The 2016 Spurs are done.
It was sooner than we expected based on that 67 win record but this is the West, and there Are A Million Ways to Lose here. The Thunder were always scary in the ways that uber-talented teams are. They have two explosive, other-worldly scorers who can do things to even the best defensive teams. Basketball is an offensive game, and no matter how great your defense is, the offense can always get a shot off, however low-percentage.
The Spurs haven’t had the best athlete in a competition since pre-injury David Robinson, and even then have never had more than one. The Tim Duncan Spurs were always like their best player — smart, skilled, and relentless. Tim has always struggled against long, athletic big men and so have the Spurs. See the battles with a healthy Thunder (KD, RW, and Ibaka). Where Ibaka was the force who turned away the easy Tim and Tony buckets at the rim in 2012, it is Adams who gobbled up rebounds against the slow Tim.
All that said, the Spurs didn’t get blown out this series. The second quarter of game six may be the indelible image of the series, but much like that 2006 series against Dallas, this one was full of close games between two really good teams. Pop mentioned the extra shots and opportunities that the Spurs had in game 5 and he was right. In this make-or-miss league, the Spurs had more than enough chances to be playing a game seven on Sunday. They missed them in game five.
So what happened?
LaMarcus Aldridge was not near the force he was in the first two games, and the team’s overreliance on he and Kawhi to draw in the defense for open shots was obvious. Against the best the league had (The Warriors mostly) the Spurs had trouble scoring. They defended okay and maybe even amazingly well, but there was nothing beyond hoping Kawhi or LaMarcus could create something from a standstill.
We saw more of that in the worst moments in game six. The bench was destroyed and the starters couldn’t stem the tide very much. Again, that put the team in an unsurmountable hole but wasn’t the entire series. The misses in the final five minutes of games five and six are what finished this squad.
Durant said “we didn’t dominate, it was a grind”. That grind was obviously the rebounding. While wide open 24-foot shots from a 40+% three-point shooter are the shots you want, tip-ins and put back dunks are better — especially in this series. As Aldridge reverted to human form for the rest of the series, the Spurs needed about five more easy buckets to win this thing.
I fully expected the Warriors to pull apart this Spurs team and run away with the series while the Spurs showed they simply couldn’t score with a game-changing MVP. I did not expect OKC to put things together and completely reverse their modus operandi and close out fourth quarters with decisiveness. It was cliché analysis to say “if the Thunder can figure it out”, that they would be championship-level contenders again. They showed throughout 82 games that they were good, but prone to giving away fourth quarter leads. If they continue to put it all together there is a very good chance they could give Steph Curry’s boys a run.
WCF Preview Aside
Golden State looked leaky defensively against Portland, a team that had no business being in the conference semifinals. The Blazers are a team that likes to shoot threes and had first-half leads against Curry-less and recovery-Curry Warriors on the strength of three straight 15+ 3point games. OKC doesn’t do that — and they likely won’t get 3/4 from deep from Roberson, but they had 4th quarter leads against GSW in all three games this year. Portland relied on their great backcourt and solid play from role players to compete. OKC is longer, more athletic, and bigger than Portland accross the board.
Where do the Spurs go from here?
The Spurs spent a lot on LMA, and the hope was that Timmy could put off Father Time for one last productive year, while David West provided veteran savvy off the bench. Between a savvy Ginobili and Patti Mills off the bench, the Spurs could find some scoring and be really good. They were even better than really good and put up an all-time franchise year. Still, Ginobili was nowhere near the guy the team needed. Tim’s per-36 stats finally dipped. David West was okay. Danny Green was not the guy they paid 40 million for. That’s not to say that any team beside the Warriors is perfect, but the even this 67-win Spurs team had weaknesses. They just ran into a team that was well-equipped to exploit those. That’s the NBA West.
The greatest thing about Pop and the organization he runs is that they do not overreact. After the devastating sweep against Phoenix, they reinvented and came back. After the devastating first round bump against the Grizzlies, they reinvented. After the devastating 2013 Finals, they came back. After last year’s epic battle against the Clippers, they had the best record in franchise history. I am excited about a team fully built around LMA and KL with a little youth and athleticism to complement that duo.