There’s a fun little quip that goes: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I think we’ve reached the point in this series and our recent history with this Thunder team where we can safely stop expecting different results. The question is: will the team be sane enough to make some adjustments?
Known as a brilliant tactician and in-game and between-game adjuster, in recent years Pop has been quick to say that adjustments in series are a bit overblown; they run the stuff they’re going to run, and they’re going to win or they’re going to lose. Put another way: We are what we are, no point in changing. There is a lot of truth to that. The Spurs have built a system that, itself, is based on reading and reacting and adapting in real time. The change is already built-in. (I also think a lot of that is just Pop not wanting to really give anything to the media, so he gives them something else entirely.)
Pop has also said over the last few games that it really comes down to effort and energy, to his team playing with ferocity and the right amount of desperation and aggression, to match what the Thunder are doing. To fully appreciate the opportunity they have in front of them, how rare it can be, and go get it.
Or: heart. He’s calling out his team’s heart. To an extent, that is true. Part of what gives the Spurs so much trouble from this Thunder team is just how ferocious and how passionately they play. The Spurs usually win with cold precision. They don’t lack for passion, it’s just aimed inward, focused on getting as close to basketball perfection as a player and team can get. People have mistook Duncan’s stony demeanor for years: it’s not lack of passion or emotion, it’s passion and emotion pointed inward and focused. Most teams don’t know what to do with this, and when they show ‘passion’ it’s really just frustration bubbling forth.
But this Thunder team does a number to the Spurs, the only team I’ve really ever seen able to just get under the Spurs’ collective skin. They have a confidence and passion born from nothing at all, really, and express it independently of the Spurs. The Spurs lack of acknowledgement of their opponent is often the inflection point for so much frustration, and the Spurs feed off of this (though they would never admit nor show this). But the Thunder just don’t care. Conversely, they are brash and arrogant (and passionate) in a way that completely disavows the Spurs presence on the court, and this might be what surely frustrates the Spurs. The Thunder doing to them–in the exact opposite way–what they do to so many teams. Carve them up while barely recognizing they are there. The Spurs do it with precision and execution, passion focused inward; the Thunder do it with ferocity hedonism, passion squarely pointed outward.
I’ve been trying for years to figure out what this OKC team does–beyond just being really good–to so rattle the Spurs. Perhaps this is it. So maybe the series will really come down to heart, and which team can force their form of heart on the game.
But I also think it’s time for Pop to make some tactical adjustments. Perhaps his greatest attribute is his absolute belief in a system while also being adaptable and completely flexible in the face of change. The evolution of the Spurs over the years bears this out. It’s a fine line, though. You don’t want to overreact to a small sample; you also don’t want to have waited too long to adapt. Changing for Game 4 would have been too soon; not changing for Game 5 will have been too late.
So what can this Spurs team do? Here are a few scattered ideas, some of which I think we’ll see:
–Insert Boris Diaw into the starting line-up for Tiago Splitter. Sadly, this series, like last year’s Finals, just might not be for Tiago. There will still be minutes spelling Duncan, and he can run that pick and roll with Manu against the second unit to death. But the Spurs need spacing and shooting on the floor. The one shot the Thunder are absolutely conceding to the Spurs offense is the 3-pointer from the 4 or 5 position. Neither Ibaka nor Perkins are going to come that far out to guard it, and the Spurs have to take advantage. Diaw has gotten a lot of wide open 3 looks, and he has been missing them. But he’s a quality shooter and it’s a make or miss league. You have to live with the results of wide open shots from a shooter you trust to take those shots. If Diaw starts, this will force Ibaka either out of the paint OR give Diaw wide open shots or both. Plus, Diaw is such a versatile playmaker, his presence will only enhance the offense. I think it’s time to make the switch. Pop showed he was willing to do this last year in the Finals.
–Along with that last point, I think Bonner will see some playing time. He could start, which would be hilarious and awesome. More, though, I think he’ll get 10-15 minutes–a stint in each half–to run with the second unit. Bonner always has a positive effect on the offense, whether he’s making shots or not. He has never been a solid playoff performer, but he’s still a great shooter that you can’t leave open. And the Thunder don’t have a real serious low post threat on offense to go at him, so he won’t hurt the defense while on the court.
–Pop was quick to praise Cory Joseph’s energy in garbage time in Game 4. I think he’s earned real minutes. In particular, ahead of Belinelli, perhaps even Mills. Joseph is a sneaky good cutter with and without the ball and a much-improved shooter. He also was the only player unafraid to make aggressive moves to the rim. He’s also a plus defender and would be good to stick on Westbrook. Some people think he should be starting, but I’d stick with Green, who has been solid, and use Cory off the bench to spell Parker and play with Manu and spruce up the attack of the bench. He can’t play worse than Marco at this point. Even if he gives us nothing on O, he’s a plus defender and rebounder for his position.
–Baynes has played well in limited minutes all playoffs. If nothing else, he’s a very big body to clog up the paint with surprising good touch around the rim on offense. If Tiago resorts to ‘scared Tiago’, Baynes is a solid replacement off the bench.
–There has been a lot made about officiating and free throw disparity. The Thunder seem to be getting calls; the Spurs aren’t. To an extent, this is true. But refs don’t like to reward reckless driving. The offense has to be aggressive and assertive and get itself into a position where the defense has been compromised to draw the foul. The Thunder do this. Right now, the Spurs aren’t. They’re not getting past the initial point of intersection, they are not compromising the integrity of the Thunder defense. They need to find a way to do this and get to the FT line. (And yes, being at home will help this. But please do not complain about officiating. Teams don’t get down by 25 points in a game because of refs.)
Ultimately, though, Pop is right. There are no magic adjustments. The system is the system, and the Spurs will win or lose within it. The adjustments aren’t changing what the Spurs do, it’s jut putting different players in different positions to succeed. What we’ve seen these last two games is the Spurs NOT playing Spurs basketball. This is the hardest part for me to watch. I can handle the Spurs losing, but I want them to lose playing the way we so admire and love. They just need to get back to that.
So maybe it is about heart, after all. How about that.
The Spurs are in a hole, and the Thunder look for all the world like the superior team. Unlike 2 years ago, though, everybody seems to be writing off the Spurs. Oddly, this gives me hope. Remember, a week ago, everybody had written off the Thunder. There’s room in this series for another sharp pivot, but it must happen in Game 5 in San Antonio. The Spurs worked all season to get home court advantage, and as much for Game 7 it’s also for Game 5. The season is on the line. Thursday night we’ll see what this team is made of.
I, for one, can’t wait.
Go Spurs Go.
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