Friday, May 30, 2014

Spurs - Thunder Game Five: Gregg Popovich For The Win

Spurs 2, Thunder 2, Pops 1
In the first half of tonight's pivotal Game 5, Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich made the adjustments that were hinted at during the credits trail of Game Four. Gone was Tiago Splitter to pair with Tim Duncan; in was the stretch 4 stylings of Matt Bonner, and later on and much more effectively, Boris Diaw. With that move, and the other obvious nitrous burst of more work for the freshly shamed and very rested Manu Ginobili, the Spurs were off and running. Then, we saw the very telling response from Thunder coach Scott Brooks.

(crickets chirping)

Wait for it, it's going to be worth it.

(crickets dying of old age)

Well, maybe it's just showing confidence in your team to think that all you need to do was get back Serge Ibaka, and what the Spurs did to adjust wouldn't matter. But, well, it did. Reggie Jackson, injured in the successful rear-guard effort by the Spurs shock troops in Game Four, started hot but did not end that way. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook started with fire, but couldn't keep up the pace. When Durant misses both free throws, I don't know what else you need to see to tell that his gas tank is beyond empty. Kendrick Perkins went back to brutal, the Spurs' ball movement went back to lethal, and we were right back where we were for the first four games in this series -- the home team in a blowout.

The question for the Thunder is whether Ibaka has been neutralized, both by the inevitable fall-off after coming back from an injury, and by the stretch 4 work that got Tim Duncan back to solid in this game. You can also ask if the Thunder Big 3 have enough to win back to back games, when they have to dominate on both ends, against a vastly deeper opponent.

But to credit this one just to the sine wave swing of what appears to be a schizophrenic series driven by fatigue, injury and bench guys who can't play on the road, or the obvious coaching mismatch, is to belittle what Ginobili did tonight. 19-4-6 in 21 minutes should be everything you really need to know, but it doesn't do enough to describe his genius. His shooting was dead-eye, his drives crafty, his passing inventive, and he got to an absurd amount of loose balls. He's not what he once was -- the dunk fail with 14 minutes left in the game, when Caron Butler got away with a clear hack on a launch with no lift, with the refs no longer giving him the foul, was downright heart-breaking -- but when the team is so deep that he doesn't get to major minutes, it doesn't seem to matter. Duncan also brought the old man thunder, with quick releases that thwarted the Thunder defense, duck ins and movement that kept getting him open, and hands that just got to everything he touched. It was a clinic in how to be effective at an advanced age, and masterful.

Despite all of the good first half work, the game was still close, because OKC has the nuclear weapons that are Westbrook and Durant, and neither of those guys played badly tonight. But slowly and then quickly, as the Spurs upped the dosage and just moved the ball faster and better, their energy and urgency dripped away. with Durant not punishing smaller players in the post, and Westbrook eventually settling for those long jumpers that are part and parcel of his Bad Russell persona, the Spur lead kept growing. Danny Green's fourth three of the night, with 9 minutes left, was your no-doubt kill shot, and it's telling that when Brooks throws in the towel and puts in his deep reserves, the Thunder fall even further apart, rather than give him options for future games.

Even as the Spurs were going up by 20, departing color analyst and next Warriors coach Steve Kerr was predicting Game 7 in San Antonio on Monday, and its hard to see how he's wrong. The Spurs haven't won in OKC in a dog's age, and Brooks at least got his stars off the floor for some desperately needed rest. (I half expected Popovich to tell his team to turn it over and let the Thunder get back in it, just to drain some more minutes from the Thunder starters.)

What people will say about this series is that we haven't had a game in which both teams have played to their potential - yet - and that's why we've had five blowouts, and a historic point differential. But that wasn't the case for much of the first half. The plain and simple of Game 5 was that as the game went on, the Spurs kept getting better, and the Thunder got tired.

Oh, and one final thing. If OKC gets Game 5's Ibaka, rather than Game 3 or 4's, maybe this doesn't go seven. I wouldn't bet on it, though.

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