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WCF Game 5: There Is No Spoon

By Jeff Koch on May 30, 2014.

Oklahoma City 89, San Antonio 117
Spurs lead series 3-2

I. Exorcise

Now we can stop talking about 2012. With another home blowout win, the Spurs changed the tune and shred the script. Looking intimidated and physically inferior for two games, the Spurs bounced back in a big way by doing what they do best: playing smart, playing efficiently, playing within themselves, playing within their system, and playing with trust. The offensive machine was humming yet again and the Spurs looked like the Spurs we all know and love. Perhaps more impressively, though, was how locked in they were on defense (after the first quarter), only allowing 57 points in the final 36 minutes, much of that garbage time, when losing teams tend to run up the scoring against lesser defensive intensity. In total, after a first quarter draw, the Spurs won the last 3 quarters by a score of 85-57, once again looking like the unbeatable team in this series.

(Of course, if anything in this series is predictable, it’s that once you start thinking a team has an edge, you’re wrong.)

II. Adjustments: Turns Out, Pop Was Probably Right, Even If It Was Just Coach-Speak

As was said over and over by any Spur within speaking distance of a microphone, the biggest adjustment would be sharper execution, more energy and passion, more desperation. And while those things are near-impossible to gauge, the Spurs certainly appeared to be playing with a much greater intensity. They were scrambling for loose balls, gang rebounding, and excelling at all the ‘little things’ that are often the first to go in losses. The simple analysis here is that home court has its advantages, even for the best road team in the league. The Spurs are now 9-1 at home in these playoffs, with 7 straight blow out wins. How dominant have they been in those 7 games? The average margin of victory (stretching back to Game 7 against Dallas) is 23.7 points, just an obscene number. The closest game has been 17 points, which has happened twice. Every other game has been won by at least 23 points.

So the saying is true: you play all regular season for home court advantage. The Thunder are world beaters (especially against the Spurs) at home, but must win a game in San Antonio to take this series, something they seem incapable of. And if all the Spurs do is continue to win home games, they win the Championship. But just for fun, they were the best road team in the league all year, a historically great one. I’d bank on at least one more road win in the near future.

And not coincidentally, that ‘heart’ and ‘passion’ that we speak of tends to be most easily expressed at home, particularly by key role players like Danny Green, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, et al.

But there were some actual tactical adjustments.

A. It Was Never About Bonner, Silly

The big storyline that emerged right before tip-off: Bonner was going to get the start for Tiago. Matt Bonner, the only Spur to not start a game all season, a player that had been relegated to the end of the bench a few seasons ago, a nice player to give spot duty in the regular season, but not a player to trust in the key moments of the season.

After the game, I heard a few different analyses (including Charles Barkley) that claimed the adjustment didn’t work because the score was tied after the first quarter, and the Thunder had a nice lead for most of the first. This totally misses the point of the line-up change. It was never about Bonner: it was about splitting up Tiago and Tim; it was about floor balance, talent balance, and skill balance; it was about always having a long-distance threat at the 4 position. Bonner was a red herring, one designed to bury the lede.

Who start is irrelevant, as every minute of the game holds equal weight. The Spurs have two bigs who can shoot and are comfortable playing at the perimeter, and two (or three, if you count Baynes) bigs who are more traditional and can bang down low and protect the rim. The idea is that one player from each category will be on the floor at all times. So Bonner or Diaw would always be on, and Tim or Tiago would always be on, but never two players from the same category. Bonner starting was to buy some early minutes for Boris, who would be relied upon to play a lot and play well, given his unique talents and mostly irreplaceable skill set. Diaw started the second half, but this wasn’t an admission that starting Bonner was wrong: it was to seize the opportunity and put the game out of reach as quickly as possible.

And the plan worked. Having a stretch-4 on the floor at all times forced the Thunder to either go small (something they don’t like to do) or forced Ibaka out of the paint, robbing him of his greatest skill and his intimidation of the Spurs. It also forces the Thunder to make a choice: compress the D (the preferred method, completely shuts down the paint) and get killed by shooting, as the Spurs now have 4 trusted shooters on the floor at all times, or come to the shooters and completely stretch out the D, opening up the paint for the bigs, the slashers, and the pick and roll. Either way, it’s a Spurs victory.

Many people want to see the Thunder go small with Durant at the 4, but I think this plays right into the Spurs hand, as well, as Durant can not guard Diaw at all, particularly when he takes him into the post (which he and the Spurs are very willing to do). And on the other end, Diaw has some success guarding Durant, but more than likely they are going to cross match with either Leonard or Green, and Diaw can hide on a less-threatening Thunder player with a limited skill set.

Last of all, let’s applaud Splitter, whose minutes and role get yanked around all the time on this team to best suit the needs of particular match-ups. He always handles it with professionalism and poise, and still gives quality minutes. He didn’t play a ton last night, but his minutes alongside Manu in particular were big, and he’s still a deadly screen setter and roller to the basket, and still the best defensive big on the team. If your “back-up” plan is 48 minutes of either Tim or Tiago, you’re in good shape.

B. The Bell Tolls For Thee, Russell

To my mind, the more important adjustment was a defensive one: switching defensive assignments for Green and Leonard. Kahwi moved to Russell, and Green guarded Durant. This accomplished many things. While Ibaka was rightfully the storyline in Games 3 and 4, it was actually Westbrook’s excellent play that doomed the Spurs in those games. He’s just too quick and too devastating an athlete for Tony or Danny to guard. Green has great success guarding PGs, but Westbrook is a different class of athlete. When he is allowed to drive at will, shoot at will, and pass at will, the Thunder are unstoppable. Basically, when Russell is actually a PG–running the team and breaking down opposing defenses for himself and others–the Thunder will a lot by a lot. Kawhi doesn’t have the speed to match up with Westbrook, but he does have the size, the strength, and the length to really bother him. They key is not to stop Westbrook; it’s to bottle him up, to limit his PG opportunities and turn him into the isolation player he so quickly becomes (and seems to clearly want to be). Even though he can make the shot, when he pulls up for an 18-footer in semi-transition, it’s a win for the defense. Even though he can get to the rim at will, when he dribbles the ball for 15 seconds then drives (with no other Thunder player touching it), it’s a win for the defense. An isolated Westbrook is a de-clawed Westbrook, and an impotent Thunder offense. Kawhi has the ability to put Westbrook on that island.

The truth is, Durant is a better player, but Westbrook is the key to the Thunder offense. Much like Parker, if you can slow him down, you can make the entire team’s offense suffer. When Durant scores, it’s 2 (or 3) points. When Westbrook scores, it’s like 5 points, 2 TOs, a foul, a rolled ankle, and a lost puppy.

And Green on Durant actually isn’t all that bad. As both Tony Allen and Chris Paul showed in earlier rounds, the best defense on Durant is often a smaller player who sticks with him tenaciously, gets into his body, and is quick enough to prevent him from driving. There is no length in the world that can bother Durant; why even try? Better to stick a player on him who can stick with him and force him into choosing jump shots over drives to the basket. He can make jump shots all day, but you live with that. When he drives to the basket, he not only scores, he breaks down the defense, gets his team into the bonus, and opens up the floor for any other shooter.

This also helps to neutralize one of OKC’s pet plays: the 1-3 pick and roll with Durant and Westbrook. In this scenario, the Spurs can afford to switch it, because all it does is move Kawhi to Durant and Green to Westbrook, which still isn’t all that bad.

Of course, the other main contributor to the team playing solid D was playing solid O. The Thunder thrive on steals, blocks, TOs, and getting out in transition for easy dunks and lay-ups. In the half-court, they are only slightly above average. They are so freakishly athletic, though, that even a missed basket can lead to a fast break for them. So the more the Spurs put the ball in the basket, the better that defense will be.

C. Sleight Of Hand

The other little change I noticed was to take the ball out of Parker’s hands more, to move him off the ball and have him cutting. Westbrook is a defensive menace when guarding on ball and able to use his athleticism to completely smother Parker. So many of OKC’s steals in Game 4 were a direct result of Westbrook’s on-ball D. Off the ball, though, he is overly aggressive and gambles far too often. Parker is a relentless and excellent cutter and mover off the ball, and smart enough to use Westbrook’s aggression against him with back cuts, screens, etc.

So the Spurs kept the ball moving, moved Parker all around, and put the ball in Manu’s hands a ton. Parker cut and kept Westbrook occupied and often out of the play; or, out smarted him for defensive breakdowns. Meanwhile, Fisher or Lamb or even Durant had on-ball duties on Manu or Boris OR the ball was flying around the court. Either way, the Spurs offense had the Thunder defense completely out of whack.

III: Hearts And Thoughts (And Calves And Ankles) They Fade Away

Sadly, I also think part of the Thunder’s defensive slippage was Ibaka’s health getting incrementally worse and worse. He didn’t seem to be moving all that well, nor did he seem overly aggressive when he had the chance. I expect him to play in Game 6, of course, but I think his calf is getting a little worse each game and obviously directly correlates to his performance on the court. Remember, before Game 3 he had had roughly 10 days to rest and heal; since then, he’s only had one day off between each game, with a day of travel before 2 of the games. It’s not getting any better. We all know his importance to this team, so much of which is predicated on his athleticism.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s ankle seems to be bothering him, as well. He came out on fire in the first quarter, but faded from the game rather quickly, losing quickness and explosion. It’s pretty common with foot and lower leg injuries to be able to start games strong but, after that first stint, go quickly down hill from there as the injured area tightens up and gets progressively more sore. Again, I expect him to play in Game 6, but also expect him to be a bit diminished. His ability to play well adds so much to the Thunder attack.

IV: A 2012 Memory That Doesn’t Sting (And May Be Worth Recalling)

What happened at the end of Game 4 reminded me a bit of that game in 2012 against Dallas, when the Spurs were down big and Pop threw the towel in and emptied his bench late in the 3rd quarter. But a funny thing happened, and the Spurs got back into the game, almost winning it at the buzzer (a Danny Green shot was just a hair too late) before ultimately losing in OT. But that game was the turning point of the season, sparking the Spurs on a huge run that led then straight to the top of the West and into the Conference Finals. More importantly, it gave the role players life and confidence.

While Game 4 had a much different ending, the play of the bench might have been a turning point for this series. It was really the first time all game (and Game 3, if we want to be honest) that the Spurs ran their offense. The bench also forced the Thunder regulars to extend their minutes, which might have helped in Game 5 (and beyond; fatigue is a real thing, even if you’re a 24 year old freak of nature). More importantly, though, it just seemed to inspire confidence in the team as a whole, and restore some order to the series and the team in general.

V: Game 6: The Heart of a Champion?

Who knows what to expect from Game 6? Anyone who is certain of what will happen knows nothing. If we go by what we’ve seen so far, it’ll be a blowout Thunder victory. But I have a hunch the Spurs will show up to play, and that it will be the first really competitive game of the series. I’m curious to see how the Thunder respond to the Game 5 loss and how the Spurs respond to the win while returning to a place they’ve had such little success. Having Game 7 at home is little comfort, and seeing them close out the series in Game 6 would be an impressive mark of a championship team. With the Heat already waiting, it’ll also be a prudent move.

The Spurs have been waiting a year to get back to this exact moment. I expect a sharp and focused and hungry team. But this Thunder team might be the best team they face all post-season, so I expect nothing easy. The Spurs will have to take it.

As it should be.

Go Spurs Go.

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