Sometimes I am happy that I write for a blog, instead of an all-important sports mega-conglomerate. Games like this one would be completely ruined if told from an unbiased perspective. There is an aspect of basketball that can only be appreciated through the pounding heart of a fan, that guy that covers his eyes as Tiago walks to the free throw line, but peeks through his fingers because he just cannot miss any second of this game. No matter how painful Tiago insists on making it.
Despite my relatively recent arrival to San Antonio, I have been to the AT&T Center quite a few times. My one complaint has always been the crowd, the fans. The best ones are relegated to the nosebleeds, and their best efforts seem to have little effect on the owner of the plush lower seats. The lulls in cheering and lackadaisical chanting always made me question whether fans were really a factor in the “advantage” part of the coveted home court advantage. Tonight was different. The Spurs fans were loud and active, and every small run was accompanied by a cacophony of relieved or excited cheers.I still do not know what impact this may have on weathered NBA veterans, but I know it had an effect on me, and the people around me. Maybe that is good enough.
Coming into the series, I imagined that free throws might be one of the keys. The Thunder have three players that average more free throw attempts than any of our players, and they all shot at a higher percentage than any of our players, with the notable exception of Manu Ginobili. The star calls Durant always enjoys, compounded with the extra physicality of the playoffs, could put the Spurs in a difficult position. During the first three quarters of the game, free throws helped the Thunder earn easy points during stretches were nothing came easy to a sloppy Spurs offense, and Tiago Splitter proved that the extra pressure of the playoffs has undone his once-improved shooting form. Witnessing the Lovecraftian horror that was his free throw airball, I could not help but wonder why coach Scott Brooks did not resort to a simple hack-a-Tiago. The immediate benefits seem evident: increased minutes and responsibility for Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan. However, making Gregg Popovich to relegate Tiago to the bench would represent a more important victory. For the first time in these playoffs, the Spurs would have to react to their opponents, play a game other than their own.
On a game in which Derek Fisher took a dive in the fountain of youth, going for 13 points in eight shots, it is impossible not to wonder whether having Neal covering him on the key moments of the game was a good idea. For two years and counting, Neal has turned opposing guards into so many miniature Dwayne Wades. How is it that Neal was able to stay on the floor tonight during the 4th quarter, then? Why do we need 23 minutes of Gary Neal even when facing line-ups where it is at the very least difficult to “hide him” on a poor offensive player? Because, right now, he might just be the best shooter in the NBA. Listen to this: Synergy Sports shows that Neal is currently leading the playoffs in scoring efficiency at 1.2 points per-possession. Gary Neal is a player of ultimate confidence, and his steady hand has extended that confidence to me. Nowadays, my reaction to every one of his missed shots is absolute disbelief. There is no other Spur I would trust more with the game on the line, in a score-or-die situation.
If there was a player that would react to a call for “nasty” by Coach Popovich, that player is Manu Ginobili. At the risk of preaching to the choir, Manu is a player that seems more in contact than most with that gritty edge that can swing basketball games, win contested balls, turn physical play into reasons to attack the basket with that much energy. As the minutes passed, Ginobili’s game turned crisper, until he found that zone that allows him to split the screens through impeccable timing and explosions of movement. If there is one thing that should put a smile on your face as you look forward to what will certainly be a long and difficult series, it is the return of this facet of Manu Ginobili.
Standing near Stephen Jackson as he grins at the swarm of cameras that surrounds him, talking about being the veteran presence that Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green may need during their first steps in the league, I have to try really hard not to fall for the compelling and popular story of his basketball redemption. Even through the typical formalities and the mechanical cadence of these NBA locker room interviews, his happiness at his current situation shines through. He is a transparent man, without any obvious guile. He talks about second opportunities and about contributing to a team, being part of a group, one of the guys, and he is always ready to regale the reporters with a funny quote or three. I am not sure if redemption can be gained through timely 3-pointers and suffocating defense. I am not certain that Jackson needs to be redeemed, in fact. What I do know is that this season would be poorer without him.
I do not need any new reasons to cheer for the Spurs, but if I did, Stephen Jackson would be that reason.