Despite the season long romance that married the Spurs to the Warriors in a conference final, the dream died a quick death in Oklahoma City on Thursday night. The six months of foreplay and the five months of when they meet in the Western Conference Finals and the four months of anticipation and the three months of waiting for the regular season to be over, crashed and burned as fans, media and casual observers who had swallowed the idea of a 73 win team and a 67 win team slugging it out, had to face reality. The Spurs wilted.
The Spurs won the title in 2014. The Warriors won it in 2015. The Spurs won 67 games, a franchise best. The Warriors won 73 teams, a league best. The Spurs were the best home team. They Warriors were the best road team. The Spurs were the best defensive team. The Warriors were the best offensive team. Kawhi Leonard was Defensive Player of the Year. Steph Curry was MVP. Tim Duncan had the second best on-court defensive impact as measured by Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Draymond Green was first.
So how did everyone get the Spurs part of the equation all wrong?
The Spurs regular season excellence was blinding. San Antonio wasn’t good in the regular season, they were great, and yet regular season history tells us that bad match-ups in the postseason can ruin dreams. The Thunder have a way of making the Spurs miserable, 2012 and 2015.
The Spurs consistency is a false narrative. The Spurs have not missed the playoffs in the Tim Duncan era and as dominant a statistic as that is, it’s an illusion of invincibility. Teams not as consistent as the Spurs, who have been in and out the playoffs, have won titles too. Always in the playoffs doesn’t mean great in the playoffs. It means great in the regular season.
In Duncan’s 19 seasons, the Spurs have been to the WCF 7 times. They have lost in the second round 6 times. So, it’s nearly a draw.
The Spurs own history point to under-performance. They lost to the 8th seeded Grizzlies in 2011. They were up on the Thunder 2-0 in 2012 and lost four straight. They should have beaten the Heat in 2013, and had they pulled in that last rebound, they would have been the champion. In the next game, in the closing minute, Duncan missed an uncontested layup which would have given the Spurs the lead. So, the record is clear. The Spurs have had their moments of playoff absentia. The 2016 series against the Thunder is one more example of the playoff Spurs not being the regular season Spurs.
The Spurs had a distinct disadvantage playing the Grizzlies in round one. Although they wiped the Grizz off the NBA post-season map, it wasn’t a competitive series and didn’t prepare the Spurs for what they were going to face with the Thunder. The Grizz, with their star players in suits, or with their D-Leaugers gutty heart, played a boringly slow pace which didn’t do much but let the Spurs be themselves without challenging them or preparing them for the frenetic velocity of Russell Westbrook and the searingly accurate Kevin Durant and the dedicated Thunder rebounders. It was a glorified four games of practice.
Despite the often numbing iso game of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, when they are on their game they are better than the combo of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson only because with Westbrook there are so many unique variables you can’t plan for. Westbrook is unpredictable. He’s athletic, fast, has a different gear. He is the best rebounding guard in the NBA. He never gets tired. Yes, he can regress and throw up 34 really bad shots. But then he can have back-to-back near triple doubles.
Throughout the season, it was constantly pointed out that the Thunder lost more leads in the 4th quarter than any other team in the NBA, including the pathetic Philadelphia 76ers. That was supposed to mean the Thunder weren’t going to win in the playoffs. Except when you have two of the top 5 players in the league, nothing is off the table. Yes, the Spurs defense is dominant. But they are an old team who play a slow pace and are asked to keep up with explosion, speed and youth. Old man always loses in those match-ups.
LaMarcus Aldridge is overrated as a max player. See games 3, 4 and 5. See his career in Portland.
Tim Duncan’s decline on the offensive end was startling. Even as his patented bank shot has lost a little because his knees are really bad, you could count on the occasional tip in. With the exception of game 6, Duncan struggled getting lift on his shot and the basic put back caused issues. The second best impactful defender in the NBA looked like a ghost.
The Spurs regular season made everyone forget about their age. Duncan is 40. Manu Ginobli is 38. Tony Parker is 34. Boris Diaw is 34. David West is 35. Matt Bonner is 35. Conversely, the Thunder’s oldest player is Randy Foye. He is 32 years old. That sums the entire series up.
Spurs-Warriors was an idea whose time was never meant to come. It was one of those dreams you wake up from and you realize you miss it but then something better happens so it’s forgotten. We all fell for the glamour story, the two best teams in the West. Now we get the talent series. 3 of the top 5 players in the NBA. Add in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and the Thunder rebounders and this is the match-up the playoffs needed after a boring two months.
photo via llananba