Manna of Hope: the Spurs can win Game 6
Alright. I’m gonna be honest. Before the dismal, dismal Game 5 performance by the Spurs, I had a day where I could barely eat food. I ate less than a quarter of a Chipotle burrito and a small handful of fries from my girlfriend’s burger. The entire day. There was a pit in the bottom of my stomach as deep as the Mariana Trench. I spent the following day eating very little as well, with nerves and sadness overcoming the unyielding hunger I felt rattle my bones. I couldn’t eat because I felt as though any food would make me vomit, any food would cause me to immediately regret the action of consumption — I was that worried about my team. I’ve told many people this, and it’s true — this is one of my favorite Spurs teams of all time.
I am at that magical age where you’re old enough to still throw yourself full hog into a team without having acquired the requisite jaded devil-may-care wounds of your beloved teams long buried. As a Cleveland sports fan who grew up nowhere near Cleveland and a Tim Duncan fan who has always watched his favorite player from afar, I never really had a chance — until I could finally afford league pass during the 2011 season — to watch every game or bond with teams on a personal level. This team? Bonded at the hip.
Other than Gary Neal (who I will, someday, try to reconcile my distaste for in a public proclamation), I absolutely love every player on this Spurs team. Tim Duncan is my favorite player of all time. Manu Ginobili is well up there. Stephen Jackson has always struck me a tragic figure, one I’ve rooted for throughout his career, and one who is more misunderstood than perhaps any player in the league. Matt Bonner is hilarious. DeJuan Blair’s enthusiasm compels me. Patty Mills is my jam. Danny Green is my favorite Tar Heel ever, even if he killed my Duke teams badly. And Kawhi? You all know how I feel about that brilliant young man.
And there’s Popovich, the conductor of the orchestra. The team is beautiful, every piece fits. As every beautiful thing must, it will come to an end. But I hope to any higher power it doesn’t come to an end tonight. Not here, not now. Not in Oklahoma City, not in four straight. Not like this. It’s highly possible — highly probable, even — that the Spurs’ season ends tonight. Let’s try some hope. Let’s look at a few reasons why the executioner’s beckon may — at least fleetingly — be delayed. Here’s why I can eat today, and have at least some confidence that the Spurs could, in a possible existence, pull out Game 6.
• • •
If you listen to most popular commentary, Tim Duncan has (evidently) played like some combination of the cryptkeeper and an unused extra from “Cocoon” in this series. I admit, he hasn’t shot well — under 50%? Try under 40, for the first three games of the contest. His rebounding has been solid, but not phenomenal. His defense? “Look at what they’re allowing in this series! Duncan has to take some blame for that, right?” I’m here to tell you a kind of shocking, surprising (to most) truth.
No. He really, really doesn’t.
With Tim Duncan on the court, the Spurs have (shockingly, given the series deficit) been the better team. By a fair margin. The Spurs post an offensive rating of 105 with Duncan on the floor against the Thunder, to a defensive rating of 101. For a Thunder offense that’s averaging an offensive rating of 109 over the postseason, that’s actually a pretty phenomenal result for the Spurs. And that ends up as an efficiency differential of +4.2 for the Spurs — certainly enough to win a ball game, right? Well, yes. That was all with Duncan on the floor. With Duncan off it? The Spurs offensive rating rises to 108. So, yes — Duncan gums up the offense, a little bit.
Unfortunately, the Thunder’s offensive rating goes up to 128.
You read that right. 128 points per 100 possessions with Tim Duncan off the floor. When a team goes from “league average, slightly below average” offensively to “OH MY GOD HOW IS THAT NUMBER POSSIBLE” when a single player leaves the court for the opposition, there are rarely one or two specific reasons you can call out for it — generally, the defense has to perform worse everywhere. But there are three important keystones we can call out:
- The Thunder suddenly have an open lane to the paint — with Duncan on the floor, the Thunder actually try to go to the paint slightly more, with 0.81 within-paint field goal attempts per minute to 0.77 with him off the court. But the conversion rate is remarkably higher, with the Thunder shooting a well-below-league-average 47% within the painted area with Duncan in the game as opposed to 57% within the painted area with Duncan out. That’s a pretty huge difference.
- So too are the fouls. While the Thunder shoot slightly worse from the line when Duncan is off the court (which actually means the above offensive rating stats understates the difference between the Thunder offense when Duncan’s off vs on — that’s entirely randomness that should be pushing the Thunder’s on-court offensive rating up), the Spurs give up a hell of a lot more free throws when Duncan’s out of the game — the Thunder take 22.3 free throws per 48 minutes with Duncan on the court, and 27.9 free throws per 48 with Duncan off the court. Giving up free points at the line against a team like the Thunder is generally not a good idea.
- Finally, this part is a very underrated wrinkle. The Spurs have absolutely no confidence in anyone but Duncan to do their damn job in the paint. I have no qualms about this in theory, as no other big on the team has shown the ability to consistently defend the paint. The problem is how this confidence manifests. Instead of sticking to their man, getting into passing lanes, and taking calculated gambles (as the guards tend to do with Duncan on the floor, leading the Thunder to turn the ball over 10% of the time with Tim on the court as opposed to 7% of the time with Tim off), every Spur collapses towards the paint and floats there for the majority of the possession. Which results in, well… a lot of wide open 3s, as the Spurs experienced in excruciating form from Dequan Cook’s two bombs in the second quarter of Game 5. With Duncan on the court, the Thunder shoot 34.5% from 3, because Spurs guards actually stay to their assignment. With Duncan off, and guards sagging to try and help in the paint? The Thunder shoot 42.1%. FROM 3-POINT LAND. THIS IS NOT GOOD.
• • •
So, why is this a positive? Simple. It’s an elimination game. I’d be shocked — absolutely shocked — if Pop doesn’t go to Duncan, Manu, and Tony and tell them he needs to play them a lot of minutes. That the phrase “play every game like it’s your last” is the most relevant it ever will be — if the Thunder have their way, yes, this game WILL be the Spurs’ last, until late October anyway. And given that the Spurs have been a slightly better team than the Thunder with Tim on the floor, you have to think that tips the scales a bit in the Spurs’ direction, right? So-called “disengaged” Duncan or not? (Who, by the way, had 11-4 in Monday’s fourth quarter. That’s Mr. Tim Duncan to you.)
It is worth noting that, as well, despite his pedestrian stats Tony Parker’s threat of paint offense has had a similar — though less pronounced — effect on the Spurs’ production. Slightly better than the Thunder with him on the court, DISGUSTINGLY worse with him off of it. In an elimination game, you have to expect Tim and Tony get well over 34 minutes. In last year’s regulation of the Spurs’ elimination Game 5, Duncan played 35 and Tony played 39 — with it being a road game, one might imagine slightly higher totals in this contest. Last year, there were virtually no combinations of players that really outperformed the Grizzlies over the whole series. This year, there are combinations, and cutting rotations should help bring those combinations to the forefront and make the Spurs more formidable to a man.
And speaking of lineups. I am not Gary Neal’s greatest fan, but until I saw the numbers I am about to link you to I was pretty on board with the “20-30 minutes for Gary” train. But no longer. With Gary on the court, the Spurs have scored at a rate of 99 points per 100 possessions, while giving up 124.8 points per 100 possessions to the Thunder. Yes, that’s an efficiency differential of -27 for the Spurs. Yes, part of that is the fact that Neal can’t guard a fly, and yes, part of that is that he spends most of his minutes without Tony or Duncan. But he’s had a terrible series altogether, and the fact that he may not even be available in Game 6 isn’t necessarily a terrible thing for Pop.
Yes, Manu/Tony/Tim are old. Yes, it’s risky to count on them for huge minutes in a must-win elimination game knowing they may not have the legs to pull out Game 7 even if they win the battle. But as one always says, the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again when it’s proven not to work. Against the Thunder, the Spurs roleplayers aren’t working. So stop trying them and take a calculated risk on the three pillars who brought the Spurs three championships, maybe? It’s a thought.
• • •
I’ll end with this bit of humble pie. Before the series, I thought it would be relatively easy. A 4-1 Spurs win, in fact — albeit with all but one game a down-to-the-wire affair. The Spurs have owned the Thunder in the regular season for the entire history of the Thunder franchise, and in particular, OKC has had an incredibly hard time winning in San Antonio. I thought the matchup advantages — combined with Oklahoma City’s prior inability to win at San Antonio — would win the Spurs the series, in the end. And I’ll own up to it. I was terribly wrong.
I’m not sure I wholly underestimated the Thunder (I thought and obviously still think they’re a brilliant, exceptional team), I don’t think, nor did I overestimate the Spurs (who many would like to bury, but whom I will maintain are an equally exceptional unit). I simply thought that in a battle of roughly even great teams, matchup advantages would bear out. They did not, not because either team isn’t absolutely fantastic team, but because sometimes things simply do not work the way you predict. So I am left scrambling for some sign, some idea that the Spurs can show that their magical run wasn’t but a flash in the pan. I’m left with one stanza flowing through my head.
“The team abides, the players rose; windows creak, they never close.”
Let’s get ’em. Go Spurs.