Monday, May 28, 2012

Series of the Week: San Antonio Spurs (1) versus Oklahoma City Thunder (2).

Some analysts have erroneously billed the Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder as "Wisdom versus Athleticism."  This statement could not be further from the truth, given the way these two teams have played in the lead-up to this potentially epic series.

The San Antonio Spurs are wise sages who have vastly improved their athleticism.  In most peoples' minds, the Spurs remain are defensively-minded club, with an offense based on Tim Duncan's post game.  This, of course, is the role they maintained for a decade, and the system which netted the team four championships in a seven year span.  As such, they have unfairly maintained a reputation as "boring" and "old."  Yet, this weekend, folks who haven't watched much Spurs basketball this season were introduced to the 2012 Spurs, who have fully transitioned to an offense built around point guard Tony Parker, and the high pick-and-roll early in the shot clock. The Spurs offense, which was fourth in the league in total assists during the regular season and first overall in offensive rating, looks nearly unstoppable. No Spur holds onto the ball for more than three or four seconds; the ball swings around the key, traveling through moving parts faster than the Thunder could adjust.  Manu Ginobili, in particular, threw the Thunder's defensive game plan asunder, as neither Harden, nor big men Kendrick Perkins (or Serge Ibaka, who sat for most of the second half) could figure out how to prevent Ginobili from getting to the hoop for a few signature finishes.  In general, the Spurs outscored the Thunder in the paint 50-26 -- staggering considering that the Thunder are among the league leader's in points allowed in the paint.  As a team, the Spurs hung 101 points on the Thunder, who up to that point in the playoffs had allowed 100 points just once (in a win against the Lakers, no less).  If this is wisdom, it is wisdom with afterburners.  

Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder, type-casted as galloping stallions that focus solely on individual offensive brilliance, have shown themselves to be athletes that are becoming wiser by the day.  Indeed, the Thunder won most of their games during the regular season with an offense that focused on un-assisted pick-and-roll or isolation plays in the high post.  As John Schuhmann points out in this excellent late-season analysis, the Thunder's lack of assists doesn't necessarily mean they're playing selfishly.  Rather, they simply possess players that can create their own shot in completely different ways, and in the playoffs they've relied on that model more than ever.  But yesterday's game showed that they've learned a thing or two on defense, as well.  The Thunder's wing players used their long arms and quick hands to fluster the Spurs ball handlers.  They forced the Spurs into committing 14 first half turnovers alone -- an impressive statistic considering that the Spurs had, at their playoff worst, committed 18 turnovers for the entire game.  Furthermore, the Spurs were held to about 29% shooting in the third quarter, which was, by far, their worst shooting quarter of the playoffs.  It was that defensive stand, coupled with the Thunder's crippling three-pronged attack of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and (to a lesser degree, at least in this game) James Harden, that prompted Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to gather his team for a huddle that will likely be portrayed as a watershed moment for these unflappable Spurs; when he pleaded for them to give him a bit of "nasty", and reminded them that the playoffs "[weren't] supposed to be easy." It was the Thunder that popped the Spurs in the nose, that finally woke up a dozing giant that had been hitting the "snooze" button for eight straight games.

This is a series where we, as NBA enthusiasts, can actually pick our poison, and see if it kills faster than the other.  Both teams, cut from the same cloth in terms of management, have fortified themselves around systems that seem poised to produce wins for the foreseeable future.  Moreover, these are systems that aren't going anywhere anytime soon.  From 2008 to 2012, the Spurs have somehow rebuilt while winning 55 games a season.  Duncan and Ginobili are advanced in age, but Popovich has made rest and recovery the primary focus of his organization, and Parker, along with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, and even fat ol' Boris Diaw, have mastered the system to the point where they truly represent interchangeable parts in a machine whose owners will pay to ensure that it remains properly tuned up.  The Thunder, on the other hand, have signed Durant and Westbrook for the longterm, and presumably will lock up Harden as well.  The Thunder's low-assist but fast-paced offense will not be slowing down anytime soon.  At 24.3 years, the Thunder are the league's second youngest team.  Indeed, barring a balance-shifting transaction (Dwight to the Lakers?), we may be looking at the West's next great rivalry over the next six or seven seasons.  These are teams -- systems, really -- that we will be getting very, very familiar with.

Rejoice: this is a series that is wide open.  Hell, this is a future that is wide open.  We are lucky to be witnesses to professional basketball in its ideal form: unselfish, hard-nosed, and diverse in both its theory and execution.


  1. you think tim duncan and manu ginobli are going to play for 6-7 more years? without those two okc dominates

    1. Ha, no. Clearly not Duncan, though Manu might be able to play when he's 40 or 41. However, I do think Green, Leonard and Splitter are pieces to build around and not just filler. Further, I'm not sure we know how good TP really is. He's had to play within a system designed to feature Duncan. Only within the last few seasons have we begun to see what he's capable of (when healthy).

      So maybe OKC eats them up? I don't think that's a given.