Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Spurs - Thunder Game One: Kawhi Leonard's Got The Whole Game In His Hands

My What Large Hands You've Got
Tonight in San Antonio, the Spurs won Game One of their Western Conference Finals series against the visiting Thunder, but it was more the how than the what. Watching the Spurs tonight was like watching basketball as an orchestral arrangement, with the home team choosing which soloist would take the spotlight at various points. With the Thunder not having the crucial interior shot blocking presence of Serge Ibaka, the Spurs were free to get different guys off, which makes for better play on defense as well. Whether it was Kawhi Leonard with borderline Julius Erving penetrations and finishes, or Boris Diaw making Kevin Durant become more tired by the minute on defense, or Manu Ginobili rediscovering his shot, or Tim Duncan uncorking one of those old-school games that make him look like Power Forward Vampyre, there was never a time when the Spurs looked discomfitted. Even while trailing. And the scary thing for the Thunder is that they really didn't play badly, and kept in striking range for most of the night. The simple fact of this matchup is that the Spurs have more margin for error, especially with Ibaka out.

But what really struck me in this game wasn't the Spurs' team effort; that's old hat. What got me was how good Leonard was, and how he might have been the best player on the floor tonight. With five minutes left and the Thunder harboring hopes of comeback and game theft, Russell Westbrook made one of those leave your feet and pass turnovers that should have gotten him benched in junior high school. Leonard swiped it with his hands that make the basketball look like a baseball, then started the break. Durant tried to foul, but Leonard contorted his body like a scene out of the Matrix and kept on. Derek Fisher tried to foul and couldn't, because Leonard warped time and space to get past him, too. Then he finished at the rim with a finger roll that we'll credit to Iceman Gervin, just because of his laundry. Adding injury to insult, Durant got banged up on the play to boot. It's rare that you see killshots coming with five minutes left, but that's what it was.

Is there hope for the Thunder? Of course. Head coach Scott Brooks was terrible even by his low standards, putting the entire load on Durant and Westbrook, going small for too long to be effective, and learning little about which of his deep bench guys might have utility when the game got out of reach. He'll be better in future games, because he really can't be worse. They took more technicals tonight; usually, a team that does that gets a little less of a hard time from the refs in the next game. They got so little from the guys that shouldn't be playing (Perkins, Thabo Sefalosha) that maybe Brooks makes the deep changes he needs to make sooner rather than later, and they ride some shock momentum from, say, more Steven Adams, Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb. Ginobili's not going to be above .500 very often, Danny Green hasn't shot this well in forever, and as good as Duncan is, he's not going 27-7-3 in 29 minutes again. This shouldn't be a squash, the Spurs shouldn't get this man layups in every game, and the Thunder's third quarter run to kill the lead and take a small one shows that they aren't incapable of good stretches against this club, even on the road.

But there's just not that good that you can say about a 122-105 game where the losers had 16 turns to 18 assists, while the winners were at 8 and 28, respectively. The Spurs are simply better, and not by a little. Especially when they are playing this pretty, and with OKC's most important defensive player on the shelf.

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