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Mistakes, missed opportunities lead to heartbreaking Game 2 loss for Spurs

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The Raptors and Pacers found that ending a bit messy.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Game 2 Western Semis Vs. Oklahoma City: Thunder 98, Spurs 97  Series Tied 1-1

I know it sounds like cliche coach-speak, but man, if your main takeaway from Game 2 was that the Spurs got robbed at the end on a no-call because Dion Waiters got away with elbowing Manu Ginobili on an inbounds, then you're ignoring some hard truths.

Mainly, that the refs did the Spurs a huge favor.

Suppose they made the right call and awarded possession to the Spurs down one with ten seconds remaining. As much of a chalkboard maestro as Gregg Popovich is, there is no sideline out-of-bounds play he or any other coach in all of recorded history can design that is going to be more efficient than a 3-on-1 fast break against a scrambling defender.

The unfortunate thing for the Spurs is that A) the fellow who happened to have the ball, Danny Green, is not among the first seven or eight guys on San Antonio's roster you'd want in that spot, as on-the-move passing really isn't his strong suit and B) the Thunder's Steven Adams just happened to be the last line of defense and he played it absolutely perfectly, first against Patty Mills, after Green's pass had led him too far, then against Ginobili rolling to the hoop and finally to Mills in the corner with a fantastic closeout. It was Green-level transition defense from Adams on a do-or-die play, and that's about as high a compliment as I can give.

And please, don't for a second get the impression that I'm being harsh on Green for the pass. He did come up with the steal, outfighting Kevin Durant for the ball. It just didn't work out.

Also, focusing on the final ten seconds would obscure the fact that the Spurs had no earthly business winning that game. They were outplayed from beginning to end and deserved losers. They were down five with 33 seconds left and only found themselves in position to steal it because LaMarcus Aldridge, a guy who hadn't made a three-pointer the entire regular season, made his second one in as many games to pull them within two and then got fouled on another three-point attempt on the next possession after Russell Westbrook hit a pair of free-throws to make it 98-94. Aldridge sank all three freebies in turn, setting up the fateful inbounds play.

It made for a confusing end to a confusing game. Many things happened from opening tip to final buzzer I didn't understand and cannot explain, both schematically and with lineups. I won't waste your time by pretending to be sophisticated enough with the X's and O's to know why Aldridge couldn't get free for nearly as many pick-and-pop jumpers on Monday night as he did in Game 1. Maybe one of my colleagues can break it down, but without re-watching the game I'm at a loss. I'm guessing Thunder coach Billy Donovan changed something, and he was asked about it afterward, but as you'd expect he didn't offer much of an explanation beyond the vaguest generalities.

I also don't know why Aldridge was able to post up Serge Ibaka repeatedly in the second quarter en route to 14 of his 22 first-half points but the Spurs couldn't go back to feeding him the ball for almost the entire second half until just a few minutes remained. He took just five shots in the third quarter and only one of those in the first six minutes of the period.

But those are minor quibbles. Even with the prolonged dry spells Aldridge still got up 21 shots --making 15-- and also 10 free-throws, of which he made all 10. A game after scoring a season-high 38, he topped it with 41. Averaging 39.5 points on 33-of-44 shooting is kind of nuts, but so is the idea that in spite of that the Spurs have only split at home. Perhaps things would've went differently if their second and third best players in the game weren't Waiters and Cameron Payne.

The stretches where Aldridge was the best player on the floor were interspersed with lineup combinations that left me scratching my head. The Spurs started the game cold, as they often do Game 1's pyrotechnics aside, and Popovich subbed out both Green and Kawhi Leonard, along with Tim Duncan, his three best three defenders, while Durant and Westbrook were in the game and loaded for bear. But Donovan responded by removing Durant shortly after and the Spurs eventually overcame an early 13-point deficit.

In the second quarter, Leonard sat out the final 5:32, despite having only two fouls and having finally gotten into a rhythm, canning three straight mid-range shots after a slow start. Sticking with Green for almost the entire quarter didn't make sense to me.

In the third period, where the Spurs have blown people's doors off all season, they didn't gain much traction this time around. In fact, a three-point halftime deficit grew back to 11 before the home side was able to take advantage of a small-ball Thunder lineup that saw Durant playing with four reserves in a combination that had been used for seven minutes all year. However, Pop played Leonard and Aldridge the whole quarter to make that run. They began the fourth with both on the bench instead of being staggered, and the Thunder stretched out their lead again, taking advantage of the height-challenged David West/Boris Diaw/Danny Green front-court.

Pop then removed Ginobili in favor of Kyle Anderson and the ensuing lineup of West/Diaw/Green/Anderson/Mills fared about how you'd figure a quintet that played 20 minutes together all season with a 63.9 offensive rating would.

Finally, I was left chagrined that Ginobili didn't get to play crunch-time minutes at point guard over Mills or Parker, who both struggled. No question Ginobili had significant issues defensively against Durant and Westbrook, both of them targeting him in the first half whenever they were matched up, but if he were running point then Manu would get to enjoy the same luxury Parker and Mills have, the chance to hide on Waiters or Andre Roberson. Parker's regressed to his career norms from the three-point line these past couple of months and Mills' shot selection in the game was sub-optimal let's say, so another three-point shooting option in Ginobili would've made sense to me.

The frustrating part of the loss was that it didn't even feel like the Thunder played all that well. They made just 5-of-19 threes and only got to the line nine times in the final three quarters after a dozen attempts in the first period. They turned it over 18 times, to the Spurs' 10. No one besides Durant and Westbrook scored over 12. If anything Adams was their best all-around player, with a dozen points, 17 rebounds and some terrific interior defense.

It's never fun to lose a playoff game, even less to drop one at home and positively galling to get beaten by a four-man team. Donovan dropped Kyle Singler, Randy Foye and Nick Collison from his rotation and still had two borderline unplayable dudes in Payne and Anthony Morrow. Waiters was simply a disaster on offense but shockingly held his own against a sub-par Leonard head-to-head. Enes Kanter is what he is, a total one-way talent who looks good against undersized second-units.

The challenge for Pop will be figuring out just how many of his guys he can rely on. West and Diaw didn't give him much in Game 2, and Anderson didn't dent the stat sheet outside of the foul column during his spot duty. Mills had an 0-for-6 fourth quarter, and it seems odd he got to take more shots than even Aldridge --including the last one-- while Ginobili played just 2:09 in the final quarter and Parker got 3:28. The Spurs will need more from "The Big Three" going forward, they can't expect to beat elite teams consistently when they only combine to score 20, no matter how well Aldridge and Leonard play.

In the end we're left with some positives, in spite of what feels like an ominous loss. The Thunder still don't seem to have any answers for Aldridge. The Spurs are still getting consistently more open looks than their opponent. San Antonio would've gotten off to a much better start if Duncan hadn't missed several bunnies at the rim, with Leonard and Green also missing easy ones, just wide open empty gym layups you'd expect them to make 98 times out of a 100. Conversely, the Thunder only got off to a hot start because Westbrook was able to run breakneck to the rim off those misses. It's all connected. When the Thunder have to take the ball out of the basket, Westbrook isn't nearly as threatening and vice versa.

Oh, everyone remains healthy, I think. That's always a biggie.

The biggest silver lining though is that now the Spurs get to practice having to beat a good team in a hostile environment before facing the Warriors. Every time San Antonio has won a title, even in the years they had home court advantage all the way through, they lost a home game somewhere along the way which put them in the position of having to win on the road. It happened in the first round against Kevin Garnett's Timberwolves in 1999, against Phoenix, Dallas and New Jersey in 2003, against Denver and Phoenix in 2005, against those same two teams again in 2007, and finally against Dallas and Miami in 2014. If you can't win on the road against anyone worth a damn, then you don't deserve a championship anyway, and the Spurs know this and believe it.

At least, unlike 2012, they'll get more than one shot at this.

***

Your Three Stars

1. LaMarcus Aldridge

2. Kawhi Leonard

3. Manu Ginobili