WCF G1: Welcome Back, Manu

Watching last night’s game made me slightly nervous. All week I was wondering how I felt about this series and couldn’t make up my mind until sometime friday.

To wit: I felt confident that the Spurs could slice up this Thunder squad if they could get an appearance by Healthy, Ballin’ Manu. I was afraid that he woudn’t show up. Perhaps this year, instead of being injured, he just became old. These kinds of things happen in playoff series. Second and Third banana’s sometimes don’t play up to the level of their regular season numbers, or past playoff numbers. The media (especially national media) who are really watching this team for the first time all year play up the obvious story lines. 

It happens all the time.

You know it. You saw the talking heads say things like “Manu has got to step up for this team if they want to continue on this run – the playoffs don’t get any easier." 

Greg Doyel is already singing that tune about Harden and Westbrook. And Manu*.

*_[The unsaid thing here? Manu was stepping up in place of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. He was doing things that they usually do. He was driving into the lane and scoring like Tony Parker has done this series. _

And that is a team. Any basketball team needs a slasher/scorer. In 2003 and 2005, that was Manu. In 2007, that was Manu and Tony. Since the last championship, Tony and Manu have tried sharing the role but injuries and oldness have gotten in the way. Then we tried getting Richard Jefferson to do some of the same things. Nope. The secret to this year’s playoff run has been Danny Green doing things that Manu used to do regularly. We didn’t miss a beat after he went down because Green was cashing threes, jumping passing lanes and slicing to the rim. 

You know, like how Ginobili was last night.] 

So Manu "stepped up” and scored when we needed scoring. He closed out the game in 2005-era style. It was a bit unusual, because in game four against the Clips the Spurs just ran their sets

Whatevs. Whether we were doing 4-down, clear outs for Tony or Manu, or running complicated offensive wizardry, the thing to take away from Game 1 was this: we were getting ‘our’ shots the entire game. Yes, including when the Thunder forced 14 turnovers in the first half.  Yes, also in the the third quarter when they took a ten point lead into the final frame. 

The key in this game wasn’t that Manu was hitting shots down the stretch. It was that Gary Neal was hitting his, and Tiago was crashing the rim, and that Stack Jack was making life difficult for Kevin Durant. 

In essence, (and very cliché) the Spurs played Spurs basketball and the Thunder weren’ t allowed to play theirs. 

It is a very difficult strategy to master. Often, it is so much easier to wave off the play and rely on individual ability (looking at you Kobe, Lebron) than to trust your teammates to set the screens, pass the ball, and cut in sync so that an unheralded player gets an open look. It is the ideal of any system and basketball at it’s most beautiful. 

As the best players on this team have aged, the team has had to rely more on a system to create easy shots for everyone. This is probably the most well-oiled machine since 4-down was the highest-percentage offensive play call on the sheet. 

The rest of this series will hinge on the Spurs ability to get easy lay up opportunities for Tim, Tiago, and the rest while stopping Kevin Durant’s seemingly unnatural ability to turn any shot into a high-percentage shot. 

I’m still a little scared, but much less so. OKC already lost a series to a team that can out-execute them last year against Dallas. Methinks they won’t fall for the same tricks so easily this time up in the Sooner State. 

That is at least a few days off. The Spurs just need to make sure they aren’t as nervous as they were last night when game two starts. 

One last thing: don’t look at missed shots (or made ones) as evidence of a good plan. While Derek Fisher seemingly makes all his shots only agains the Spurs, he won’t be going 6/6 every night (although I did say that back in 2001 when he was doing much the same against those Spurs). Similarly, don’t expect Harden’s misses to remain misses. He was guarded differently than he was in LA and Dallas, and so he was a little off. It is likely he will adjust to that come tuesday night.