Spurs and The Thunderous Comeback

Hubie Brown talked about Kawhi’s jump stop to get a shot off in the last minute.

That the Klaw managed to get a shot off is unremarkable in and of itself, what made it worthwhile was that it was a good shot, a fadeaway jumper that he makes with regularity. It missed — but the carom wasn’t wild or unpredictable to his teammates. LMA grabbed the board, was fouled and took the lead from OKC and the Spurs stole it. That is the difference from say, Danny Green taking a shot at that moment, and Kawhi Leonard. It is also what makes a contested midrange jumper valuable.

In any comeback there are big moments that are seemingly memorable, but get lost. A hustle play, a big rebound, a turnover. This one had plenty and Manu was a part of a good chunk of them. Floating jumpers, falling down assists, huge buckets, great passes — Ginobili had a great game that I honestly will forget come late May. So it goes.

Also remarkable? The recent defensive prowess of LaMarcus Aldridge. He has quietly become a force inside against even the Warriors and Thunder. He managed to get a couple of huge blocks in this one, including the one below. He had a sequence against GSW yesterday where he challenged a shot and got a block to save a fast break situation.

Meanwhile Pau was huge offensively, which is what he was signed to do. Whereas we all were thinking the big man that would expand his range would be Aldridge, continuing the trend from last season, it has actually been Pau. It has been more than fantastic, as Pau has hit the kinds of shots and made the kinds of plays that change games. They also are a part of the comebacks that are oh so necessary to pull off. He had a stationary give-go with Manu that got himself a three and later forced a foul on Kanter that resulted in a couple of freebies. Those are winning plays that make up for his lack of footwork. Interestingly, the way that Russ Westbrook plays means that Gasol is not so vulnerable at the basket. He is good at challenging vertically and so the Thunder roster does not do much to pull him into vulnerable PNR situations where he struggles.

Watch LMA be a Classic Defensive Center

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Other Stuff

I bet you feel a little bit better about blowing a 20+ point lead against GSW after overcoming an even bigger 20+ (because it was later) against OKC. The Thunder are not as good a team as Golden State, but the Spurs got beat down last time they went to Oklahoma City and this served as some measure of a psychological win.

The Spurs do not need a psychological win you say? Well witness Kawhi viciously attacking the basket to seal the game. That kind of passion is at least something. Is it just straight competitiveness? Sure, and that kind of competition loving makes a player want to avenge a previous loss. I think the Spurs were a bit hungover from the loss and also were angry. It was an ugly win and these are my favorite kind because everyone has to dig deep and learn a little more about themselves.

Still, the Spurs beat a one-man team and had to scrape and scratch to do so. These last two games had about 3 periods of solid, good, Spurs basketball. That’s out of eight, mind you. There is room for improvement as the team heads toward the postseason. While the Warriors all but sealed first place, there is always a sliver of hope for the top seed, if not the desire to have a good run of form going in to the next phase. These two things should hopefully give the team some incentive to pick up the pace a bit.

It’s Over

Starting out with made shots and a sense of aggressiveness was exactly the look I expected from the Spurs. How long they could maintain that run was in question. I was fully prepared to see a nice little 15-5 run to open followed by the Thunder unleashing that torrent of offense and rebounding and defense that flustered the Spurs these last three games. 

Intead it was the Stephen Jackson-Tony Parker combo that went crazy. Jackson had four threes at halftime (4-4) and Tony went HAM with 21 points and 10 assists to my immeasurable relief. 

So what happened in that first half? First, you must have noticed that when the Thunder missed, they didn’t get many easy put-backs. Also, most importantly, they weren’t getting easy buckets of TURNOVERS! Thats’s right. Instead of committing basketball suicide by coughing it up on offense, the Spurs were showing no hesitation, making shots (%60 from 3).

Everyone knew OKC was going to come out gunning and they did. There simply was no stopping it. The lead was fifteen to start, then it was eleven. Then it was ten. Timmy was getting hesitant on that free-throw line jumper. Everyone was missing shots. The rotations were too slow. Pop yanked Tiago and yelled at him. That didn’t really help. Durant hit free throws to make it eight. Duncan missed a jumper. Ibaka punches it.. Down to six.¬†

Spurs countered with Jackson, Tony Kawhi, Ginibili,  and Tim. Four quick Timmy points sandwiched a Durant three. Lead was 7. Durant got a dunk. Five. Jackson trades threes with Westbrook and Thabo. No one is making anything. Lead is down to one. Durant hits a three. 

We are down one. 

Spurs trade baskets involving spins, technicals fouls and missed free throws and get out of that terrible third quarter up one point. 

The fourth quarter was a blur. That blur was the Thunder racing by. Tony and Tim sat to start the quarter with the thinking that they would need to go hard for the final eight minutes or so. That left SA with Gary Neal doing …. well, something.¬†

Then it didn’t so much slip away as it did stay frustratingly out of reach. In a different time, against a different team, the Spurs get the breaks they need to close the gap. Instead, the Thunder stayed tantalizingly ahead by four or five or seven or three for the rest of the game.¬†

Suddenly it was over. I knew it when Stephen Jackson missed a three. He finished 6/7 from deep and 5/6 from the line. 

The Spurs finish the season 50-16 in the regular season and 10-4 in the playoffs winning 11, 11, and 20 in a row at different points. They go out on a four-game losing streak.


And so it ends. For a good number of fans this was worse than any of the other heartbreaks (2004, 2006) because Tim is 36, and Manu 35. This loss seemingly signals the end.  

Yet that is the strange part about being a Spurs fan. They’ve never done it like other teams. When they won titles they slightly disappointed because they didn’t win back-to-backs. They’ve been written off in 2000 (asterisk), 2004 (getting old), 2006 (old, again) 2008 (old) 2009-2011 (old), and now? (Really old).¬†

We’ve all been really lucky to follow this organization. Since 1976 there have only been a handful of truly mediocre years and a whole lot of deep playoff runs. I don’t blame anyone for having adjusted expectations, but I do think everyone owes it to their sanity to get a broader perspective of the situation. We have a really awesome franchise that can muster up a conference final appearance with two old guys, a frenchman, and a bunch of castoffs.¬†

These last two years have ended disappointingly but only because the regular seasons were so surprisingly awesome. I wouldn’t trade this franchise for any other one. Not the Lakers, or Boston or Chicago.¬†

Danny Green is young, hungry and motived (read his tweets post-loss). Kawhi Leonard might be an elite shut-down defender in a couple years. Tony Parker still has three elite years left. Tim is aging gracefully. Ginobili can always muster some magic if Paul Pierce and KG can. Stephen Jackson is home again, and makes love to pressure. Gary Neal, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, et al are solid role players that can win regular season games. We probably just need one or two guys that can win us playoff games. That is entirely possible. We did manage to swap out Richard Jefferson for Stack Jack. Now let’s swap out Matt Bonner for … . ?

Go Spurs Go. 

2013 is our year. 

WCF G5: Brink of Elimination

Damn if this doesn’t feel just like that Memphis series last year. Damn if the Spurs didn’t show the same kind of heart and guts by coming back from thirteen to cut it to three with 14.5 seconds left. Damn if this doesn’t feel like a punch in the face.

Pop, trying to counter Scott Brook’s move to switch screens and go small, started Manu and played Blair. Manu Ginobili balled out –34 points on 10 of 21 shooting including 5 of 10 from three – but there still was no stopping Durant nor Ibaka. To make things more interesting, Russ Westbrook showed up for a while and was hitting that midrange, free-throw line jumper.

The Spurs played better than they did in game three, but pretty much the same as they did in game four. This time instead of getting run by Durant in the fourth quarter, they got treated to a third quarter show.

His barrage of points thwarted a third quarter run by the Spurs that took them ahead and made things seem alright for just a moment. It kind-of-almost-sorta looked like the runs that put them up for good in games one and two, and that carried the streak to twenty games.

KD wasn’t havin’ it.

Instead the lead went up to nine after only being eight at half. In the fourth quarter, there was another run for the Spurs that was knocked away. When the OKC pushed it to thirteen? Yep. People were exiting the building.

Just like last year, however, the Spurs didn’t go out like punks. They kept fighting only instead of a series-extending game-tying three from Gary Neal we got a hesitation from Tim Duncan and an off-balance fadeaway from Ginobili (that almost went in).

I’ll be playing Shoulda’ Woulda’ Coulda’ in my head tonight and all day tomorrow. That almost-rally would have gone down in playoff lore – like the almost-comeback in game seven in 2006 would have – instead we have one game in OKC that feels just like the game six in 2004 after Derek Fisher cashed that damned point-four shot.

There are no more moves to make. Scottie Brooks has the kryptonite that thwarts the powerful Spurs offense of 2012. Gregg Popovich has no answer for Durant and so no answer for Ibaka hitting jumpers, role players hitting timely shots, nor Harden getting clutch buckets.

The only flicker of hope tonight was that Russ Westbrook still doesn’t know how to step out of the way of the best scorer in the league. It was his terrible misses and turnovers that allowed SA to crawl back from thirteen and cut it to three in a couple minutes.

Hope isn’t a strategy. I don’t know if we have any of that left, anyway.

Tony Parker can’t shake Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, nor Derek Fisher anymore. When he does, he can’t score on Ibaka and Perkins. The only reliable shooter left is Stephen Jackson. Bonner, Danny Green and Gary Neal look scared and gun-shy. Credit Ibaka, Thabo and all those guys on the Thunder who are playing championship caliber ball right now.

Game six is Wednesday. Here’s hoping.

WCF G4: Durantula

ARRGH!

Seriously, there was nothing the Spurs could have done to stop that. Scoring is what that guy does. College, Pros, Seattle, OKC? Doesn’t matter. He gets buckets. My personal nightmare scenario was the one the Spurs found themselves in late in the fourth quarter. Attempting to claw their way back into it, they needed to get stops against a hot Kevin Durant.

It went as well as you’d expect.

For the Thunder, it was a classic home win. Their role guys – Serge Ibaka especially – carried the load and handed the game to the closer in the fourth quarter. Kendrick Perkins was holding Timmy’s jersey and not getting called for it. He continued his little run of form. That means he was dunking and rebounding and looking less like the guy who was getting eaten up in San Antonio.

Serge Ibaka is going to get the headlines after getting that (very impressive) 11-for-11 nigt. He played a perfect big man, role player game. His jumpers weren’t forced and the rest of his points were dunks and well, dunks. That is all you can ask for from a big man.

I hate him now.

So we have ourselves a series. That means the Spurs, after not losing for 50 days, face a turning point kind of game the likes of which they haven’t faced this season. You may remember that in 2004 the Spurs whopped the Lakers in the first two games, were blown out in game three, lost a close game four (in which Shaq had 28 and Kobe 42), and got point four’d in game five. In game six they played with a look of shock and amazement that everyone in the city shared and lost in LA.

Do I feel like that can happen again? Yes. OKC can play, yo. Kevin Durant can do what he did there pretty much any time he feels like it. There is no Bruce Bowen to stop him. Remember how we were praising Stephen Jackson for his performance on KD in game 1 and 2? Well, he “held” KD to 27 and 31 respectively. He had a quiet 22 the other night, mostly because he wasn’t needed on account of the ass-kicking.

Don’t think that he hasn’t been balling all series. He has. He is still very, very dangerous. The story of the series has been the role/bench guys on OKC stepping up and dominating. Thabo didn’t just defend Parker well on Thursday, he was hitting jumpers. Serge wasn’t just going perfect from the field tonight, he was effecting all the shots in the paint.

On the other side, (our side) those open looks are not translating into made shots. The usual suspects are not showing up. We needed a surprise appearance by DeJuan Blair and timely three bombing from Stack Jack to reach 103 tonight. Bonner has been a no-show, Tiago’s head is somewhere else and Danny Green has reverted to the Cavs-era version.

All that up there means that they havn’t played as well as they did in San Antonio (in this series) or the past 50 days (every where).

This is what happens when you face a good team with awesome talent and a reason to play hard.

Welcome to playoff basketball. It makes your stomach get tied up in knots.

WCF G3: Thunder Strike Back

This was to be expected. Everyone knew (or should have) that OKC was going to come out enthused, refreshed, and Chesapeake Energized by the crowd. The Thunder are better than the Clippers but were doing pretty much the same thing – getting loose balls, blocking shots and making improbably fortunate ones.

The lead was only thirteen points yet remained so throughout that third quarter. The missed shots, Thabo corralling Tony, and eventually, The Beard cashing buzzer-beaters off the backboard at the buzzer happened. The lead ballooned.

This was one of those nights that we hadn’t had since April 11th against the Lakers. Then, I was feeling¬†that we were a sham.¬†Memphis and Z-Bo first introduced me to that. The Suns-like offense and lack of interior defense was disconcerting.¬†LAL’s Bynum dominated the paint in a way that probably justified the media’s inclination to ignore the Spurs’ 2012 record.¬†

Tonight? Well I am trying to resist feeling like we’ll lose four straight. It kind of feels like those trips to Detroit in 2005… or those trips to LAL in 2001, 2002, 2004, and … My point? This happens in these playoffs. It is great for fans. You likely get to see your team put it on the opposition at least once, people buy shirts, and for one or two days everyone is happy. It is easy to dismiss as a one-off. If your just a fan, this is the best option for you. If you are in that Spurs locker room, obviously you will be focusing on reacting better to crazy athletes playing with desperation? Sometimes the other guy just wants it more than you do that night.¬†

Thabo Sefolosha locked up Tony Parker – or at least made him work a lot more. The Thunder looked like the youthful team of destiny GQ wanted described them as and … hell, there isn’t anyway we’ll outclass them now, right?

Right?

The thing is, Perk likely won’t be able to flummox Ginobili on the perimeter and those shots in the paint likely will fall in two days. More importantly, the energy level will be more balanced.¬†

Oh, wait. You’re concerned about Thabo, huh? To butcher a phrase from Game of Thrones:

“The [Thunder] played [their] little trick. [They] can’t do it again."

Well, they can play Thabo on Tony again. Parker will be prepared for that, however. He won’t be tossing terrible, lazy passes within the (surprisingly large) reach of Sefolosha, ya know? ¬†Having been chewed out by Pop, the entire team will have motivation of their own. The wounds of losing will be fresh and nothing pushes a person like embarrassment.¬†


What is worse: The loss, or Bearded Harden staring down Splitter in a show of faux-toughness?

Answer: Having to deal with Oklahoma smugness. 

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 clich√©) 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.¬†