During an interview with Boston sportswriter and now ESPN television personality, Bob Ryan, famed fan-turned NBA “expert” Bill Simmons picked the Spurs to make the finals. This interview took place months ago. Bill’s reasoning: OKC doesn’t have enough firepower to beat San Antonio. Simmons and Ryan agreed that OKC would need one more reliable scorer. After tonight’s game, I’m going to jump on that bandwagon and add an addendum of my own – I’m not sure more offensive talent alone is a cure-all.
The Thunder scored 111 points tonight, lost by nine points, and that could have been a larger deficit if Fisher hadn’t hit a late three pointer from two or three steps behind the arc. On top of that, the Spurs didn’t even get a good scoring game from Tim Duncan. Parker was great (really great – see stat note for details). Manu was great. But the import thing is that the Spurs were great. Yes Parker, Timmy, and Ginobili combined for 65 points, but a defense can live that number, an average of 22 points per player. The dilemma is that the rest of the team scored 55 points. On the other side Durant (31 points on 17 FGAs), Harden (30 points on 13 FGAs), and Westbrook (27pts, 8rbds, 7 assts, 0 turnovers) were all great. The OKC trio combined for 88 points (29 pts per player). The dilemma is that the rest of the team scored 23 points.
This is a personnel issue to some extent. The Thunder start three defensive specialists who don’t create points for themselves or others (Perk does set really good screens, and Ibaka gets the occasional alleyhoop or tip dunk), and none is particularly good as a spot-up shooter. Off the bench they bring one offensive dynamo in Harden, one over-the-hill spot up shooter whose quick release is now a wind-up release, and one active but limited big man (Collison for those who wonder). So it’s not as though the non-stars on the team are exactly oozing scoring talent.
In a way this line-up reminds me of the Bulls’ second dynasty of the 90s. They started Jordan and Pippen and 3 defensive stalwarts with limited offensive abilities including a wing with quick feet and length, a bulky center who specialized on pounding other bigs, and a power forward who was elite at one skill (Rodman was the league’s best rebounder, where as Ibaka is the league’s best shot blocker). Off the bench they had Kukoc, like Harden a 6th man of the year with playmaking and shooting skills, Kerr, like Fisher a one-dimensional shooter, and a cadre of plodding big men (Collison is better but smaller than the Wenningtons and Simpkins on the Bulls’ bench). The difference is two-fold. First, defensively Chicago was more disciplined and better able to control tempo. They could get stops in bunches and owned the backboard. That made them very hard to run off the floor in transition. Second, the triangle had built in movement and the ability to put limited role players in positions on the floor where they could score.
That second point is where the Thunder seem to be lacking and San Antonio truly excels and is really separating themselves. Steven Jackson, Daniel Green, and Kawhi Leonard aren’t creating their own points, and they aren’t having plays run to get them open. They are simply operating inside the offense that is working to create openings for Tony and Manu, and the offense keeps the Spurs wing players in position to contribute. Short corner three pointers, baseline cuts, straight away jumpers, even rolls to the basket by Splitter and Diaw (and Tim for the matter) come inside the side pick and roll / weakside down screen action that the Spurs run all game.
The Thunder’s offense is based on two principals. They like to execute flat, high pick and rolls in the middle of the floor to give Harden and Westbrook running starts tearing into the paint, and they like to go isolation for Durant in various spots on the court. These actions can create open shots, but they tend to engender a rather static pattern from the remaining players on the court, and they force the Thunder offensive players to make choices that are not intrinsic to the system. If the double comes down on Durant in the post, a Thunder player is open, and he has to decide if he should cut to the rim, flair out to widen the gap between himself and his defender, or stay put and wait for the pass. Durant has to decide if he should hold and wait for the cut, kick to where he thinks the open teammate should slide, or pass directly to the open teammate. The Spurs offense doesn’t have the pauses and miscues these decisions can cause, because the discipline of the system dictates what happens next. Tim knows where his pressure release pass is going to go and so does the recipient, and he knows when his cutter is going to come and if the defense reads it, he knows he can turn back and take his banker because the double will have left him. It’s all built into the team consciousness.
Phil Jackson goes into great detail about the importance of this sort of connectedness in the moment in his book Sacred Hoops. Read it. It’s at the library. Read a book!
I’m not saying the Thunder can’t figure out a way to win. If Ibaka and Fisher had each gone 5-11 instead of 3-11 and 2-11, the endgame would have been very different, and they are both capable of shooting better, especially at home.
Stat note: Tony Parker scored 34 points and had 8 assists while shooting 75% from the field. Only 5 other players have done that in the playoffs. Oscar, MJ, KJ, Ainge, and a very flukey game from Kenny Smith where he hit 7 of 8 on his three-point shots.
State note 2: The Spurs have now won 20 consecutive games including 10 straight playoff games.
Tags: Basketball, bill simmons, James Harden, kenny smith, Kevin Durant, Manu Ginobili, Michael Jordan, NBA, OKC, Russell Westbrook, sacred hoops, San Antonio, sports, Spurs, Thunder, tim duncan, Tony Parker, Western Conference Finals