The 2014 edition of the Spurs will always be my favorite version of the team. Nothing will ever change that. The idea of running a perfectly democratic offense, where everyone passes and cuts and poses as much of a threat as the next man is the ideal, the very essence of "The Beautiful Game."
But man, every now and then you watch a game like this, and the blueprint the Thunder have used lo these many years with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook sure does make a lot of pragmatic sense, even when it's not always the most aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball. When you have two stars and they're both feeling it on the same night, the game looks just so easy.
Hard to figure out which small-forward in this match-up is the DPOY, really.
Sure, the stars can keep the line moving and seek out those "good-to-great" looks, but what's the point of it if their good is as efficient is the next guy's great? Heck, what's the point when they're shooting it so well that their "okay" look is more likely to go than the next guy's great?
All this wordy prologue was just an unnecessarily lengthy way to explain just how truly and completely the Thunder were demolished in Game 1 of their semi-finals against the Spurs. Their winning formula vs. San Antonio -- or anyone, really -- is for Durant and Westbrook to outproduce the opponent's stars, often by vast margins. When they find themselves on the wrong end of 63 to 30, as was the case Saturday night at the AT&T Center, with LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 38 on a patently absurd 18-of-23 and Kawhi Leonard chipping in with 25 on 10-of-13 in just 21:34 of work, then a great many things have had to go wrong indeed because you're never going to read the sentence "Boy, Dion Waiters really saved their bacon with those 47 points," outside of Waiters household fan-fiction.
Understand that the Spurs were hot, Aldridge in particular but practically the whole team for the first three quarters. The home side made not just 9-of-15 threes, which is tied for their fourth-best shooting percentage from downtown this season, but more importantly they hit 20-of-29 mid-range twos, which is obscene.
As Durant summed it up afterward, "Tough twos aren't that tough when they're wide open."
And that's one of the essential differences between the Spurs and the Thunder. Even though San Antonio has shifted to a star-centric offense, where Leonard and Aldridge get the lion's share of the touches --they combined for 36 of San Antonio's 63 field goal attempts through three quarters compared to OKC's stars getting 34 of the team's 66-- they still do it with some ball movement, even if it's not necessarily as much as before. Whereas the Thunder have Westbrook as their main playmaker to create shots for Durant or himself, the Spurs still rely plenty on Tony Parker and to a lesser degree Manu Ginobili.
The other main difference of course, and really the far more important one, is defense. Simply put, the Spurs play it, historically well, and the Thunder look like five blindfolded guys swinging away at a pinata. San Antonio racked up 39 assists, their most in any game since March 1, 2013 against (predictably) the Sacramento Kings, and did so with one simple pick-and-pop pass to Aldridge, playing the two-man game all night long. When they were feeling really audacious and creative, they strung two passes together, but most of the time one was plenty.
You kept waiting for the Thunder to make an adjustment, but as Thunder coach Billy Donovan noted, his bigs may have been spooked by a couple of Aldridge pump-fake-and-blow-by drives early on.
From that point on Steven Adams or the small whichever small was switched was content to sag back and leave Aldridge open, and he just buried them. Normally I'm the last guy in the world to praise the long two. But when a guy is as hot as Aldridge was, you have to do something besides hope he regresses to the mean. I suppose the Thunder will rationalize that it was just his night. He even made a crazy left-handed underhand flip in the third quarter and a baseline three -- his first of the year. When you're hot, you're hot.
Aldridge’s shot chart tonight is crazy (81.1TS%). Did OKC forget he was 1st in mid-range shots in 3 of last 4 years? pic.twitter.com/zLwPCkYPtJ— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) May 1, 2016
What has to be concerning for Donovan is that his defense didn't do anything well. Not only did the Spurs hit 8-of-12 threes, but they were fouled on three other attempts, plus a fourth that Danny Green hit for an "and-1."
They were outscored in the paint 30-to-24, ransacked in transition 18-to-8. They were so disorganized and discombobulated that they were double-teaming Parker underneath the basket at one point in the second quarter. He tossed it to a wide open Aldridge for an easy jumper. There was another second quarter play where David West seemed incredulous as to how open he was on a free-throw line jumper. This was the worst defense they've faced in some time, and certainly for such a prolonged stretch. They seemed overly preoccupied with not letting Parker get to the middle, and succeeded in forcing him to the edges. The Wee Frenchman finished with just three shot attempts.
And 12 assists. With no turnovers. He's only the first Spur to do that in a playoff game, ever.
Ginobili only took two shots in his brief time on the floor, but he had five assists in 11:08. And no turnovers.
The Thunder play a less reckless, more conservative scheme under Donovan than they did under predecessor Scottie Brooks, but now it's the worst of both worlds for them. They're not creating any havoc with turnovers and their coverages are so basic that a veteran, smart team such as the Spurs can get whatever they want. The Spurs aren't going to lose very often with a 39-to-8 assist/turnover ratio.
Again, the blueprint that makes all this possible starts on the defensive end. The Spurs' first quarter was as perfect a 12-minute stretch --especially taking into account the competition and the stakes-- as I can remember. They were flawless on both ends. Not only did they get nothing but quality looks on offense (making 18-of-22), but everything they gave up on the other end was what they were comfortable giving up. Westbrook saw a thicket of arms and bodies between himself and the basket, Durant's jumpers were expertly contested by Green and the Thunder were reduced to relying on Serge Ibaka to make 22-footers. Oklahoma City got seven offensive rebounds in the quarter, and it simply didn't matter. The score was 43-20 after one and it was over. It was the most points the Spurs have scored in any quarter since notching 45 against Denver on April 3, 2015 and the most the Thunder have allowed in any quarter since Feb. 23, 2014 against the Clippers.
The fact that they kept making shots at such a stupefying pace prevented Westbrook from ever getting a head-of-steam off a miss and streaking to the rim. He had to start in the half-court, against a set defense. And, well, let's face it, there's a reason the Spurs coaches feared a match-up with (a healthy version of) the Clippers more than these guys. The Thunder run like three plays. San Antonio knows their sets as well as they know their own by this point.
All that being written, it's just Game 1. The Spurs blew these guys out twice at the AT&T Center in 2014 and then got blown out twice right back on the road. Things will look different when Aldridge misses some of these jumpers.
The Spurs will still have Leonard and Green playing defense though, with Aldridge and Tim Duncan behind them. And that's gotta be a sobering thought for Donovan and Co., regression to the mean or not.
Now for a series I've decided to call "Bill Simmons sure watches a lot of Spurs games."
1. Most fascinating Round 2 questions for me... Can Russ put OKC on his back and have what we'd always call "That Westbrook Series?"— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 30, 2016
2. It's such a great matchup for Russ and he knows it ... and yet, he could totally overdo it and shoot OKC out of the series, too.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 30, 2016
3. I like this matchup for OKC, could see them leading in all six 4th quarters and somehow losing in 6 anyway because of coaching...— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 30, 2016
4. 2nd most fun Round 2 subplot - KD vs. Kawhi has a chance to be really really really great if they go head ... https://t.co/2o5MD1LaLL— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 30, 2016
In Simmons' defense, there's just no way he could've predicted that PATFO would finally give in to the kidnappers and pay Green's ransom right before the start of this series. I thought Danny did pretty well for a guy not in basketball shape and having to adjust to light and new teammates and all that.
Also, I'll be shocked if Donovan doesn't use Dion Waiters a lot more going forward. Andre Roberson is simply unplayable against the Spurs. Parker gets to hide defensively and conserve energy on defense and they completely ignore him on the other end. What's the benefit of Roberson playing? To be marginally better against Leonard? Really helped tonight.
Popovich almost always starts a playoff series with the match-ups straight up, but he cross-matched from the opening tip in Game 1, with Green on Durant and the longer, stronger Leonard on Westbrook and the results were evident.
Spurs got the better of the Thunder once, so that earns them a Michelangelo.
The Spurs are going to somehow land Durant next year and this series is going to be their recruiting pitch.— Akis Yerocostas (@Aykis16) May 1, 2016
Pfft. Only if he can handle coming off the bench.
Your Three Stars:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Danny Green