I had intended to do a wrap-up of the WCF shortly after its end, regardless of the result. But it’s taken me over a week to even think about the Spurs, much less comment on Game 6. I’ve watched about 10 minutes of the Finals so far and that depressed me even worse. But I’m starting to come full circle, back to a state of enjoyment and appreciation, on this Spurs season and I’ll tell you why.
The Better Team
The Thunder should win the title this year. They were a better team than San Antonio in that series. I say that to get the obvious narrative out of the way, which is “it was just a bad matchup”. Yes, but the Thunder are a bad matchup for everyone in the league. When they play the way they did in Games 3-5 and the second half of Game 6 against the Spurs, there’s not a team in the league that can beat them. They are too talented, have too much athleticism, and when they share the ball, run effective plays, and play good rotation defense, I’m willing to call them virtually unstoppable. If they play well, like they are capable of playing – team basketball instead of iso ball, team defense instead of finger pointing – they will clobber the Heat.
But (you knew there was one coming) they don’t always play that way. They did not play that way against Dallas or the Lakers. They won those series, with a bunch of close games, on pure athleticism and making shots and by using Ibaka to clean up everyone’s defensive mistakes. But against the Spurs, they had to go to another level to win. They had to adjust their play to a different style: lots and lots of ball sharing, an abundance of high pick-and-roll plays with your best players, corner 3s, more reliance on role players, and more targeted defense to attack specific players that could hurt them.
Does any of that sound familiar? It should because it’s ripped right out of the Popovich playbook. Steve Kerr noted several times during Game 5 and again in the second half of Game 6 that OKC was playing Spurs’ basketball. And let’s be honest: when the Thunder do it, they are doing it with better talent at almost every position (except you, Derek Fisher). When the Spurs ran off the historic 20-game run, we were seeing some of the best basketball I have ever seen, especially from the offensive end. But that was it. We got to see a team perform at the highest level they could for 20 games. And what I’ve come to realize is that there was no other gear to go. There were no adjustment tweaks, no surprising bench subs, no grand defensive strategies. That was it: the absolute best the Spurs had, given their talent, ability, and system.
The Thunder had another gear. I boldly predicted that the Thunder would lose that series in 5 games and I stand by that prediction because I made it based on the Thunder team that beat Dallas and LA. The Spurs would have beaten that team, maybe in 4. As it was, they beat that Thunder team 2-0. But the adjustments OKC made for Game 3 and the complete change in their mindset made them a different team. And the Spurs, who were already playing at their peak, could not compete with the new Thunder team and lost 4-0 to them. It’s easier to absorb the loss that way, I guess.
Why It Was Special
I had such high hopes for the season. I really, truly believed that there was another banner to be hung in the AT&T Center in November. And it was deeply disappointing when I realized that would not happen. This year.
I say that because I’m optimistic about this team making a run next season, but I’m not ready to get to next season just yet. I still want to lament and to savor this season. Because, even without a title, this was a beautiful season. It was a pleasure to see basketball being played this way again. The ball movement and body movement, the open shots, the lack of panic – even late in the shot clock, the fast breaks, the defensive stops, the raining of 3s; it was all beautiful to watch. I love this team. It’s been years since I enjoyed seeing a team as much as I did the 2011-12 Spurs.
Plus, the national conversation about the Spurs started to change the way other teams were discussed. I heard journalists talking about the Knicks needing more ball movement and less Carmelo-iso. The Lakers made a move to get a point guard who could get in the paint, a la Parker. Other coaches were talking about making defenses “chase the ball”. I hope what the Spurs did is going to start catching on and leading to less hero ball and more of what basketball is: a collection of 5 teammates whose goal is to score and defend, not one superstar who shoots and 4 other guys who set screens and rebound for him.
I’ll also remember a number of other things from this season:
The brutal lockout schedule with what felt like a game (and preview/recap) every night
Tony Parker becoming a legitimate member of the Big 3
The emergence of Kawhi Leonard
The resurrection of Boris Diaw
The return of Captain Jack
Danny Green’s breakout year
The devastation of the Tiago Splitter pick-and-roll
Pop and R.C. getting some national attention and well-deserved recognition for the program they have built in San Antonio, even though they don’t want it
Later this summer, Wayne and I will discuss some “what the Spurs should do” posts and start looking at guys like Nando DeColo, Lorbek, Nic Batum, and others and try to figure out if that’s enough. We’ll talk in great detail about Summer League and who the next Gary Neal might be. But right now, I want to watch and see if OKC can learn from their mistakes and play the way they need to play to win the trophy. I want to hang out with my family, play a few video games, and catch up on my music blog (Begin unabashed plug: if you liked the Song of the Game as a part of the previews and recaps, I have a separate Twitter account where I post music that I listen to frequently. Follow me here. End unabashed plug.)
So, the Spurs, this title run, and the next title run are on hold for me right now. They didn’t win the ring, so many will view the season as a failure. I won’t. I will remember the best of the season and how much I loved watching this team. I’ll think back to the Sunday game against the Lakers when Kobe came back and the Spurs dismantled them. I’ll remember a 24-point comeback against the Clips in the playoffs, when they simply refused to lose. I’ll think way back to the Dallas game, where Pop let the subs stay in and set a tone that reverberated through the whole season. I’ll think of all those games and many more, and I’ll smile. It was a really good, really memorable season, wasn’t it? There’s no shame in saying we watched our team play its best and that wasn’t quite good enough.
See you after the Finals, when hopes are renewed and title is ready to be chased again.