In The System We Trust
It had all the markings of "one of those games." That their struggles came exactly one calendar year from the date of the Spurs' last home loss gave the proceedings a predestined air. A nine point SA lead had somehow turned into a seven point deficit. Among Spurs players who were with the team before March 9th, the team had shot 0-15 from three. Oh. For. Fif. Teen. (Old newbie Kevin Martin had the lone make of the half.) Russell Westbrook and Enos Kanter had almost singlehandedly kept the Thunder hanging around in the first half, and their persistence paid off with a 4 point halftime lead for OKC. That the Spurs had led at all was mostly due to Danny Green's defense on Kevin Durant, the Thunder's tendency to cough up the ball in a crowd of grey shirts (Westbrook had 9 TOs all by himself) and near-perfect shooting by the frontcourt combo of Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kawhi Leonard. Throughout the third, SA could make no headway, the whistles were blowing steadily, the crowd was getting antsy - as it often does when the home team is losing a big game - and the Spurs entered the fourth having chipped only two points off of OKC's lead.
In other words, they had the Thunder right where they wanted them. But we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.
Thanks to their versatility of talent, "Live by the three, die by the three" is a stereotype the Spurs largely manage to avoid, but in games like last night's matchup versus Oklahoma City, it's evident how much of SA's offensive flow depends on knocking down shots from beyond the arc. While Pop has ensured the team is proficient in multiple styles, their preference is still passing the ball around in half-court until it finally Plinkos its way to an open shooter, ideally someone in the corner or Danny Green on the wing.
But some nights those shots don't go down, the defense collapses, and the Spurs go into mid-range mode. When you have one of the best jump-shooting big men of all time it tends to help lessen the pain (Aldridge shot a superb 9-14 last night), but there's no denying the Spurs had spent much of the night playing at OKC's pace. It was the visitors who were on a SEGABABA, but the home team looked physically and emotionally stunted. However, fourth quarters this season have tended to be magical times for Thunder opponents, and with 7 minutes to go in the game Westbrook and Crew were about to turn into pumpkins. It was Westbrook himself who delivered the decisive clock chime, jumping away from Green on defense to double Aldridge at the left elbow. LMA rotated, found Icy(/Hot) open in the corner, and the Spurs had the lead the rest of the way.
Afterward, Pop provided the quote of the night:
"He's a pro and we made it clear to him there's only two outcomes," Popovich explained of Green's determination to keep chucking away. "It goes in or it doesn't, but he still gets his paycheck, his family still loves him, so screw it, let 'em fly. And he did."
Danny's stat line will reflect only that lone flower standing in a field of bricked threes, a dispassionate story of a shooter who can't shoot, a gunman whose shaky aim had to be compensated for by his more versatile companion (in the midst of Kawhi's fourth quarter assault on OKC, Jeff Van Gundy mentioned him and the Hall of Fame in the same sentence. I pinched myself. Ow.) But what the box won't speak of is Green's determination on both ends, his willingness to be the goat if it meant having a chance to putting the Spurs ahead, and his exemplary work on Durant, who scored 28 points on 25 shots but spent most of the night looking frustrated and out of phase with his All-Star MVP point guard.
While Kawhi is undoubtedly the story of the season, and LaMarcus' recent superstar play has garnered its share of headlines, these Spurs continue to make history because of players like Danny Green, and because of players like David West, who had a huge fourth quarter, and because Pop trusts his players, and encourages his players to trust each other. That trust is a rarer commodity than you think in the NBA, and it's the reason why the Spurs are primed to enter the playoffs with a full compliment of useful players, while the Thunder continue to run their two stars into the ground as their secondary players search for an identity, or even a chance to just shoot the ball. Everyone on the Spurs has a chance to shoot, and everyone believes their shot will go in.
"We're a humble ballclub," Leonard said. "We just want to get better as each game goes as the season goes on. So, it doesn't matter who we're playing. It's just about us and are we going to execute, are we going to go out and have energy and play defense. We fought through the whole game tonight."
Van Gundy had another good line last night when he said the Spurs "never play frustrated." He's right, because they have a system to fall back on. The shots will go in or they won't, but the system doesn't fail. With the team now entering a Homestand from Hell (their next three opponents are the Clippers, the Blazers, and those guys from Oakland), Saturday night's win was perhaps the most conclusive affirmation yet.
Spurs have clinched the Southwest Division title for the 5th time in the last 6 years.— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) March 13, 2016
Sometimes I watch Kawhi Leonard and think "both Morris twins were picked before you"— Scott Howard (@ScottHoward42) March 13, 2016
OKC going to the line for 7th and 8th foul shots on the first quarter. Spurs have yet to attempt one. This has been a trend lately.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 13, 2016
lmao Doug Collins looks like he wandered in the studio after eating a box of chocolates pic.twitter.com/5WNgkHXSMO— Myles Brown (@mdotbrown) March 13, 2016
Still is warmer than Danny Green right now pic.twitter.com/AVwMhceSl4— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) March 13, 2016
But again, the reason Pop won't pull Green is because of the defense he's playing. He's been solid guarding Durant, who is shooting 6/17.— Paul Garcia PS (@PaulGarciaPS) March 13, 2016
Literally zero cacti like this anywhere in a 700-mile radius. https://t.co/5vRi6qZByF— Jim Bob Breazeale (@jbbreazeale) March 13, 2016
Get it, D West! pic.twitter.com/NJeCBT6vlm— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 13, 2016
Just a fantastic block by David West. https://t.co/kyiuwOgJFU— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) March 13, 2016
Spurs defense currently: pic.twitter.com/PQ052WPIj0— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) March 13, 2016
Excuse me sir, but there's a game on... pic.twitter.com/YmD4WE7K85— Rachel Santschi (@RachelSantschi) March 13, 2016
Spurs :: San Antonio tacos— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) March 13, 2016
Thunder :: Austin tacos