich put in the bench players, and we got to see a rare early season exhibition of Boris Diaw using his agility and cleverness to get past, under and around players much quicker than him. The Thunder had no answer for Boris and the only thing stopping him was coach Pop sending him to the bench with seven minutes left in the game.  The second unit of the Spurs is gong to be great this year, and they will be able to save games when the starters aren't having a great night. Patty Mills is a pest on defense, and his shot is falling.

Aldridge seemed to be more passive in the second half and seemed to defer to Duncan and Kawhi too much towards the end of the game.  I don't think he's fully comfortable is his role yet, but he did pretty well for his first real game with a new team.  I can't wait until he he becomes confident and feels like he can take control at the end of games when necessary.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the bench had done their job, leaving the starters with a 93-90 lead, which the Spurs extended to 97-90 with six minutes left on two smooth two point shots from Kawhi.

Tony Parker re-entered the game, and despite being aggressive for most of the game, he became too passive at the end.  For whatever reason, he stopped pressuring the defense, and it fell more on the rest of the team to create offense and open shots.  Despite San Antonio's stagnation and some brilliant play from the Thunder, the Spurs were able to keep even as the game neared to a close. Dion Waiters and D.J. Augustin made key plays as they closed the game and edged ahead by five points with 54 seconds left.

Kawhi brought the Spurs within two on a beautiful and-one on a drive to the basket over Kevin Durant.  Westbrook missed at the other end and the Spurs rebounded,  giving them the ball with 21 seconds left and only down by two.

They advanced the ball to the front court on a timeout, but the Spurs were out of position for the inbounds play and Pop had to call another timeout to correct the alignment. Then it happened.

Danny Green got the ball into Tim at the three point line and drifted in bounds.  Duncan didn't see anyone open, so he handed the ball to Danny, who took a couple of dribbles, using the screen from Tim directly into the teeth of the defense of the Thunder and jacked up an inadvisable three-point shot over Steven Adams' outstretched arms. With 16 seconds left.

As Spurs fans, we're used to Danny Green being a streak shooter.  He's called Icy/Hot for a reason, but he rarely makes bad decisions. This time he did. It's like the jellyfish in the Murakami quote above. Unexpected.

The missed shot effectively ended the game and brought us to the end of the current story.  The Spurs played well, but they didn't execute well.  At the end, they looked like a team where they weren't quite organized, and not everyone knew exactly what to do when they could.  It was just a little crack in the armor, but it was enough for the Thunder to exploit to win the game.

I'm not discouraged at all.  I think the Spurs are ahead of where I expected them to be at this point in the season. This kind of game is just the sort of thing that makes the coaches happy. They can point to the good things that everyone did, and also show them where they still have work to do. As the first game of the Aldridge era,  it's not a bad start.

Musical interlude:

Random observations:

  • Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the floor last night.  It's really impressive to watch a very good player get better every season. He is not only an elite defender, he can take over the game offensively. He had an incredible block on Durant and neutralized him for most of the game, but was also the go to player for the Spurs offense.
  • Russell Westbrook is not only fast, he is crazy quick. He has the ability to suddenly accelerate to get past a defender who has him covered.  The only player on the Spurs with enough defensive quickness to counter that move is Leonard, so a lot of the Thunder offense this game was predicated on forcing another player to switch.  When Parker got onto Westbrook, he had a green light to drive to the basket.
  • Durant looks fully healthy and 100% recovered from his foot injury.  Despite being limited by Kawhi's excellent defense, he had no trouble with moving around last night.  It's a great thing for the league to have him back.
  • I expect the Thunder to make a leap this year  similar to what the Warriors did last year when Steve Kerr replaced Mark Jackson.  When you go from a good coach to a great coach, a talented team becomes much better.  Billy Donovan is really good, and that's really scary for the Spurs. The last couple of years, the Thunder was able to win teams by pure talent, but this year, they are sharper and do the little things well. They are now using the skills of everyone on the floor, and this team is now one of the biggest obstacles for the Spurs in their quest for a sixth NBA title.
  • Kyle Anderson didn't play well last night. While he saw the floor well on offense, he didn't move his feet on defense and reverted to the stand in one place and reach as players go by defense he employed last year. He did take open shots when he had them but he wasn't hitting. After a great summer league and a good preseason, he still looks like the incomplete player he was last year.  I hate it when Erler's right.
  • David West fits in this system. He brought together the second unit with toughness passing and scoring. I had more concern for the second unit than the starters before this game, but I can see now that the backups will be just fine.
  • Ginobili! What can you say about him, he looks fresher and faster this year than last year. He's a crazy swiss army knife of awkward moves on offense and seems to be able to create space on anyone, even when he has no business beating them. His passing is the same high-risk high reward gambit that we've come to expect from him. He just changes the game whenever he comes in.
  • Coach Pop seemed disengaged last night.  It's like when the kid says that they're going to run away and dad packs them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sets up a tent in the back yard for them, knowing they're going to be back in a few hours when they get lonely or bored.  He seemed to let the players make their mistakes and try to learn from them. When Danny Green put up that silly shot with too much time left on the shot clock, he didn't even get mad.
  • Boban Marjanovic wasn't on the active roster last night.  C'mon Pop, release the Boban.
  • Kevin Durant plays drums: