Once Is Happenstance, Twice Is Coincidence…
In most ways, that last play kind of sums up the last 5 days. Down 3, we get a miracle turnover and the ball back with about 15 seconds left and a chance to tie. This is the Spurs bread and butter, play calling, execution, getting good shots out of time-outs. And…I’m not quite sure what happened. I didn’t see any discernible play (which is rare from Pop); Duncan passed up a wide-open 3 (Suns fans the world over raise their hands in disbelief); there was really no execution; and Manu ended up taking an awkward, well-guarded, difficult 3 that, unsurprisingly, clanked off the iron, out of bounds.
And that’s the story of the series. After 76 games of some of the most beautiful basketball you’ll ever see played, the Spurs look old, a step slow, and totally out of sync. With each other, with the system, with decision making. Trust is gone. Passes are a second late. You can almost see the players doubting the decision, second-guessing themselves. Leonard had so many opportunities to rise up and take a 3 (a tenet of the system), yet, through hesitation, put the ball on the floor and dribbled into nothing. Instead of passes, we see indecisive dribbling. When the team does pass, it’s not crisp and the ball is turned over (21 for 28 Thunder points; that seems relevant, no?). We drive to the rim, and the Thunder are there to meet us for a charge or a blocked shot. Precision has beget inefficiency.
And it’s baffling. What happened to this team in less than a week? I credit the Thunder for ratcheting up the defense. But to this degree? This type of turnabout seems almost impossible. And that’s what is the hardest part of these last 3 games. I can handle losing on our terms, playing our best basketball, and just getting outworked. But losing like this? Devolving from such a joyous and beautiful team game that had pundits praising the execution and precision, wondering where this team would rank as all-time champions? That stings.
And we’re getting outworked, so it’s a double whammy.
Credit OKC. It seems like they watched the tape of San Antonio and just decided to adopt our style. “Hey, if we play like them, we’ll kill them, because we have better athletes and more talented players”. The main advantage we had on OKC (and the rest of the league) was our system, our execution, our ability to always play the team game and trust in the process. And now that all seems to be gone, slipping away so quickly that you barely remember ever having it, like it was just some nice dream you’re now waking up from.
Where art thou, bench? While Daequan Cook comes in off the Thunder bench and scores 8 points in 4 minutes like it’s nothing, Gary Neal clangs his way to 0-6 night and two measly points. Bonner has been so ineffective that he barely even sniffed the court. Blair didn’t turn out to be the game-changer most thought he could be. Splitter has given us some solid minutes, but also looks shaky and a little scared out there. Green didn’t acquit himself in 5 minutes and barely saw the court. What should be one of our biggest advantages–depth, trust in the “others”–has become our undoing, as the Thunder have gotten contributions from everywhere.
In this regard, this reminds me of the last few playoff exits, where it was essentially Manu and nobody else. Parker is playing well, but not nearly where he should be (and can’t hit a jumper to save his life). Tim looks like the timer on his rejuvenation has just ran out. Without herculean effort from Manu ,we’re not even close in this game.
And yet…there we were. There we were! Down 3, with the ball, 15 seconds left, out of a time-out. We were right there. We spotted them 24 minutes (a popular talking point in the press conference afterwards), playing a mostly miserable first-half, and yet battled back to be right there.
Most people will probably start writing the Spurs’ post-mortem after this game. And why not? The Thunder, riding a surge of confidence and great basketball, have a chance to win a game at home to go to the NBA Finals. The mountaintop. In their own building. With their fans, truly some of the best in the NBA. It seems all but done, no? Signed sealed and delivered.
But there’s hope yet. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the most important game in this Thunder team’s young life. Despite having the series edge and the home court advantage, ALL of the pressure is squarely on their shoulders now. The Spurs have shifted to underdogs, written off, relieved of duty. This is a changing of the guard, the coronation of a new dynasty, set to rule the West for years to come.
Only problem? They still need to win that game. Without doubt, OKC has shown tremendous will and fortitude over these last 3 games. But Game 6 will elevate the intensity to levels they’ve only imagined in their childhood dreams. What will they do when faced with this possibility? Will they stare down the greatest pressure they’ve ever seen?
And how will the Spurs respond? This team has a history (despite popular perception) of succumbing to the inevitable, not really fighting to the death. I could totally see them lose a relatively close but not really ever-in-doubt Game 6. But if the Thunder plays with nerves, and the Spurs play with the pride and ferocity we should expect from them, what happens? What will happen if the game is close in the waning minutes? Will the Spurs, perhaps suddenly relieved of expectations and pressure, be able to steal a game back?
One thing is true: all of the pressure for Game 6 is on the Thunder. The Spurs should be able to play with a freedom and a weightlessness they haven’t felt in several weeks. Gone is the 20-game win streak. Gone are the comparisons to All-Time great teams. Gone are the questions about dynasty and historical greatness. Gone is the pressure. Now it’s just one basketball game. One game for a chance at new life. One game to stay alive.
And if we win that game? Then we get one more game, for all the marbles, back at home, with the pressure still on the Thunder to win.
All I know is that I feel a jubilance for Game 6 that I didn’t feel for Game 5. The pressure is gone; the expectation has vanished. We’re back in a comfortable position, a place I think the team prefers: Underdog. Unheralded. Written off. Forgotten about. Too old. Maybe that’s just the kick in the ass the team needs to rediscover what has worked for it for so much of this season. And maybe the pressure on the Thunder will be just enough to dent their confidence and their brilliant play.
Either way, the season isn’t over; there’s at least one more game to be played. And I’ll be watching it with the same joy and intensity I watch every Spurs game.
Go Spurs Go.
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