Manna of Hope: the Spurs can win Game 6

by

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.

  • Fredgon25

    Amen. I think the Spurs counterpunch is overdue in this series. I feel confident that they will find a way to get this done tonight. I am ready for that game to start. The first quarter can not end in a 10 plus point deficit though or I don’t know that the Spurs can recover from that. Well see. Go Spurs Go!

  • guest

    The problem is, this is not the same Thunder team that we saw before this series, or even before game three.  Games 1 and 2 were a wake up call to them that TEAM play would kill individual play almost every time.

  • Irontalon

    If we come out blistering hot and are up by 10, I will feel a lot better. We can beat the Thunder protecting a lead, but not trying to play catchup.

  • http://twitter.com/sstewart1617 Sam Stewart

    PATTY MILLS for Backup PG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

  • Lwbst

    Lol sorry spurs but you haven’t a chance in hell to win this series. Make sure to cheer for us in the finals after we beat you tonight.

  • Spursfan

    In your last paragraph, you state that you believed that both teams were evenly matched going into the series but then you predicted that the Spurs would blow out the Thunder in all but one game.  Huh?  Did you mean you hoped?

    Anyways, I hope that the Spurs pull out a win tonight and give themselves a chance to win back home in San Antonio.  Go Spurs.

  • http://www.gothicginobili.com Aaron McGuire

    … whoops. Yeah, meant close games. I thought the Spurs would win 4-1 with one blowout in the five games, and probably a blowout win by the Thunder in game 3. That was what I was figuring before the series.

  • Jwill1919

    I think you’ve gotta go back to Manu coming off the bench.  Our 2nd unit is too valuable to not get any production, that’s what made the Spurs great, the bench points.  Green has disappeared but he has a much better chance of doing something as a starter than coming off the bench for 5 minutes.  Our 2nd unit couldn’t do anything, no PG running(Neal sucks) and nobody creating(Manu Starting) to get guys like Splitter some paint touches and breakdowns of the Thunder Defense. 

    Bottom line, this team goes as far as Tony Parker takes us.  He has to get 30 and everyone else involved for us to win, he’s the antithesis of Westbrook(Thunder win when he doesn’t score bunches because he gets everyone else involved).  We need TP to come out guns blazing and split the paint wide open, and we have got to get some contribution from our backups and role players.  For the love of god!

  • Ben

    The one point I disagree with you on is the seeming implication that the Thunder can’t win when Westbrook scores bunches. 5th highest ppg in the league this year, for a team that finished with the 3rd best record. The Thunder won plenty of games when he scored a lot. Yes, when he’s making PG plays and lots of assists it makes for a winning formula, but the Thunder can win either way. The only time it hurts is when he’s shooting ~30% and keeps firing. I think this series has showed that he’s learning when to go away from his shot and get others involved (Cook’s 2 threes both created and assisted by Russ) and when to take his jumper.

  • Ben

    Beyond that, coming from a Thunder fan, I completely agree with you. Manu needs to invigorate that 2nd unit (super disappointing for you guys since game 2) and Parker has let the team down. I love the defense that my Thunder have played on him since game 2, but he hasn’t been the same Parker I’ve hated/respected for years.

  • Fredgon25

    Oh and I forgot to mention. The Spurs must keep their turnovers under 14/15 or they definitely will have huge problems. That seems to be a constant in their 3 losses. We turn the ball over and OKC makes us pay.

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  • Adam Brunell

    This is exactly right. No Neal, as much of the Big 3 as possible!

  • DonJulio50

    I agree with your post 100 percent. OKC are playing their best players 40 plus minutes in each game, even though Harden comes off the bench he is still averaging at least 37 minutes per game. The Thunder’s stars are younger and that is a great advantage when playing more minutes, but I think we need Duncan, Manu and Parker, and Jack to dig deep and play some Heavy minutes tonight and in Game 7 if we make it. Heavy minutes in both games for our best players, worry about resting when we win the series, If they are concerned about being tired and OKC’s big three our out there playing 40 plus minutes against us, the Spurs will have all summer to get plenty of rest and to think about next season. Our bench just cant compete right now, their confidence is shot right now, cant ask them to all of sudden show up in a elimination game, its up to our best players to pull this out, and they can if they are on the court longer, no time to be tired, This is a Big Boys Game.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-Sauer/645387978 Christopher Sauer

    Agreed.  I think the Thunder recognized the TEAM ball the Spurs were using to beat them, and decided they had to do the same – problem is, it’s made them a better team, and they’re doing it better than we are at the moment.  We can still beat this team, but we must play much better & smarter.  We’re not going to beat this team in an athletic competition, we have to rely on our wits & experience.

  • #1intheWest

    The bench will start playing well when Parker and Duncan start making some shots. There shooting percentage has been awful the last 3 games. Our bench is young (other than Manu) and they have been used to pressure free basketball all season and coming in with a Spurs lead. They don’t have the confidence right now to come from behind. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4XUGEOHZUTRUIWLINEDHBJLBZA Marco

    Great analysis on Duncan.  My amateur prescription:  Duncan and Parker have to play 38-42 minutes, preferably 40+.  

    I don’t care if they get tired; grit it out, let the endorphins release and reach a new level.  They have all summer to rest.  For the next two games, the Spurs must be the Miami Heat — ride the stars hard.

    Seriously, look at what Boston is doing with Garnett!  That needs to be Duncan.From your post, I now have a glimmer of hope, although I have already had my emotional acceptance (and distancing) of a Spurs loss because ultimately, I want the best team to win and am happy as long as the Spurs try their best.  

  • Julz_rko

    Parker will play 40+ mins 100% not sure about Duncan though. AGE HURTS :/

  • Julz_rko

     nNeal is a fine player like every NBA player and I think he’s just not playing to his full potential like Tony Parker who has under performed this series after game 2. He is needs to get minutes to get going and play well we all know the big three will have they’re time on the court but when they’re resting people like neal will have to step up big. 

  • http://twitter.com/ejwestksu Eric Westerman

    It’s unfair to say any of us “underestimated” the Thunder, because they’re bringing it at a level that they’ve never shown before.  It’s the future of the West (with the giant caveat that it’s going to be very difficult for Presti to keep that team together long term).  Spurs have to hope that maybe the moment gets to them a bit and they come back to earth a tad.  Combine that with a little less sloppy play and a little better shooting and they can get this back to San Antonio.  I don’t feel great about that set of circumstances occurring, but can at least hope for it.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4XUGEOHZUTRUIWLINEDHBJLBZA Marco

    He HAS to play 40-42 minutes.  Why not, I mean really?  He is 36 years old.  He can play 40-42 minutes.  It is just stubborn nonsense to not play him that much.  He can rest later.  The only exception is if he somehow has a health issue, but I don’t see why Pop can’t just ask him to play heavy minutes tonight.  IT’S 2 GAMES! 

  • DonJulio50

    If Duncan cant play 40 plus mins, after all the rest he got during the regular season, if he cant give 40 plus mins in 2 games then the Spurs have no other big man to turn to with the defensive IQ to hold off the Thunder. If Duncan cant last tonight then it might be over, unless someone off the bench has a breakout game.

  • Killspam1

    I consider myself a huge Spurs fan, always will be.  But the fact is, they will lose by double digits tonight.  They haven’t played a full 48 minutes in a single game this series.  Even Game 2 at home they let OKC back into after building a huge lead.  

  • DonJulio50

    Exactly, at this point, it’s really about who wants it more, those guys should be telling Pop to leave them in the game,(Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) they should want to play more minutes if they want it bad enough, OKC is a hell of a good team and the Spurs will have to out work them to win, it’s not suppose to be easy at this level.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4XUGEOHZUTRUIWLINEDHBJLBZA Marco

    Leave Duncan and Parker on the floor for 42 minutes, and we may see some change.

  • Jimbo

    I’d hate to see this Spurs team go down- it would pain me after coming this far and having a very beatable team come out of the East.  I want to see one last ring for the Big 3.  Either Parker has to have a monster game, or the bench has to show up.  Go Spurs.

  • Andy

    if any team left in the league can do it, its this one……

  • DonJulio50

    They dont have to play a full 48 minute game but they better push hard for at least 45-46 minutes or that Thunder team will definitely out work them.

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  • STIJL

     “Either Parker has to have a monster game, or the bench has to show up.  Go Spurs.”

    BOTH.  Spurs will not win unless someone on the Spurs bench has a monster night as well as Parker, Ginobili and Duncan getting theirs.  Go Spurs Go!!!

  • STIJL

    I understand your frustration with Neal.  But he hasn’t seemed to be AS bad as Green.  So he does have to play AND he might as well play with the starters so as to help hide his untimely misgivings this series.

    Start Parker, Neal, Ginobili, Leonard and Duncan.  Solid defense besides Neal which can be concealed.  See if that lights a spark to hitting some threes being focus will be on Parker and Ginobili.  And though Leonard is about 8 lbs. lighter than Diaw…he’s certainly more athletic to stopping penetration in the paint as well as being a phenominal rebounder able to get some easy put backs.

    And I know this sounds like the whole “shaking things up to much” attitude.  But to me…I’m not sure the Thunder could handle this line up with defensive efficiency as well as the Spurs being able to limit points in the paint through speed and matched athleticism from at least 4 players on the court.

  • DonJulio50

    Dont really like that lineup, that will leave Ginobili to guard who? Durant? He would get Manu in foul trouble in a hurry, its a good idea on the offensive end but we still have to play defense, that lineup would give OKC a huge advantage on offensive. The best lineup in my opinion is the one Pop went with in the 4th quarter in game 5 that brought them back, and we took a 6 point lead for a moment, ( Duncan, Parker, Manu, Kawhi and Jack) I am pretty sure Pop will start that lineup tonight.

  • Jimbo

    I like that lineup too.  I hope to see it a lot tonight.

  • STIJL

     The OKC Thunder ARE -far better a team than some of it’s trolling fans ARE of having dignity.

    And…yes I would cheer on the Thunder if they go on to the finals because the the Thunder ARE the Spurs prior to the Thunder ever being existent in this league.

  • Len

    I’ve been on the Thunder website before and perused the comments.  Never have a seen a Spurs fan acting half the fool that these trolls are acting.  

    Okies need to learn some dignity and class.

  • STIJL

     Called for your lineup suggestion as well prior to game 5 even being played.  But somehow there needs to be a lineup(s) that helps get some of the struggling role players better options to elevate their confidence.  Neal hitting some key shots just might propel others on the team to performing better than they have thus far.   And agreed…some defense needs to be established.  Substitute Jack for Ginobili in this situation.

    But throwing in a bench with NO experienced players with a batch of seriously struggling role players isn’t a good idea either.

    My opinion…the Spurs have struggled worse because of Green not being dependent with the starting unit more so than Neal under achieving off the bench.

  • CaptainClark

     No, he said they would ONLY blow them out in one game. He said “albeit with all but one game a down-to-the-wire affair.”

  • Bob

    Our weak interior defense likely has to do with the fact that Pop has been unwilling to develop the Splitter-Duncan combo. We won last series when he wasn’t afraid to use it. This series he barely uses it if at all. And its Memphis all over again.

  • Spursfan

    No, Aaron or someone changed the text (be more transparent about your changes, guys).  It definitely said, “all but one game would result in a blowout”.  But I do think he meant to say all but one game would be a down-to-the-wire affair.

    Anyways, I am officially depressed.  I really thought the Spurs would pull out a game-6 victory and give us a chance to win the series.  Now we get to wait until at least next year for another chance….