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WCF Game 1: The Myth Of Pace

By Jeff Koch on May 20, 2014.

Oklahoma City 105, San Antonio 122
Spurs lead series 1-0

Along with the tired ‘old’ tag, a common misconception about these Spurs is that you want to make them run, to speed up the game, that they’re too old to keep up with the young legs. That’s just plain wrong. Theres’ nothing these Spurs want to do more than play with pace; pace is how they win games.

The Spurs want to play fast, not quick. This is a fine distinction, but an important one. There’s a reason you always see Pop on the sideline, yelling and imploring his team to keep pushing the ball from defense to offense. Moving fast favors the team with intelligence and a system and corporate knowledge. When you move fast, you’re forced to make quick decisions, to react instinctually. The Spurs know each other inside out, and can make these decisions with confidence.

They move fast, but they don’t move quickly. They want to get into their offensive sets as soon as possible, but they’re not in a hurry to score. They move bodies and they move the ball, stretching out defenses to their breaking points. They trust in their system and put opposing teams in the position to begin to doubt theirs. They move fast, and make other teams have to make quick decisions. Quick decisions lead to wrong decisions, which lead to tiny cracks in the defense. This is all the Spurs need; they pounce. They pound the rock.

Speeding up the tempo of the game also forces pace on the defensive end, forcing less experienced teams, again, into quick decision-making and quick mistakes. You might be able to outrun the Spurs, but you can’t outthink them. The court is small, there is only so much advantage one can gain with foot speed. But there is a world of advantage in the mind and heart of the game. Eventually they will speed their opponents up into a mistake, and the Spurs will be off–fast, but not quick–to the other end of the court.

It’s not a coincidence that the Thunder clawed their way back into Game 1 in the third quarter, when they got big, slowed down, and really muddied up the game on the defensive end. The Spurs, perhaps a little too pleased with the ease of the first half, happily slowed down their offense, going one-on-one and missing great shots in favor of good ones. And Westbrook and Durant feasted on the offensive end. (Westbrook is the definition of a quick player, and it can pay dividends for a while, but almost always catches up to him.)

But here we get to the heart of the Thunder’s dilemma without Ibaka: their only chance of winning this series is really to go big and try to slow down the game, but their best big (and defensive) line-ups feature 3 players that basically can’t score. So the offense becomes 2-on-5. It’s a great 2, mind you, but that disparity is not sustainable. Even last night, we saw both Durant and Westbrook play the entire second half and run out of gas midway through the 4th. (Meanwhile, Duncan played 29 minutes, Manu played 27. Yawn.) Or, they go small, put offense on the floor…and watch the Spurs out-small and out-offense them.

See, the key to their small line-ups is Ibaka. He allows them to be small and athletic AND have size and rim protection. Without Ibaka, in any configuration, the Spurs just destroyed the Thunder interior defense, to the tune of 66 points in the paint. (The Pacers just finished a game in which they scored 83 points in total.) There were mismatches everywhere, almost always favoring The Spurs. Durant is tall, but can’t guard any of our bigs in the paint. Diaw, Duncan, and Splitter all got their moments to shine at the rim. Adams is a good big, but we saw at the end of the 3rd quarter, when he’s the only big on the floor, the Spurs just put him in pick and roll after pick and roll with Ginobili, pulling him away from the basket and leaving the rim completely exposed, and shredded them with it. It was almost not fair.

Perhaps herein lies the greatest difference between these two teams: the Spurs have a counter for everything. They’ve carefully constructed their roster to match what any other team in the NBA can do. A player like Ibaka was probably their biggest deficiency, and now he’s gone. Whatever the Thunder want to do, the Spurs can do. Better. Baynes got important minutes against Adams and was a huge spark off the bench. Diaw might be the key to the entire series if the Thunder continually go small, as he can play like a 3 but guard a 5, or play like a 5 but guard a 2.

And let’s not forget the wings. The Spurs can run 3-guard sets with you because they have scoring, shooting, and defense at most positions. Kawhi can easily guard and play 2-4, and Green allows Parker to slink off on to non-threatening 2s. One of the keys to the game was having Green on Westbrook and Leonard on Durant, which killed the Thunder 1/3 pick and rolls. The Thunder run that action to get a player like Parker on Durant, or force a less fleet of foot player on Westbrook. No dice in this case.

Kawhi was his usual amazing self, but we’ve heaped plenty of praise on him these playoffs. Let’s look at Green, who, when his shot is on, is as vital a player as the Spurs have. His defensive flexibility saves Parker and his shooting completely opens up the offense. It’s not a mistake that his +/- for the game was an insane +30 (in 27 minutes!).

The Thunder still have two all-world players who can shake up a game or a series all on their own. But on paper and in reality, the Thunder just look outmatched and outmanned right now. If so, The Spurs should be equally as dominant in Game 2. I can’t wait to find out.

Go Spurs Go.

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