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De(con)struction

By Jeff Koch on June 7, 2012.

63. 36.

The perfect mirroring of the two halves perfectly mirrored the 2 distinct phases of this series. For 24 minutes (and 2 games), the Spurs were the Spurs we’ve seen all season, running an immaculate offense, getting every shot they wanted (and hitting a good portion of them) and running roughshod over whatever the Thunder threw at them. With the building a complete ruckus, the Spurs came out quickly and put as much of a damper as a team could on the loudest building in the NBA. Up 15 at the half, everything was clicking for the Spurs.

And in perfect symmetry, the remaining 24 minutes symbolized what happened between Games 3 and 4, when the Thunder figured out the Spurs, increased their energy level, and used their athleticism to make the Spurs look old and out-of-sync. Suddenly the Thunder were getting everything they wanted and the Spurs were forced to settle for bad outside shots and absolutely zero rhythm. The Thunder stole the Spurs’ playbook and started sharing the ball, running devastating offensive sets, while the Spurs were forced into more isolation and looked totally flummoxed and unconfident. The shots that were falling in the first half stopped falling. The strokes that were so smooth and confident were now infused with hesitation. Passes missed their marks, rotations were botched.

Heading into the 4th quarter, the Spurs clung to a 1-point lead, but we all kind of knew what was coming.

All else being equal, the Spurs might have been able to weather the storm, and hold on for the lead. But when the other team has Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and the ghost of Derek Fisher past, it’s just not going to be your night. It may never be your night. Much like Games 4 and 5, the Spurs didn’t play poorly down the stretch, but the Thunder just played better. They made so many shots, easy and difficult, and forced the Spurs into so many difficult situations. The Spurs had no margin for error, needing to be perfect to win the game; OKC, with their talent and athleticism, had margin for error, but played the more complete game down the stretch.

Relying on the familiar and trusted legs of Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili (throw in Jackson for good measure, who had an outstanding game), the Spurs just kind of ran out of gas. This is the double-edged sort of relying heavily on veterans and watching the minutes during the regular season. We all know this team would never get to this point if Duncan and company were overworked in the regular season; but when called upon to play bigger minutes, do they have it in them? After averaging under 30 minutes all season, and playing around 35 most of the post-season, can the older guys suddenly give 40+ good minutes to win a game? Durant played 48; there’s no way Duncan could. And that’s one way in which this series was lost. OKC was able to have their best players on the floor more than the Spurs were.

And this highlights another failing of this series: the disappearance of the bench. The biggest advantage and one of the great strengths of this team all year (and into the post-season) was this team’s bench. They went 10 deep, with every player performing consistently within their role. By Game 6, the rotation was 7. This is reminiscent of the last several years of Spurs’ playoff endings, in which the only players that could be relied upon when the games got down to crunch time were the old reliables. Last year against Memphis; 2010 against Phoenix; 2009 against Dallas. In each of those series, as the games wore on, Pop’s rotation got shorter and shorter as he could no longer gamble on players that were just not performing. And in each case, the opposing team’s bench continued to perform well, and we lost many of the games (and series) the same way: running out of gas, and running out of options. As the core ages, the role players become more vital; when they are no longer reliable, the Spurs no longer have a chance to win the series. The Thunder were able to get reliable and consistent (and often, superlative) contributions from their bench and role players; the Spurs weren’t.

And this points to one of the dirty dark secrets of this series: despite the narratives and the relative ages of the respective “Big 3″s, the Thunder were by far the more experienced team. With the exception of one or two players, the Thunder team had been through 6 (now 7) playoff series in the last 3 seasons. The Spurs had only been through 5, but two of those were in 2010, when most of the rest of the roster (Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson) wasn’t with the team. So really, this was only this teams 4th playoff series. And while nobody will question the experience of Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker, most of the rest of the team was facing the scrutiny of the WCF for the first time, whereas the entire Thunder roster were there, together, last season.

So the poise of OKC should not be surprising. And perhaps the disappearance of many of the Spurs players shouldn’t be, either.

What is surprising, though, is how quickly the Thunder learned and adapted and took control of the series. By copying the Spurs on BOTH ends of the court, and exposing every little flaw with a team that seemed almost flawless a week ago.

And that, to me, is the story of this series. It was almost a meta-deconstruction of the Spurs as a team, as an organization, and as an idea. Offensively, the Thunder watched the Spurs’ on film, saw the passing, the spacing, the unselfishness, and said, “hey, we can do that”. And they did. Throw in the best scorer in at least 2 generations, and you have a nearly unstoppable offensive force (the numbers overwhelmingly bear this out over games 3-6). Defensively, the Thunder realized that in order to stop our offense, they’d have to play a more focused, team-oriented defense, full of strong rotations, helps, shows and recovers, and all players playing “on a string” (as they say) and playing for each other, the type of defense that requires incredible intelligence and sublime athleticism. You know, the kind of defense the Spurs used to play but are no longer able to because of personnel and the slow march of time.

The Thunder morphed into a more perfect version of the Spurs, and by doing so, were able to find flaws in the once unstoppable precision, and turned the scalpel on the surgeon, cutting up our overmatched defense. Watching the Thunder play these last 4 games was like watching the best versions of all of these Spurs teams combined, dominating on offense and defense.

So perhaps even in defeat, the Spurs win a victory of some sort. The Thunder have followed the blueprint set out by the Spurs on team-building, organizational structure, franchise development; it would only make sense that a lot of that would carry over onto the court, as well. The Thunder are proving that the Spurs’ model, so long the envy of the rest of the league, is still the Gold Standard by which to build teams. So the Spurs lose…and are proven right. The only thing that could beat the Spurs this year was a more perfect, athletic version of themselves, which the Thunder became after 2 games.

If only the younger, more athletic team had taken a few extra games to figure it all out.

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