What a weird game. Even now, almost a full day later, I can’t figure out how the Spurs lost that game. Nor can I figure out how they almost won it. Read on and I’ll explain. Note: I’m setting aside the usual recap format today, both in the interest of time and in the interest of my own sanity.
There were three significant factors that kept punching me in the face over and over as I watched and then re-watched this game.
This game was terribly uneven.
Not uneven in the “unfair” sense, but I could never get a handle on this game. It wasn’t a physical game, it wasn’t a running game, it wasn’t a “grinder” game, and it wasn’t a execution game. Except that in spots it was all of those things, but it was never one of them for any significant length of time. I don’t think either team had a groove going for more than a few possessions at a time and then something would happen to shift that around.
I’ll blame the unevenness on two things:
1. Refereeing: Both teams got a number of really bad calls in the course of this game and they seemed to happen, for both teams, in bunches. I could cite a dozen examples here for both sides, but you saw them. There was a terrible charge on Durant in the first half and an equally terrible defensive call on Timmy two minutes later. Suffice to say that I don’t think either coach was in any way happy with the way the game was officiated. I have a theory about that: referee crews don’t work together all of the time. There are games when you have a tight ref, who calls close fouls or hand checks or other infractions, matched with another ref who may subscribe to a looser, “let ’em play” style. In that circumstance, what determines if you get a call is where you are on the floor related to where the “right” official is standing and what his responsibilities are. Toward the end of the game, a buddy I was watching with commented to me, “I have no idea what a foul is in this game” and he was right. I can only imagine the players felt the exact same way. (Side note: Should the NBA think about keeping officiating crews together? A 3-man team that does all of the games together all the time? Interesting thought.)
2. Matchup play: Both coaches were liberally substituting based on the players on the floor throughout most of the game. Guys like Bonner (50 seconds), Green (3:47), and Daequan Cook (3:54) would come in, get a little run and get yanked again, based on a player put in by the opposition. The subs were flowing freely, trying to find a matchup to exploit or to hide a player from a quality defender. That contributes to a very uneven game, where only the superstars can generate any rhythm and flow, based on court time.
The Thunder are tremendously more athletic than the Spurs and it’s taking a toll.
I know this is a no-brainer, but it really struck me last night, as I was watching Splitter try to box out Ibaka or to see Harden knife through the lane. Or Westbrook dodge what should have been a charge to get an and-1 basket. I think the Thunder’s athleticism is taking a toll on the legs of the Spurs, particularly the Big 3. Tony is playing like he was playing against the Clippers or Jazz and this team has more athletic people guarding him than any of those teams had (Plus, he’s playing like he’s still expecting regular season foul calls and is not getting them). Duncan is having a very difficult time getting shots in any of his normal spots. Even Ginobili, who has always excelled in these kinds of games, looked like he’d lost his legs at the end of the 4th. All of those guys, after 3 quarters of chasing OKC’s best players and working hard to get shots on the offensive end, were tired.
Finally, the Thunder have grown up before our eyes these last three games.
I should have made this the first point, because it’s the biggest and most important of all. This is not the same Thunder team that beat the Lakers and Mavericks. Scott Brooks has done an excellent job of making adjustments on the fly and his team has responded. How many isos are they running now? Their shift from an iso-heavy half-court team to a ball movement team has been stunning. OKC had 22 assists on 40 baskets last night. That’s a Spurs-ian percentage if I’ve ever seen one. Part of their strategy on offense has been to take what the Spurs have given, so they’ve relied on guys like Ibaka, Sefolosha, and Collison to come in and make shots. And those guys have responded. For all of us – me especially – who said the Spurs depth would be its greatest strength in this series, we were wrong. The Thunder bench is killing the Spurs. When Tim Duncan is not on the floor, the Thunder absolutely are having their way on the scoring end.
I’m very, very impressed with this Thunder team. My early belief that the Spurs would win was based on what I’d previously seen the Spurs do to the Thunder and how the Thunder played against Dallas and LA prior to this series. I knew that the Spurs were a better team – not more athletic, not better shooting, nor better defending – but just a better team than the Thunder. After last night, seeing the adjustments made by Brooks, by how the ball is moving, and how the OKC defense is stifling the Spurs sets and how many of the Spurs bench players have failed to respond, I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore.
There are two ways to look at Game 6. One is through the lens of reason and caution. Because the reality is, the Spurs were a few bounces of the ball and blows of the whistle away from winning each of the last two games. If one or two more shots fell, or if one or two fewer fell for the Thunder, the Spurs win. So, the voice of reason says to stay the course, play a little bit better and smarter and you can win the game.
The other approach is the radical one: yes, the Spurs were in both games, but were they really in control? The eyeball test says no. There were very few times in either Games 4 or 5 where I felt the Spurs had an advantage or even had game-controlling momentum on their side. It always felt like they were playing catch-up, even in the few moments they had a lead. So, the radical approach says try everything differently.
Maybe you unleash a Paul-Westhead-Loyola-Marymount-style offense, where the goal is to get the pace way, way up and hope some shots fall. If you get stuck in a halfcourt set, go hard to the basket and draw some calls and if someone fouls out on charges, so be it. Your bench has been good all year – keep with them and rotate fresh bodies through constantly. If you can’t stop them, maybe you can outscore them.
Another path would be the ugly path: play Duncan and Splitter together all you can and close off the lane. Go to a zone as much as possible. Force this team to shoot jumpers and make them consistently. Funnel everyone into Tiago and Tim and let them stand there, arms up, with Westbrook, Harden, and Fisher trying to shoot over them. Bonner, with his height, might even be effective in this scenario for bigger minutes.
Or maybe you do both of these together. And one wrinkle or another makes an impact. I’m a proponent of the radical approach here, because all of the chips are in the middle and the eyeball test has led me to believe the Spurs will not win doing what they did in the last two games. Those two makes-or-misses or two loose balls or two whistles have come because of the adjustments OKC made and because of their sheer athleticism. Those are two areas the Spurs can’t get an advantage.
I think Game 6 is winnable. I really, truly believe that the Spurs could have won both Games 4 and 5 in this series (although, by that logic, the Thunder should have won Game 1). But it’s going to take some out-of-the-box thinking. I can’t wait to see what Pop has in store. The old saying is hopefully true: there is no harder game than an elimination game.