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Being The Change

By Jeff Koch on March 11, 2013.

San Antonio Spurs 105, Oklahoma City Thunder 93
49-15 overall, 26-4 home

If there’s any justice in this world, the West is on a collision course for an OKC-San Antonio rematch in the Western Conference Finals. To the outside observer, those 6 games had the look of a younger brother figuring out the older brother, stealing their identity, and then beating them 4 straight. (The formula for OKC beating the Spurs in those 4 games was adopting the Spurs’ offensive philosophy of ball and player movement, plus having the best pure offensive player in the world.) From the Spurs’ perspective, that series was a lot closer than it looked, and with a few breaks going differently, was there for the taking.

Fast forward to next season, and while the Spurs still own the regular season, most analysts and pundits have automatically given the Thunder the edge in the playoffs (regardless of seeding) because of last season’s Western Conference Finals. But those playoff games were games of inches, of subtleties, with a few minor differences this season having the potential to be huge in a potential playoff series. Namely: Leonard. Green. Splitter.

Last year, all 3 were essentially playing their first full year in the league. In the WCF, when they were called upon, they all fell short. Green’s shooting disappeared, Leonard made costly defensive lapses on Durant (forcing Jackson into more playing time), and Splitter let his poor free throw shooting affect the rest of his game. With the load put heavier on Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili, the thing that made the Spurs great (“the system”) was compromised, and the individual talents of the Thunder trumped our individual talents.

So if anything can be drawn from a regular season game in March, it’s this: if the Spurs are to beat the Thunder, it will be because of the internal improvement of those three players. And if tonight’s game is any indication, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic.

Splitter and Leonard were our two best players tonight. We’ve come to expect this from Leonard, but Splitter was particularly great tonight. So aggressive around the rim, showing some great fake moves, and even a more refined post game (to beat Ibaka a few times). 21 pts, 10 rebs, 3 asts, with a team-high +24 is a man’s night. The team is markedly better with Duncan and Splitter playing together, and we need Splitter to be this guy more nights than not. As for Leonard, his offense keeps getting better, but his defense on Durant was great. Aggressive without fouling (until some suspect calls in the 4th), with some great calculated gambles for steals.

And while those two were the best players, Green was consistently the spark. His back-to-back huge 3s shook the team out of their doldrums in the second quarter, igniting the run that would eventually take the lead (that they never relinquished). His defense was superb as well, swarming and pesky. And after Leonard missed back-to-back 3s from the same corner in the closing minutes, Green took–and made–the same shot to finally put the game away. If he keeps playing like this, we’ll have to retire “Icy/Hot” and just call him “Hot”.

We’ll need every inch of improvement from those 3 to have any chance of finally making it back to the Finals.

Some more notes from tonight’s game:

–There’s an old cliche (that can work both ways) that goes: the best defense is a good offense. If you think about the Spurs with Tony Parker, you can understand why this is true. Two things are important for the Spurs defense: rebounding (to finish possessions, something we did not do in the first quarter, but did the rest of the game, hence the turnaround), and being set. The best way for a team to be set on defense? Score a basket on offense. Having Parker running the offense gives us that most often. In the first quarter we weren’t making baskets nor rebounding the ball, and we surrendered 32 points. In the second quarter, we finally started doing both, and we only gave up 61 points the rest of the way.

–It wasn’t an issue tonight, but I don’t like Duncan vs. Perkins one-on-one. Perkins is a really good low post defender, and Duncan isn’t what he used to be. Whenever he isolates against him, it rarely turns into a good offensive possession. Even if a basket is made, it totally stops the flow of the offense. More often than not, though, there is no basket, and a fast-breaking Westbrook headed the other direction. Duncan’s greatest weapon against the Thunder is his passing, and his 15-18 foot jump shot.

–One other thing that is important against the Thunder is that all 5 players on the floor need to be scoring threats. In the second quarter when we finally got back into the game, it was without a traditional PG, putting Neal and Manu in the back court.

–Perhaps Manu should get the “Icy/Hot” designation. He was all over the place. He made some horrible decisions with the ball, and was actually the cause of offensive stagnation several times (not to mention just randomly throwing the ball away a couple of times). With the game winding down, he also made some very bad decisions, making risky passes that were too much risk for very little reward (like trying to thread a bounce pass to Splitter at the top of the key on the move–that ends in disaster more often than not). But he was also the catalyst for the Spurs getting back into the game in the second quarter, and also the catalyst for the Spurs extending the lead and really seizing control of the game in the beginning of the 4th. So, yeah. I just don’t know what to think about Manu right now.

–Westbrook is a freak athletically. And he can take over games. But I don’t fear him. And I want him pulling up for that 12-footer in transition…and ignoring Durant. In a tight game, I expect him to hurt his team as often as he helps it.

–One last reason to think this year might be different than last: the lack of Harden. His loss hasn’t really impacted them in the regular season, but I think it could have huge repercussions in the playoffs, as he was their most versatile player in crunch time (and also the player that could most consistently get Durant the ball where he needed it). Kevin Martin is a good player and deadly shooter, but he needs his offense created for him. Harden put so much pressure on a defense, and, unlike Westbrook, I feared him in the final minutes of a close game.

With the win tonight, the Spurs get a 2-game lead on the Thunder in the West and ensure that the season series can, at worst, end in a tie. This was a big win for potentially securing that #1 seed. And with the Lakers playing so well, I’m convinced that they will sneak past the #8 spot, and potentially as high as #6. These potential first round match-ups are in play: OKC vs Houston (Harden vs. his old team), Memphis vs. Denver (too hot teams–this match-up is the closest thing to a lock in the West right now), San Antonio vs. Golden State (a good match-up for us, plus we have several members of this site in the Bay area), and–drumroll please–Lakers vs. Clippers. That would make the internet melt. Those are the first round match-ups I would like to see.

We have a quick turnaround, playing in Minnesota tomorrow night.

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