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 G2: Positive Externality

So that was beautiful, eh? Twitter pretty damn unanimously declared that third quarter the most gorgeous display of sport this side of Barcelona. It is hard to disagree. It was even more difficult for me not to drink thirstily the waves of adulation for San Antonio’s basketball team. Citizens of the Alamo City are born with a natural ache for acknowledgement. The city is so chronically overlooked* seemingly despite any and all achievements that any droplet of recognition is gobbled up voraciously by we fans.

*[They do love the Alamo, though. So we have that going for us. ]

It is kind of ridicoulous. I’ve told the story many times of how one of my friends from college was shocked that San Antonio had an airport, let alone an International one. Imagine her surprise when I gave her the population figures. Apparently people don’t believe it.

Seriously, today on Slate’s Hang Up and Listen’s after-ball segment (40 min in), they discussed San Antonio’s ‘interesting’ history as a basketball team and with astonishment, the city’s population. 

[In the web magazine’s defense, Matt Yglesias did toss up this piece on the Spurs as unloved dynasty. Also, more HUandL on Timmy Duncan]

_
_It was unbelievable. I’ll spare you even more piling on or stats that back up what your eyes already saw. I’ll even spare you break downs of how they did it or what the Thunder can conceivably muster up to make it not so easy anymore.

Instead, let’s bask in the glowing praise for a little bit longer. 

I mean, if there is anything I’ve learned from watching playoff basketball over the last fifteen years it is this: when you win you feel like you can never lose. When you lose? Well, you’re smart enough to figure it out. 

I want to enjoy the sunshine a little longer.

Twenty , ya’ll.

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.