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WCF Game 2: Deja Vu All Over Again

By Jeff Koch on May 22, 2014.

Oklahoma City 77, San Antonio 112
San Antonio leads the series 2-0

The more things stay the same, the more they change.

This isn’t your (slightly) older sibling’s Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio Western Conference Finals. As I’m sure has been written a hundred times, 2012 ain’t walking through that door. Serge Ibaka and James Harden ain’t walking through that door. Rookie Kawhi Leonard ain’t walking through that door. Playoff neophytes Danny Green and Tiago Splitter ain’t walking through that door.

There’s a common misconception (one that I’m guilty of perpetuating) that Games 1 and 2 of 2012 were complete blowouts in the Spurs favor. This is simply not true. Game 1 was the “I want some nasty!” game, in which the Spurs had to claw their way back into the game in the 4th quarter, after trailing most of the game. Game 2 reached a near apotheosis fever pitch sometime in the 3rd when the Spurs took a huge lead, but OKC fought back and the game was close until the end. At the time, it only seemed like utter domination because it capped off an amazing 20-game winning streak for the Spurs (10 of which came in the playoffs!) which made them seem invincible.

But there were cracks in that team, and despite Pop and the Big 3, it was a mostly untested playoff team around the edges. Over the next 4 games, the Thunder exposed the Spurs weaknesses. More than that, though, they kind of turned into the Spurs. Kerr mentioned this on the telecast last night, and I had totally forgotten it, but in Games 3-6, the Thunder actually adopted a more Spurs-like offense, eschewing isolation and hero ball for a more pass-friendly player-movement-centric offense. The Spurs defense–not yet ramparted with Green, Leonard, and Splitter–couldn’t keep up.

This points to two of the major reasons why 2014 will not end as 2012 did. First: you could see the spirit and the will evaporating from OKC in the third quarter last night. The offense went completely stagnant (which is saying something for OKC and their isolation-centric offense), the ball just stuck, and the Thunder tried to get back in the game one long contested jump shot at a time. You could see the trust disappearing between teammates and in the system, as players felt compelled to to go it alone. Hero ball is foolhardy at best, and a disaster against the Spurs defense.

One thing that I love about this Spurs team is the absolute trust, belief, and faith the team has in itself and in each other. You’ll never see the team abandon the system. You hear the phrase “play for each other” bandied about in sports cliche world, but the Spurs really do play for each other. Sometimes I think they’d rather make the highlight assist than the score the points. If Danny Green is 1 for 6 behind the line, he’s still getting the ball in the corner because he’s wide open, because the system demands it, and because every single player on that team has complete belief in him to make that shot. Manu could be in “bad” Manu mode, but if the team needs a bucket in the last 3 minutes of a close game, there he’ll be, 30-feet out, surveying the court, planning 2 or 3 moves ahead, signaling for the Splitter screen at just the right moment. Success is not a goal, it’s a byproduct. The Spurs system is meticulous, but it’s ultimately the byproduct of faith, belief, and trust.

The second reason this year is completely different: the “other” 3. More specifically, the transformation of the team defense over the last two years with the development of Kawhi, Danny, and Tiago. We’ve dumped praise on Leonard and Green, so let’s turn to Splitter: Tiago is our best big defender. All apologies to Duncan, an all-time great on both ends of the court, but Splitter is the most trustworthy and stout defender we have on the back line. Which actually works out beautifully for Duncan, who can more freely be the help defender, where he was always a tad better anyway. Plus, the two defend so beautifully together, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Nate Duncan (a wonderful NBA twitter follow) had two tweets that seemed to presage my thoughts by just a few moments. First, he said that when Green and Leonard play together (basically the starting line-up), the Spurs have 4 plus defenders on the floor. That’s really saying something. (Parker isn’t a great defender, but also a bit underrated; he works his butt off and uses his speed and slinkiness to stay relatively attached to opposing PGs. Certainly better than they do to him.) Lost in the resounding beat down last night was that the Spurs held the Thunder to only 77 points. That’s saying something. The Spurs are peaking on both ends of the court right now.

The second thought floated out there was this: Splitter’s ability to stay on the floor might be the key to beating the Heat in the Finals. I had the germination of this thought when I watched Splitter guarding Caron Butler in one of those insane cross matches last night…and he stuck with him. He shuffled his feet and denied Butler getting to the rim on a drive from the wing. It was something to watch. Miami basically made Splitter irrelevant in last year’s Finals with their ability to go small but stay big, if that makes sense. There was nowhere to hide Splitter on defense, and he wasn’t smart enough offensively to take advantage. This year, that could be different. The Heat have slipped a bit, so Splitter could easily guard Battier or Lewis or Haslem or Bosh. More importantly, with his offense expanding by the series, the Spurs could easily punish the Heat by being able to keep both Duncan and Splitter on the floor and just destroying the paint (kind of like they are doing against the small Thunder line-ups). Splitter is a player reborn these playoffs, playing with a precision and confidence that is as revelatory as it is welcome.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Still two more wins in this round. They won’t be easy, but they are there for this team to take. Over the last 8 games this team is 7-1, winning those 7 games by an average of a staggering 22 points. That’s just bonkers.

In 2012, the Spurs were cruising on a 20-game winning streak. But this run, something is brewing, something special. It started later, and the first 6 games against Dallas were a wake-up call, and muddy up the “clean” numbers a bit. This team is quietly reaching historic heights, playing as cleanly and beautifully as a basketball team can play, a style that can only be truly born from trust, faith, belief, and years of understanding and battling together. Bill Simmons likes to talk about how championship NBA teams need to go through the process, learning how to win in the playoffs and be great.

Nobody talks about this with this Spurs team because of the Big 3 and their tenure together, but this process is true for this team. This newest iteration of the Spurs began in 2011: Duncan lost weight and really transformed himself and his game. Pop completely opened up the offensive system and changed the way the team played. Parker moved to the fore. The surrounding cast got younger. They mastered the regular season that first year, but lost in the first round to Memphis. The next year they fought their way to the Conference Finals, but came up short. Finally, they made it to the Finals, seconds from a title, only to fall just short again.

Each year they could have given up, seen the system as a failure. They could have lamented their bad luck, bad timing. Instead, they walked away from each season thinking: we need to be better. We need to play perfect. This year they are better, and they are playing near-perfect basketball. They are so close to what they feel rightfully belongs to them, and they aren’t skipping any steps or leaving anything to chance. The team is focused and precise.

Counted out so many times over the last decade, the Spurs might finally have their best team. They will leave nothing to chance as they strive for 6 more wins, one game at a time, one half at a time, one quarter at a time, one possession at a time, one pass at a time, one cut at a time….

Go Spurs Go.

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