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. 

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[![Kid is getting in trouble for this. Lamesauce](http://static1.squarespace.com/static/569d444005f8e2b24dace8c6/56b6913106dcb7a9cf168a48/56b6913206dcb7a9cf168add/1454805421369/tumblr_m45h0t83n71rv1zrro1_1280.jpg)](http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nba-ball-dont-lie/shaving-picture-matt-bonner-head-could-net-young-013230150.html#more-21327) Kid is getting in trouble for this. Lamesauce

Jinx!

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, an NBA guy that I kind of respect (in that he seems like a smart guy with smart opinions but I don’t have the time to read everything he writes) said this on the twitter machine

Experts are browbeating the public: YOU DON’T GET HOW GOOD THE SPURS ARE. Well, if they lose, maybe the public got something right

He received some nice counter-arguments, but really, no one cares. That is the crux of the argument. No one has cared, no one will care. Any experts “browbeating” the public are just playing Contrarian Guy and not even a good one at that. I mean, the Spurs have the number one seed throughout so really, how contrarian is it to pick them? 

Any ambivalence about the team stems from both our frustratingly successful regular seasons the past two years and the terrible playoff performances the last four years (lost in five in the conference finals to LA, lost in five to the Mavs in the first round, swept by the Suns in the second round, lost to eighth-seeded Grizzlies in six). So Ethan has a decent enough point. 

What kind of recognition is deserved? Not much. The small market factor is a problem. There isn’t any reason to talk about San Antonio until absolutely necessary. Commentary on the outpost is only good for building obscure credibility. Even then, it isn’t even cool NBA blogger style to like the Spurs anymore. It’s like liking Portlandia as a hipster – it’s kind of a requirement to appreciate the Spurs’ professionalism and work ethic and execution and Tim Duncan’s consistency and Manu’s whatever and Tony Parker’s sort of MVP season. 

We get it. We don’t even mind anymore. We don’t need to be the hot chick anymore, guys. Haven’t we done this dance already? Haven’t we had these conversations lots of times since 1999, the last lockout season? 

Yep. 

Still, it would be pretty damned awesome to beat up on another upstart youngin’ sporting LA colors in the second round to bookend Timmy’s career. This one would also have journeymen players and a guy who was let go and came back. Then it was Sean Elliot, now it is Stack Jack. We won’t be shutting down the Great Western Forum in back-to-back games three and four this time, though we might be turning out the lights on Lob City in a similar situation.

But maybe it won’t be easy. Maybe it will be ugly. That has also been the underreported hallmark of this decade. Unlike the Bulls, Lakers, and Rockets, the Spurs haven’t looked dominant for any stretch. We’ve just been consistently competitive. It is weird. The window should have closed about five years ago. It hasn’t. We’ve never won a back-to-back and it doesn’t look like we will anytime soon. We’ve only had one dominant run through a playoff bracket. In 1999 there was the shortened season that made Phil talk about asterisks. In 2007, the Warriors denied a revenge series rematch with the Maverick team that beat us in Game 7 the year previous. 

Yet still there are four championship banners hanging and dammit that looks like a dynasty.

I’ve learned to accept the snubs, the doubts, and the lack of attention. It’s only odd that I didn’t do it sooner. 

You know what, though? This is sure feeling like another special run and I have tickets to  Game 1 on Tuesday. 

Go Spurs Go. 

Playoff Basketball, Spurs, and Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose is lost for the rest of the year. Obviously this is terrible. Obviously this destroys their chances. Obviously I don’t care as much as I would if it were Timmy Duncan. 

That is the awesome thing about being in my 20s rather than my teens. Injuries to star players don’t feel like the catastrophic events that they used to. When Tim hurt his knee in 2000, and the Spurs attempted to defend the title with just D-Rob and spares, I actually felt like I had to defend my honor against accusations of flukeness. Like I was out there tossing up bricks. I’d listen to terrible late-night call in shows where I am addressed as “SPURS FAN”. As in, “Spurs Fan, you gotta get in here and defend yourselves. I mean, what was that god-awful performance?! You should be ashamed of yourself." 

You know. 

Remember the next few years? Oh hell. The Spurs put up all-time great seasons … and all time great collapses against the Lakers. More ego crushes. Except that we continued to put a squad out there. We kept competing. Eventually we won a championship but even that was slightly tainted by never going back-to-back. Like that matters.

Last season, when we all had the Spurs pencilled in as also-rans, they kept putting up wins and effort that I don’t know how to react to. Then they got stomped and I really felt like it was all over. There was no way they could put out a team around and aging Duncan and a fragile Manu, right? Who is gonna save us? Tony Parker??!

In my old Air Alamo season preview (where you can find all my early season posts under DELETE. LOL) I said we were going to end up going out in the playoffs to the Thunder in the second round after a decent-but-not-great year. 

Shows that my predictions are spurious.