The Spurs didn't lose this series in Game 6, you know.
Okay, technically they did. But take away the home blowouts that bookended the series and what we've got left are four coin-flip games. The Thunder prevailed in three of the four and that settled it. When we look back on this series weeks, months and years from now.... no, wait make that when YOU look back on this series weeks, months and years from now, because I sure as heck won't, you'll think about the missed opportunities down the stretch in Games 2, 4 and 5, all eminently winnable.
Personally, I think the right team won. I know you don't want to read it, but give the Thunder credit. They had more dudes step up than the Spurs did and have more guys in their primes than the Spurs do. They had seven guys --their entire starting lineup, plus Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters off the bench-- contribute, while the Spurs had two or three most nights, with the bench almost completely missing in action.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook eventually found different ways to score consistently and efficiently. Both radically ramped up their defensive efforts from where they were earlier in the series. Billy Donovan made adjustments to free them up, he had the guts to play Kanter instead of Serge Ibaka down the stretch of games, he tweaked the defense to take away Aldridge's pick-and-pops and he benched Cameron Payne when it became clear he was unplayable. Kudos to him.
Game 6 was a microcosm of the series as a whole. The Spurs started out really well, working the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge and a determined Tim Duncan inside the paint and they led 19-13 when Gregg Popovich made his first subs, with 4:28 to go.
They didn't score the rest of the quarter, and the Thunder ended the period on a 12-0 run, even with Westbrook sitting for the final three minutes.
Pop when asked by Doris Burke between quarters what had gone wrong, summed it up by saying, "As soon as we substituted, it went to crap."
The second quarter, the game, the series and the season snowballed quickly. The Thunder outscored the visitors 30-12 in the period. OKC made three threes and nine free-throws, whereas the Spurs made zero threes and three free-throws. That was the quarter in a nutshell. Andre Roberson, of all people, sank a pair of bombs, one of them even from the wing. When Roberson's canning wing threes, it's not your night.
David West was the biggest culprit early on (surprisingly Boris Diaw wound up being a DNP:CD), but he was far from the only one. Pop tried anything and everything over the next two quarters. He tried playing Boban. It didn't work. He tried using Manu Ginobili at point and Kevin Martin at the two. It didn't work. He started the second-half in a small-ball lineup with Aldridge at center and Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green all out there. While the Spurs benefited greatly on offense from the extra space on the floor, scoring 34 points on 15-of-28 shooting, the tactic proved advantageous on just one end of the floor. Donovan didn't take the bait, he stayed with his big lineup, ordered his guys to crowd the three-point line and was content to give up drives to the paint and two-on-one layups. He knew he'd have a quite literal massive advantage on offense, and they did. The Thunder massacred the Spurs on the glass with nine offensive boards in the quarter and scored 36.
OKC had two overwhelming edges in their ability to generate free-throws with their stars and second-chance points with their centers, and they leveraged that to their advantage. The Spurs would've had to out-shoot them from the perimeter to negate their weaknesses, and they couldn't. They needed Leonard, Green, Ginobili and Patty Mills to make a bunch of threes, and it didn't happen. We hear the cliche about it being "a make or miss league," but it's absolutely true. The Spurs had plenty of open looks in Game 5 especially, and didn't make enough of them. It's not like we hadn't seen the signs even before the playoffs that their offense was having issues. Our worst fears came true, all at once.
The bottom line for me is that the offense just wasn't efficient enough to hang with the best teams. We saw Aldridge and Leonard settle all year, but especially this series, for high-risk, low-reward shots. Westbrook and Durant take a lot of those too, but they also shoot a lot of threes and get to the line a bunch, which helps their efficiency, and they draw so much attention that Adams and Kanter score at practically automatic rates inside. Popovich tried to reinvent the wheel with a reliance on post-ups and iso play when really what the Spurs needed was to find another wing shooter or two. That's not Kyle Anderson, who can't shoot threes and has a slow release besides. They acquired Martin, but Pop quickly realized his defense is too poor and his shot too inconsistent to be of much use.
Or maybe they just ran into the wrong team. Maybe the one weakness of "the beautiful game" is going up against size, who knows? The 2013-14 Thunder didn't have Kanter, and Adams was just a rookie. The Heat had no useful bigs outside of Chris Bosh. Diaw was a real asset against those teams, able to exploit smaller defenders. As we saw in 2011 against Memphis, the Spurs were done in by a team with superior bigs.
It felt like the end of the Spurs as we knew them back then, and does so now. There will be time to get into the feelings with Duncan and Ginobili later on, when announcements are made and such, but I was happy to see Duncan go out with by far his best performance of the playoffs, and he didn't quit, not to the very end. Ginobili wasn't as good, but he made his final shot and final free-throws, similar to Game 7 at the Clippers last year.
There will be time --all the time in the world-- to roster-bate and worry about the comings and goings and discuss the various ways the Spurs can close the sizable gap between themselves and the league's best. Now is not the time. And it's not the time to mourn either. Another Spurs season ended without a championship, as it has in 14 of Duncan's 19 years. It happens a lot more often than we let on. That it still comes as such a grating shock, a bitter disappointment, well that's exactly why we shouldn't feel so bad, if you think about it.
We've had a pretty good run.
I know I'm supposed to feel sad and angry and all these other negative feelings, but the honest truth is that I'm relieved. I feel the same way about the Thunder closing the Spurs out as I do about the Derek Fisher shot in 2004 -- that it likely saved our guys from a more emphatic humiliation on a bigger stage. I was, to put it charitably, not optimistic of their chances against their Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Think 2001 against the Lakers and that's pretty much where my thinking was. I think we were spared a whoopin'.
At the same time, it'll probably hit me in a day or two that I might never get to see Tim or Manu play anymore, and then I'm gonna really want to, even if it's four blowouts.
Speaking of which, Donovan still played Durant 42:41, Adams 40:21 and Westbrook 38:29 in a game they led by a million and were never seriously threatened in the fourth quarter. Thunder gonna Thunder, always.
Warriors in 5.
I don't say it enough, but thanks to everyone who takes the time to read, to comment, to email and to participate in the PtR experience. It's gratifying to know that y'all keep clicking on these dumb stories and putting up with my dumb jokes and dumb conspiracy theories and dumb analysis when there is no shortage of options on the internets for you to get your Spurs fix. It is very much appreciated.
Now send me money.
Your Three Stars:
1. Tim Duncan
2. Manu Ginobili
3. Tony Parker