After his San Antonio Spurs mangled the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first game of the Western Conference Finals 122-105, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked if they made any special effort to get the ball into the paint with the Thunder’s primary rim protector, Serge Ibaka, sidelined for the rest of the year with a calf injury.
“No,” he said – flatly, as he says almost everything. “Sometimes it’s hard to focus on something like that, to decide you’re going to do that: you’re going to shoot threes tonight or you’re going to go into the paint tonight. You take what’s given. Play the game. Respect the game and whatever’s there, take advantage of that.”
That’s the thing about the Spurs, who have now won 10 straight Game 1s in the playoffs: they’re not going to beat themselves by pressing or playing outside themselves, even when tempted. Without Ibaka, it was obvious that the Thunder would struggle, but there was also the glimmer of hope for Oklahoma City that getting forced out of their comfort zone might goad the generally uninspired Scott Brooks to adapt and find some unorthodox productivity in backup big men like Nick Collison, Steven Adams or even Perry Jones III.
Left with little choice, Brooks ran out some lineups pairing Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson in the backcourt (and even one that had Kevin Durant nominally playing center alongside forward Caron Butler and three point guards, with Westbrook attempting to check Tiago Splitter on defense). Maybe the Thunder were trying to work some of the same juju the Los Angeles Clippers pulled on them when they put Chris Paul on Durant in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of their series. But Spurs Dad just wasn’t buying it.
Instead, San Antonio calmly disassembled Oklahoma City both inside and out with about as much drama as an oil change.
In the regular season, the Thunder allowed an average of 39.4 points in the paint per game, but the Spurs hung 40 points on them there in the first half alone, ending up with 66. To add insult to injury, Danny Green’s magical playoff form from last season returned and he hit 6-of-7 including 4-of-5 from downtown. Manu Ginobili was 3-of-4 from the arc and although Kawhi Leonard only had 16 points, it felt like much, much more as he sliced and spun his way to the rim time and time again.
Leonard has come into his own in these playoffs and his path through the league so far is interesting in comparison to Paul George. Both came into the league with signature physical gifts (George’s length, Leonard’s massive, Rock Biter-sized hands) that helped contribute to early defensive success while their offensive games evolved. But George’s ascension into the MVP discussion early in the season dovetailed with the beginning of the Pacers’ rocky stretch from just before the All-Star break right up until now, whereas Leonard’s rise has been more clandestine. It can be hard to tell if Leonard is so level-headed about the game because he came up with the Spurs, or if the Spurs moved to get him in a trade with Indiana for George Hill because they saw he could fit their particular ethos. Either way, the fit couldn’t be more ideal.
So what can Oklahoma City do to at least challenge the well-oiled machine that is San Antonio when they’re missing their third-best player? The good news for them is that a breakout third quarter by Russell Westbrook (12 points on 4-of-7 shooting) pulled them all the way back into it and even got them the lead briefly. But one of the problems of having to go small is much greater wear and tear on a player like Durant when he’s forced to guard bigger opponents. The result? A 1-for-4 fourth quarter for the MVP for just three points.
This is no easy task that lies before Oklahoma City. They’re going to have to rely on outsize performances from Westbrook and Durant and near perfect everything else – including not only creative but judicious marshaling of different lineups – to prevail, and they’re run by a coach whose greatest strength is the big picture things like chemistry and buying in, not moment-to-moment adjustments in the game.
Reducing this series to heart on the Thunder side versus mind on the Spurs side does it a disservice, but it is very much about the collision between process, craft and discipline for San Antonio and inspiration, will and raw skill for Oklahoma City. Two years ago, the Thunder showed themselves capable redlining for long enough stretches to beat the Spurs, but that run included the now-departed James Harden and a healthy Ibaka. More than finding a new gear, the Thunder will have to steal an entirely new hot rod to survive. At the very least, it will be fun to watch them try.