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The Man in the Mirror

By Jeff Koch on June 2, 2012.

We have a series now, folks.

Apparently the best way to beat the Spurs is to become the Spurs. (And to make the Spurs not the Spurs, but more on that later.)

For most of the game, the Thunder looked like the Spurs of this season. They were running tight offensive sets, making crisp passes and even crisper decisions, working the ball until a clean shot was free, often under the rim (which is a lay-up for us, a dunk for them). In our efforts to overcommit to Westbrook and Durant, the Thunder big men were so wide open it was painful to watch. And, like the Spurs, the Thunder’s big stars were not afraid to make that extra pass. And their interior passing was stellar, too, mimicking what we’ve been lucky enough to see all year until these last 2 games.

Also parroting the Spurs, the Thunder have gotten gigantic games out of Thabo, Perkins, Ibaka, and Collison in these last two, relying heavily on system, ball movement, and trusting in the process and the team. In Game 2 their big players went off and we clobbered them; since then, outside of Durant’s amazing 4th quarter, it’s been everybody else that has done the damage.

Of course, looking on what few bright sides there might be, Serge Ibaka is unlikely to go 11-11 again. The three OKC big men are similarly unlikely to go 22 for 25 (!!) for 49 points. Read that stat again. Perkins had something like 4 points all series, and then erupted for 15 tonight. Many of these points for all 3 were from long jump shots, and if we have to concede something, that will be it. But what we can’t concede is the offensive rebounds and putbacks and second chance points that they’re also getting on us.

Shall we talk about our offense? I’d prefer not to, but I think I probably should. The Thunder made adjustments, sure, but I find it hard to believe that we’re still this flummoxed. While the Thunder look like us, we now look like the Thunder…only with less individual brilliance and other worldly skill. We’re not a team that can go one-on-one in isolation, yet that’s where most of our possessions seem to be ending up. We’re either overpassing or under passing, shooting too soon or too late, and we have absolutely no flow to our offense. What I think is at the heart of it is indecision. At its best, our offense runs on instinct drilled in by countless repetition, so that the proper choice is made without over thinking. But, back on our heels, the team is thinking too much, and making bad choices, the right choice too late, or, worst of all, no choice at all, just holding the ball and doing nothing.

Of course, it doesn’t help that we’re missing easy lay-ups, that Ibaka is stealing points from us with goaltends (in a two-possession game, one basket matters a lot, though I’m not saying this to put blame on the refs…that’s a tough call to make in the moment), that Danny Green is completely unable to hit a shot at this point, that Splitter is no longer able to catch a pass on a PnR (though credit Collison for getting his pesky hands in there), and that Bonner just plain stinks. Seriously. Bonner played just two minutes in the first half, and was -8. The same 8-0 run that allowed the Thunder to seize control of the game, dominate the 2nd quarter (when the game was mostly lost), and hold on for victory. Just sayin’.

And yet, there we were in the 4th quarter, staying within a stones throw of the Thunder. And then Kevin Durant finally went Durant on us. Despite solid defense, Durant was out of his mind, hitting (almost) literally every shot he took in the 4th quarter, not allowing the Spurs to ever close the gap to more than 4 points. Our offense was actually very good in the second half (more on that in a bit), but we were unable to get any stops at all to inch closer or put pressure on the Thunder. That’s what other-worldly players can do, and that’s what Durant did tonight. He’s a really really really good player. Hat off to him.

So, perhaps after losing two games and bitching incessantly about how bad we’re playing, there is still hope. Let’s take stock of what we have.

It’s a best of 3 series. Two of those games will be played in San Antonio. The Thunder have shown no indication that their “others” can perform to anywhere close of the level they’ve performed at the last two game in OKC. Our “others” should certainly play better at home. All we have to do is win at home to advance. Every game is its own entity; momentum is forever and fleeting and smaller than we’d like to imagine.

The Thunder have made their adjustments. They were good ones. But I don’t think there are any changes we can see from them going forward. And a big part of their adjustments require a tremendous amount of energy, both on defense and in transition. Tonight we saw the same defensive energy, but much less impetus to push the ball. They did very little damage in the open court. If Ibaka and Perkins miss just 3 shots (not an unusual hypothetical), we’re talking about a game we might have won. Don’t be fooled into thinking most of these results from Game 4 are replicable. At home, one game later, they didn’t push as hard on misses and TOs (though there were admittedly far fewer) as they previously did. Who is to say, one game later, in unfriendly territory, the defensive ferocity will drop just a hair, enough to open up some of those passing and driving lanes?

But where we should really take stock: San Antonio still has adjustments to be made. Potentially big ones. In my Adjustment Bureau column prior to the game, I mentioned that Bonner had one first-half stint to prove himself. Which I think he did, in just about 2 minutes. He has proven himself unworthy to play in this series. He’s not hitting shots, not rebounding, not playing defense, and contributing nothing positive. We can survive without him.

Especially if Blair plays like he is capable. This is the big adjustment we’ll be hearing about for the next 2 days, and for good reason. Pop finally turned to Blair in the third quarter, and everything changed for our offense. Not being an astute analyst, I can’t say exactly what happened, but with Blair in the game, our offense suddenly opened up and started flowing. The driving lanes were there, and Ginobili and Parker started getting to the rim again. PnR was available to us again. Blair was able to score in the paint, something that no other big has done much of in the last 2 games (at least not easily). For whatever reason, Blair is a bad match-up for the Thunder, and we need to use him. Hell, even OKC knows it. I understand why Pop hasn’t gone to him yet, but he finally relented, and he needs to put him back in the rotation for Bonner.

And maybe Splitter, too. I love Splitter’s game, and think he can still be effective. But something is not quite working for him, whether it be nerves, Thunder defense, or what else…but he is usually prominent when the Thunder make runs and slow down our offense.

I think we might also see Green’s minutes curtailed. I hate to punish a player for a cold streak (Bonner is different, as he isn’t even taking the shots), but we only have 3 games left, and we can’t wait out Green’s stroke to come back. He provides good defense, but not enough to justify losing offensive punch. Will he fall out of the rotation completely? I’m not sure. Will he come off the bench? Now it gets more interesting.

The obvious counter would be to start Ginobili and move Green to the bench. But with no true back-up PG, I like having Ginobili still come off the bench as our back-up PG. Neal needs minutes, but he can not be the primary ball handler when he’s on the court; he needs to play off the ball and make shots for us, as he has the most reliable stroke on the team.

But here’s another idea: start Jackson. He’s been playing very well, giving us good offense (but, more importantly, good defense), and has the heart and “nasty” to play in this series. Start him guarding Durant (at the 3), and move Leonard (who is playing very well this series and who I trust) to the 2. That’s a big but also quick and athletic look for our team. Leonard can guard Westbrook or Thabo (though he’d match up better with Thabo at the 2, considering that Parker has played well against Westbrook defensively); if he guards Thabo, he has the size and speed to stay with him, but can also roam and use his quick feet and hands to disrupt the Thunder offense, while still being able to recover back to his man reasonably well. It also gives the team great switching flexibility on Durant if he tries to rub his defender off on a screen, as Jackson and Leonard can both guard him.

And think about what that does on the other end of the court: if Thabo stays on Parker, Westbrook must now guard Leonard. There’s a size match-up we can exploit. (Westbrook actually plays good defense on Ginobili, another reason I like keeping Manu on the bench; I think he’d struggle with Leonard, if only because of the big size difference). It’s a bit out of the box, but it just might work.

There’s going to be a lot of talk about this series in the next 2 days. But nobody knows anything. As the cliche goes, “that’s why they play the games.” San Antonio won 2 at home and looked great; OKC won 2 at home and looked dominant. After the first two games, the narrative was that nobody could ever beat the Spurs. 3 days later, the narrative was that the Spurs were lucky to win both at home and the Thunder have our number. The truth is, nobody knows. These are two evenly matched teams, playing their asses off for a chance at the NBA Finals. Most people predicted this series to go 6 or 7 games, and for that to happen, 2-2 was the most likely outcome over the first 4 games.

Game 5 will be a fight. We played 66 games for the right to have that fight at home.

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