Mr. Jackson, If You’re Nasty
The ‘Inside the Huddle’ moments of NBA games are usually fairly innocuous, showing coaches giving tired cliches and non-emotional motivation to the team. This is by design, of course, as the broadcasts can’t actually show any sort of strategy on live TV during the game.
Still, I always get a kick out of hearing Pop mic’d up. And tonight might have been my favorite moment ever inside a huddle, showing Pop telling his team that he wanted some ‘nasty’. Later, much more agitated, he again pushed his team for some ‘nasty’. What a wonderful descriptor, stepping just outside the realm of tired cliche.
And there to provide the nasty: Mr. Stephen Jackson, he who was acquired for this very reason. The quotes since he arrived back on the team have all been the same: he brings an edge to the team. Edge. Nasty. Not a far jump from one to the other. We all knew his time was coming. Even after barely showing up for the series against the Clippers, we all knew that he’d help to swing a quarter, a game, a series…something. And with 12 minutes of inspired play–and just one made basket–he has provided the “edge”, and given Pop his “nasty” (please do not take that quote out of context).
He did it on defense, as anyone who watched the game should know. As Pop said, guarding Durant is a near impossible task. Jackson did about as good as you possibly can. He crowded him, giving him no air space whatsoever, disregarding the occasional foul that would result from it. With Perkins in as the only big, Duncan was allowed to roam the paint, giving Jackson more freedom to take some risks. And while Durant was able to get to the line and get some free points, he made no jump shots in the quarter, and the energy expended trying to get him his looks really shut down the Thunder offense, allowing the Spurs to take control of the game on both ends of the court.
And lest you read the praise for Jackson as condemnation for Leonard’s D, don’t. Kawhi played great defense on Durant as well. But Jackson brought the edge, the nasty, the energy to the game that Pop wanted, that spread to the rest of the team and gave the Spurs the push and confidence needed to come back and win the game. But looking long-term, we now have two very good defenders to throw at Durant one-on-one, allowing the rest of the defense to mostly stay at home on everybody else, which is huge.
In that 4th quarter, another favorable trend for the Spurs showed up. In crunch-time, the Spurs execution should more often than not win out over the Thunder’s athleticism. The 4th-quarter was a study in the two team’s most basic instincts. Pushed against the wall, where does each team go? The Thunder go to isolation, one-on-one basketball with their best (and all-world amazing) players. But this allows for predictable offense, which allows for sound defense. And outside of trips to the free throw line and some late mostly-meaningless threes, the Thunder took–and missed–a ton of contested jump shots. The shots the Spurs want them to take, by the way.
On the other end of the court, with far less athleticism and sheer talent, the Spurs leaned on execution (and some Manu magic), and ran their offense to perfection (much better than any other quarter of the game). Pick and roll, pick and roll, pick and roll…leading to wide-open lay-ups, and-1s, wide-open 3-pointers, and lots of scrambling defense. If the series can be boiled down to the purest essence of each team, it’s this athleticism vs. execution battle. Execution won Round 1; the way the Spurs are playing, I like its odds moving forward.
We’ve come all this way and we haven’t even started talking about Manu Ginobili, which is insane. We’ve been waiting all season for this Manu, knowing, trusting, believing, that he was just in hiding, waiting for the perfect moment to arrive on the scene. Welcome to the playoffs, Mr. Ginobili. Playing with his perfect blend of energy, gamble, execution, and magic, he showed the entire world why, when it comes down to winning time, he is still our closer. Parker had an off game (by his standards), as did Duncan; didn’t matter. Ginobili would not let the team lose. He kept the game close during the sloppy first half. But the tide really turned at the start of the 4th, with the second unit still in (great trust shown by Pop), and Ginobili running pick and roll with Splitter, resulting in three straight baskets or trips to the free throw line. In these first two minutes of the 4th quarter, with Manu running the show, it felt like the light really turned on for the Spurs, and they never looked back, racing out to an insane 39-point 4th quarter.
The dirty little secret of this series is that people often talk about experience vs. youth. But really, the Thunder have both. Sure, the Spurs Big 3 (along with Popovich) have the most championships experience. But in terms of playoff experience this deep into the playoffs, which team has more? Jackson and Diaw have played this deep into the playoffs. So has Bonner, I suppose, but not in any sort of meaningful way. But every single player on that Thunder team has been in this position (as they were all here last year, save for Fisher, who has more playoff games than even Tim Duncan). So really, the greater concern for me coming into this series was how would the Spurs’ inexperience play out? We start two virtual rookies, and rely heavily on 2 more second-year players.
But where our experiential edge really shows? In closing time. Because we have 3 closers. Manu has always been our most reliable–and best–closer. But Parker has really shown something this year, and I no longer fear his abilities in the end of games. And Duncan is still old reliable, the big fundamental, and will be trusted until the day he walks away at the end of games. While the Thunder have 3 great players, I still only trust one of them at the end of close games.
One last point: remember this? That dunk was just nasty and abusive shit. But how Spurs-ian it was. I remember after that dunk thinking, “Gary Neal is a player, and he is a winner”. While he got totally abused and posterized in that dunk (and the right call was made–he was late rotating), he showed that he is so much more than just a 3-point shooter, and so much more than just an offensive player. He is willing to sell his body out on both ends of the floor to win games. Given some meaningful playing tim in the 4th quarter, Neal played magnificently. He hit some huge shots. But more importantly, he drew at least 2 gigantic charges that helped keep momentum shifting towards the Spurs and stifled any sort of run the Thunder could hope to make. The box score will show that he had 12 points on 5 made shots, and 2 3-pointers; what it won’t show is the 4-6 points he saved in the 4th quarter, and how his defense was as important as his offense.
It’s those gaps in the box score where the Spurs’ victories most often reside.
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