Pop has a favorite saying (someday I’ll write a book on the Dao of Pop, ways in which his coaching can guide your life), that you need to have “appropriate fear” of a game, or an opponent, a series, etc. It’s another way of saying that you need to respect the process and the opponent, but also have faith in your talent and abilities and team and trust that you can compete and win. With appropriate fear.
Tonight the Spurs showed a great amount of inappropriate fear.
We all knew how the Thunder would come out: energetic, aggressive, desperate. After giving up a quick 8 points (and seemingly turning the ball over on every possession), we called time-out, regrouped, and mostly seized control of the game, gaining a small lead heading into the second quarter. In most situations like this, if you can weather the first wave of emotion, you can compete. But the Thunder played with a new, aggressive, unkind edge, and the Spurs showed little desire to match it. It’s not that they were intimidated (as tough as Harden and Perkins tried to come off), it’s that they seemed uninterested in raising their own corresponding levels.
The team was a step slow, a second late all night. Credit the Thunder defense, which played out of its mind, shutting down the Spurs pick and roll completely, and pretty much taking the Spurs out of everything they wanted to do. To watch the ecstatic levels the Spurs offense got to on Tuesday night and then to see what happened tonight is like watching two different teams. But it seemed like the Spurs didn’t care to even try to impose their will on the game, or to trust in the team, choosing instead to play a lot of one-on-one and isolation; or to not make the extra pass; or to make the extra pass when the shot would be the better choice; or to hustle back on defense after another turnover. They seemed to stop trusting the system, and by extension, their teammates.
I give tremendous credit to Scotty Brooks and the Thunder; the switch to put Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker was gigantic, and just giving Thabo more minutes in general paid huge dividends, as he was a one-man defensive wrecking ball. Every deflection, every block, every steal, he seemed to be right there, in the heart of the play. Conversely, Parker seemed baffled by the switch, and unable to work any counter out of it.
Granted, in the course of one game, it can be difficult to find the right adjustments. And at some point, you just have to raise up your hands, congratulate the Thunder on a game well-played, and take the loss.
In all honesty, this wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to this team. Despite some big talk in the media, the idea of going 16-0 through the playoffs is preposterous. And for the Thunder to not take one game is pretty ridiculous, too. They are an exceptionally good team, and we were playing them at home in a game they HAD to win. While I expected more from the Spurs, I am not surprised by the loss.
Truth be told, Pop is probably secretly happy his team lost. Now he can lay into them, get their attention, and try to divert all attention and talk and energy away from “the streak”, and resoundingly re-focus the team on the only goal that matters: winning 6 more games. Now he can do what he’s best at: coach.
And let’s remember the last time this team lost, lo these 50 days ago: at home, to the Lakers, getting our clocks cleaned and looking like an old, step slow, has-been contender. Bynum had 30 rebounds, and we’re only spared a huge dose of embarrassment by some timely offense in garbage time. (We still lost by 14, I believe.) After that game, most people assumed we had a long way to go to be real contenders, and that the Lakers were the team to beat in the West. And look how we responded: 20 wins in a row at a historic pace, playing perhaps the best offensive basketball in 2 decades. And we clobbered the Lakers–twice–for good measure.
The tendency by most is to overreact and read too much into one win or loss. This works both ways. But all that happened tonight was that we lost one game in the Western Conference Finals to a very, very good team. A team that was playing harder than us.
Maybe now we can stop worrying about historical perspective and get back to the series at hand. Because by 20 or by 2, one loss is one loss. And regardless of how this game looked, each playoff games takes on a life of its own, and there is often very little momentum or carry over between games. All this team needs to do is win one game in Oklahoma City (something they’ve been able to do handily in the last 3 seasons) to put a strangle hold on the series. Adjustments will be made, a new game will start, and it will still be zero-zero. And as Coach Brooks said before the game, the biggest adjustment a team can make is in energy and effort. And if we know something about Pop and this Spurs team, we will get that increased focus, energy, and effort in Game 4. And it will be a dog fight.
One more thing we’re sure to get: appropriate fear.
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