Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Thunder - Spurs Game 4: Russell Westbrook Takes Flight

Yeah, That's A Point Guard
With four minutes left in the second quarter of a game that was inexorably going in the direction of the Thunder, guard Russell Westbrook was ridiculously out of position, with both feet and most of his body out of bounds. Continuing his momentum with what might be the best chase-down speed in the Association, Westbrook reached a finger with his raptor-like length, poking the basketball out of the hands of Spurs' point guard Tony Parker, who made the tactical mistake of playing basketball at something less than warp speed. Then Westbrook was off to the races for yet another steal and score, as the Thunder mega-church crowd roared its approval.

Only on the replay, minutes later, did anyone think to look at Westbrook's feet, both of which were still out of bounds when he made the swipe. The fact that no one noticed this little fact was not evidence of referee error. Rather, it was somehow besides the point... because when you are in the presence of Westbrook in full flight, noticing anything beyond the absurdity of his athleticism, or the fact that his feet sometimes touch the ground, seems, well, downright ungrateful.

And when the Thunder play like this, with Westbrook and Kevin Durant not just the best two players on the floor, but potentially the second and third best players on the planet, it all suddenly makes sense. Why the Thunder are so bad in half court sets -- because making them run plays is just nuts when your small forward can shoot 75% from the floor and with unmatched length, and your point guard starts damn near every break with unrelenting pressure on the ball, and speed to the cup. It also makes sense, suddenly, to play Kendrick Perkins of all people, because he's altering shots like Serge Ibaka, and you don't need anyone else on the floor taking shots. The single biggest stat from tonight was first half fast-break points, when it was still somewhat in doubt: 17 to 0 for the Thunder. So what if Perk can barely make it past half court; he'd just get in the way.

I'm still waiting for the contest where both of these teams bring their "A" Game, and we see if the Spurs' vaunted execution and full participation can overcome the Thunder having the two best players on the floor... but if this hasn't all been home court mirage, maybe the Spurs just don't have it, and this is just a repeat of the series from two years ago. (That's when the Thunder spotted the Spurs two wins, then won four straight games in ways that made the Spurs look like last century's team.) I didn't think that was possible for a Thunder roster that didn't have James Harden any more, against a Spurs' team that had a very active Kawhi Leonard, but the Westbrook and Durant that showed up tonight don't need Harden to advance. They just need Ibaka, and a fourth guy hitting the most open shots this side of what LeBron James grants to his teammates in Miami, and a coach that just gives them minutes.

So, what happens next? The Spurs have to find a way to put the toothpaste back in the tube. If I'm Gregg Popovich, I start thinking hard about all of the little things that veteran teams are supposed to be good at -- drawing fouls, stopping fast breaks by taking charges, slowing down the pace and making the games grindy. They can't beat the Thunder by playing pretty, the way they did in the first two games, because Ibaka is just ending all of their back-door and cutting magic. I also put Leonard, the only guy on their roster with the physical gifts to stay with either Wetbrook or Durant, on, well, one of those guys. I put Manu Ginobili in the starting lineup, not because he's really deserved it, but just because that sort of thing has worked in the past.

And if it doesn't work, I start the deep subs, the same way that he did halfway through the third quarter in this one, when four of his five starters hit the pine, never to return, with 19 minutes left, just to try to shock the system before death. (It actually worked in this game, as Boris Diaw put together some good minutes and make this less or a runaway, Cory Joseph made a highlight reel or two, and Thunder coach Scott Brooks was unable to get his starters off the floor.)

Finally, I'd tell everyone on the floor to do everything they can to enrage Westbrook. Because if he's in flight, they aren't winning. (Obviously...)

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