OKC/SA Game 2:
The Streak Is Over
Brace yourself for this next sentence, it's going to sound a little odd and might shock you. The Spurs lost last night, and looked pretty bad in doing so. The Thunder harassed them into looking like the slow, old team most of America thinks they are. I'd chalk this one up to the shots just not falling for San Antonio, but it looks like it goes deeper than that. The Thunder registered 14 steals and 9 blocks, and in all the Spurs coughed the ball up a staggering 21 times. To me, this game looked as much like the Thunder stepping up their intensity and holding serve as it was an off-game for the Spurs.
With the media types getting ready to anoint the Spurs as the greatest team to ever set foot on hardwood, many seemed to forget just how deadly OKC is at home. They were able to capture their home crowd's energy from the opening tip and carry it through the game, despite not having the most efficient outing. That brings me to my biggest issue with the Thunder...Scott Brooks. It's unbelievable how frustrating it can be watching a team with so much offensive talent. I know I'm criticizing the team after ending the Spurs' 20-game win streak, but on far too many possessions Westbrook or Durant or even Harden go one-on-one and the ball literally does not change hands. If the Thunder narrative of a bunch of boy scouts doing whatever it takes to win is anywhere near true, I have to believe that this iso offense is by design. Ultimately, I think it will be one of the biggest factors in the Thunder getting bounced by the Spurs, right after the fact that, you know, the Spurs are still really really good.
I had to listen to the third quarter on the radio, as called by Hubie Brown. While this is usually a horrible experience, it wasn't quite so bad last night as Hubie kept making a very salient observation again and again. The Thunder NEEDED this game, and the Spurs only WANTED it. From this, OKC played with the intensity and energy of a team on the edge of elimination, and the Spurs simply could not match it. This explains why their cutters were slow and ball handling was lazy, allowing a (very good, very opportunistic) Thunder team to take advantage and force those 21 turnovers. In short, it was the Thunder at their best, and the Spurs damn near their worst.
We can both agree that there won't be another game like this for San Antonio in this series, and if they get to the Finals, never again this postseason. Once you've been slapped that bad, you don't don't forget the sting. But before we get too crazy about this whole thing, let's not forget that this was just one game. All the talk and chatter will be that the Spurs are not infallible, something that they've been telling us from the press conferences after every single game. If the Thunder can take game 4, well that's a different story.
One more thing I want to talk about. At sometime during the 3rd or early 4th quarter (Hubie is not good about clocking the games), the Spurs cut a 23 point deficit down to 16 in less than a minute, and had some serious momentum building, thanks to some quick 3's by Stephen Jackson. At that point, Poppovich pulled his starters at a time that he normally would. Now, Pop is a guy who is so good, and whose track record so impressive, that you almost can't question him. Presumably, if they did ride that momentum wave and close the gap, the rest of the game would have been a grind-it-out struggle to the finish with not the slightest guarantee of a win. Although if they did win, they go up 3-0 in the series. By benching his starters and testing his second and third team to play the game out, Pop may have thrown the game but saved his Bigs to fight another day. So I ask you, Professor Brett, should he have left them in the game?
I'm having trouble believing that Pop-coached team would EVER use the wanted vs. needed excuse in a Playoff game. After resting players all season, it's obvious that Pop values playing his guys as little as possible, and that would lead me to believe he'd want to end this series as quickly as possible and wouldn't allow for any slippages in their focus.
That being said, I can't argue with resting the big guns late in last night's game. If the backups can pull you back into it, great. It worked for the Clippers against Memphis as Nick Young and Reggie Evans did their thing. The game was out of hand by the start of the fourth, and there's no reason to waste Duncan's mileage in a blowout. Pop knows this series is going to be a battle, and he wisely decided to have Duncan and company fresh and ready to fight another day.
I definitely don't feel like this is the best the Thunder can play, though. While we almost certainly won't see this bad of a game from the Spurs again any time soon, there is room for OKC to improve on last night's performance. Durant shot 8-17, Westbrook only managed 10 points and the Thunder won by 20. That margin clearly would have been much higher had those two played like their normal selves, which is what I'd expect to see in Game 4. You know they'll come out firing with the same intensity they did in Game 3, and it will be up to the Spurs to match that fire. The question is, does a team that prides itself on being so business-like have what it takes to step up to the plate in such a hostile environment?
Oh, I don't mean the "want v need" as an excuse they would use, not at all. I mean, when you are as desperate to win a game as Oklahoma City was last night, your adrenaline level shoots up in a way that can't be forced. The Spurs just couldn't match their energy level that was the result of a fight or flight response to being down 2-0. If there's one thing the Spurs won't do, it's make an excuse.
An interesting quote from Pop after Game 3 of the Clippers series, when the Spurs were down by 24 at one point before climbing back and shutting LA down. He said that it "wouldn't be a bad thing" for the Spurs to lose a game. Of course he did not elaborate on this point, but there's really only two benefits from getting demolished in a playoff game. You can rest your starters (check), and the humility reminds you that you're not the conductor of the gravy train. How the Spurs come out of the gate in Game 4 will tell us if that latter point was made as Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli watched the loss from the bench.
Now, for your question, I have no doubt that the Spurs will step up big in Game 4. Hostile environment or not, the Spurs should be able to filter out the noise and fix what went wrong during Game 3. Look for the turnovers to decrease significantly (as they did from Game 1 to 2), and look for those little signs of malaise -- the slow cutters, lack of effort on the boards -- to disappear. It may have been a series too early, but I think Pop's words were correct.