San Antonio Spurs 105, Oklahoma City Thunder 93: A year older, Splitter, Green, and Leonard a year better
AT&T CENTER—When the Oklahoma City Thunder swept the last four games of the Western Conference Finals, it was a tale of youth finally being served. Quietly, however, it was the “veteran” San Antonio Spurs going through the growing pains.
Last season was Tiago Splitter and Danny Green’s first year seeing meaningful minutes in the NBA, and Kawhi Leonard’s first year in the league at all.
Together, the trio helped reinvigorate a Spurs team many wrote off after a first round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. But if their emergence played a large role in the Spurs season-long dominance, their inexperience in the Western Conference Finals proved to be the team’s downfall.
“They showed us a lot last year. They had a little bit of trouble in the playoffs because it was their first time,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “But this year they’ve surpassed their performances from last year. Hopefully come playoff time that will continue, but what we’ve gotten has been spectacular and hopefully that will serve us well.”
Monday night’s game was hardly a shot at redemption—that won’t come until the Spurs meet the Thunder in the playoffs—but it was an opportunity to gauge how far they’ve come against the team that ended their season last year.
Now firmly entrenched in the Spurs starting lineup, Tiago Splitter practically did more in one game with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists than he did throughout the Western Conference Finals.
Where Splitter once struggled in the post against point guard Derek Fisher and shrank from spotlight as it shined on an exasperating free throw problem, this year’s Splitter firmly established position in the post and even demanded the ball a couple of times.
Splitter attacked Serge Ibaka in the post, taking advantage of the shot blocker’s propensity to jump at the slightest hint of a fake with a variety of up and under moves and hook shots.
“I just learned from what I do,” Splitter said. “I think everybody played well. I was one of them. You play well and you feel better. You want to play well against these [playoff teams]. Of course we’ve got to stay humble. It’s one more game.”
The Spurs were thoroughly humbled in the first quarter, picking up where they left off in a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers by allowing 32 points and 4-of-5 shooting from the three-point line in the first quarter.
With the Spurs still suffering what Popovich deemed a case of identity theft against the Thunder in the first quarter, Green, Splitter and Leonard began to assert their own.
As the lead stretched to 11 and momentum firmly with the Thunder, Green entered the game and promptly hit back-to-back three-pointers, followed by a Leonard three-pointer to bring the Spurs within two.
A few possessions later Leonard made his presence known on national highlight shows, stripping Westbrook and executing a beautiful behind the back dribble on the way to a powerful dunk
“They’re maturing right in front of our eyes. Kawhi and Danny are really picking up a lot of slack,” Duncan said. “We need to be able to attack from every position and we’re starting to do that and it makes us a different team.”
Leonard’s emerging game stands as the biggest potential difference between last year’s Spurs and the current team. No longer chained to the corners, Leonard is emerging as an offensive force from all over the court.
The baseline is comfortably his. Leonard has shown an aptitude for escaping from the corner three, attacking hard closeouts with pull-up jumpers and floaters along the inbounds line. Against the Thunder Leonard varied where he attacked from. He split defenders at the top of the key, dribbling ball ably through his legs, and turning the corner on his way to the rim.
He finished strong on some drives and found teammates on others, seemingly observing and absorbing some of Durant’s passes in the middle of the game when he wrapped a pass around a defender to a cutting Splitter.
And when the offense got ragged and the team needed to stem a Thunder rum, it was Leonard who calmed things down, drawing a switch off a screen, getting an Oklahoma City big man back on their heels, and calmly burying a long jumper.
“Kawhi wants to be a great player. He’s one of those before and after practice type of guys that you just have to kick out of the gym,” Popovich said. “It’s just like a baby trying to walk, he’s just feeling his legs now, figuring out the things he can do. He’s going to be a real special player.”
If the Spurs are going to unseat the Thunder as Western Conference Champions, it will be because Leonard is starting to realize that potential, as well as Green and Splitter. In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Splitter and Green were non-existent while Leonard was a mere rookie against an MVP candidate.
In last year’s Western Conference Finals loss Green, Splitter, and Leonard were relative and actual rookies playing against an experienced Thunder team. Almost a year later, in a Spurs regular season victory, they were their team’s leading scorers.