A less-than-expert take on Game 5 expectations
Scott Brooks has a reputation of being one of the stubbornest coaches in the league when it comes to lineup and rotation alterations. His insistence on starting Kendrick Perkins every single night, regardless of matchup, and his reluctance to unleash young players has certainly drawn the ire of the Internet critic and anyone willing to voice an opinion. But in these playoffs, and especially during the Western Conference Finals, he’s been anything but conservative.
The Thunder coach could’ve welcomed Serge Ibaka back to the fold, banked on a return to normalcy and maintained the status quo after dropping the first two games of their series against the Spurs by a combined total of 52 points. But he didn’t. Thabo Sefolosha, a starter in Games 1 and 2, hasn’t played in 3 and 4. Nick Collison, long a bench-unit lynchpin, saw a few measly minutes on Tuesday after failing to log a second on Sunday, but that’s it.
Instead, sixth man Reggie Jackson has been slotted as the starting shooting guard, Jeremy Lamb has been unearthed as a backup guard, and what’s usually a four-man frontcourt rotation has been sliced to just three bodies. And all of it has worked.
While a return to Oklahoma City meant wonders to the Thunder, make no mistake about it, that was the better team in Games 3 and 4. And each of the aforementioned adjustments were impactful.
Suddenly the Thunder appear in control of the series. Whether that’s truly the case or just a mirage manifested by the oasis of home court remains to be seen, but there’s absolutely zero question about the impact of Ibaka’s return. It has completely changed the way these teams execute in nearly every facet.
If the Spurs continue to play the way they have been during the two most recent games of the series, Thursday’s game will likely be the last they play in San Antonio this season. Perhaps that seems obvious, but this is to say a return to that home floor isn’t the singular cure to this ailment. The intensity and energy must be cranked up to 11, a cliché that’s just as tired as it is true in this case. But beyond that, Gregg Popovich needs to bring some tweaks and adjustments to the table. Brooks was forced to show his cards early, now it’s the Coach of the Year’s turn.
Pop has long been seen as stubborn, but not necessarily inflexible. San Antonio ran out more than 30 different starting lineups during the course of the season, unheard of for a championship-level team and topped only by a Lakers squad that was completely ravaged by injury in 2013-14, and his demonstrated ability to completely adjust a system on the fly and still maintain total excellence is a rare commodity in the coaching industry.
Still, he is set in his ways. Take Game 4, for example, when he chose to pull his starters for good in the third quarter and restrained himself from re-inserting them when they game surprisingly fell back within reach early in the fourth. He yanked his players for a reason, and he intended to stay true to that reasoning.
(I, personally, had very little issue with how he treated the situation, but who the hell cares about my issues?)
And the players trust him, practicing a virtue on which this team is built. We always hear about the trust they have in themselves and on the system, and now is the time to lean heavily upon that foundation. When it comes to the postseason—when starters’ minutes typically spike and bench minutes shrink—it’s difficult to maintain belief in the reserves that played such a significant role in what the Spurs did throughout the regular season, but it’s a necessity to do so now.
If the Spurs simply match their best players with the Thunder’s, they’ll be fighting an impossible battle. Typically this isn’t much of a problem when your best players are as good as San Antonio’s are, but it is in this matchup. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can play all 48 minutes without breaking even a single extra bead of sweat, and they seemingly just get faster as the game flies along. The Spurs’ Big Three can’t match that, and they must trust in the rotations and system that brought them here, with some slight changes.
The Splitter issue
Andrew McNeill posed the question yesterday: Is it time for Boris Diaw to start?
If you buy what Bobo was selling at practice on Thursday, he won’t be in the opening lineup. At least not at this point. But one wonders if Tiago Splitter has become more of a liability with that group against Ibaka and friends. Andrew mentioned the starting lineup’s massive drop in efficiency (minus-32.3 net rating in Games 3 and 4), but it’s been the Brazilian’s crash that sticks out most prominently.
The Spurs have been outscored by nearly 40 points per 100 possessions in the last two games when Splitter’s been on the court, and that misery has been easily noticed by the eye test as well. By spending so much time matched up with Ibaka, Tiago just looks too slow, not nearly athletic enough and too offensively limited to pose a threat to this Thunder defense. His game has been reduced to clumsy rolls and pump-fake after pump-fake that lead to nowhere, and it’s really hurting the rhythm San Antonio is hoping to sustain.
Things looked alright early in Game 4, as the Spurs were efficiently utilizing him as a screener (perhaps his best skill) both on and off the ball. He was part of several hand-off pick-and-rolls that allowed Parker to pick up a head of steam during his forays into the paint, and San Antonio was humming right along.
But once things started to stagnate, he was rendered almost useless, which isn’t entirely his fault. The Spurs know he’s not a guy who can score against shot-blockers in one-on-one situations, so when the ball stops moving and the pick-and-rolls stop flowing, Splitter can end up as a liability in a struggling offense, especially because he’s no threat to stretch the floor.
Here’s where a guy like Diaw comes into play. I won’t get into it much, as Andrew took care of that with his excellent post. But not only is Boris a threat to stretch the floor—he’s got to start hitting those 3-pointers, though—but he’s crafty enough to neutralize Ibaka’s shot-blocking threat on the block at times. He’s one of the most versatile players in the league on both sides of the ball, and his presence alone in the starting lineup might lure Ibaka away from the rim and allow the Spurs more freedom.
If he doesn’t start, I’d expect to see him quite early. While he’s also important to that second unit, the starters have had so much trouble since Ibaka’s return it might not be a game anymore by the time the reserves see the court. I think everybody will be better in this one, including Tiago, as home court will certainly help. But you’ve got to think Diaw will be important, regardless.
Side note: The most interesting move to me would be starting Matt Bonner, the ultimate floor-spacer. The crazy thing is, he’s the only Spur who never started a game this season. The only one. Even Shannon Brown and Othyus Jeffers started games. But Bonner has started alongside these guys before, so I wouldn’t count it out.
Pace of the game
Speed and pace are actually the Spurs’ friends in this series. Not necessarily up and down the court (though, hey, a fast-break point or two wouldn’t hurt, I promise), but from side to side. It might not feel that way, but it’s true. There were two separate, distinct stretches of Game 4 that featured San Antonio playing its game at a high level: the opening four minutes and the last 19 minutes. Everything in between was a disaster. During those timeframes, the Spurs outscored the Thunder 55-40; during the other 25 minutes, OKC was plus-28. And it all came as a result of the movement San Antonio was getting within the flow of the system.
Popovich talked about pace all season long, and by now you know when the Spurs are at their best, they’re playing fast. Not hurried or rushed or impatient, but fast — not thinking too much, reacting and making the right reads based on whatever the defense throws at them and generally staying a step ahead.
The problem is, against the Thunder, what’s usually speedy enough to overwhelm most teams in the league is not close to good enough. They’re just too physically imposing. So San Antonio must pick its pace up a notch or two, something we saw them do early in the game, and something we saw that third unit do in that late comeback attempt. But it’s exhausting. I drank like a gallon of water just watching Parker endlessly navigate picks and run away from Westbrook. He never stopped moving.
It looked good for a while, but it didn’t seem sustainable. Eventually, they slowed down just enough to allow OKC to dictate pace, and the Spurs can’t afford to let that happen. That high level of energy must be maintained all night long, because the Thunder never fucking get tired.
Wave on wave
I’m not going to act like the Spurs are at some serious disadvantage all of a sudden. If they play their game, they’re more than capable of winning this game. In fact, they’re five-point favorites in Vegas at the moment. But the Thunder with Ibaka are clearly a problem, and I do believe pace is the most important thing for this team to maintain. Yes, defense is crucial, but if San Antonio isn’t hitting shots, it won’t matter a lick when Westbrook is getting a running start at the basket on a consistent basis. The Spurs offense must return to form so their defense can get set and OKC isn’t playing in the open court all night.
The one clear advantage the Spurs have over the Thunder is the bench unit, and I believe they must utilize that as effectively as possible. It’s a terrifying concept, playing reserves against Westbrook and Durant for more minutes than usual, but it’s a line you might have to walk in an effort to maximize the output of energy. But it’s a hell of a lot easier said than done, and I’m quite glad I’m not the one having to make these decisions. I’m also not being paid seven figures, so ya know, whatever.
But San Antonio has the best bench in the NBA, and it’s full of guys who can stretch the floor. Maybe it’s crazy to think the Spurs’ best players need to play fewer minutes, but it feels like, if they’re managed properly, shorter bursts might be beneficial. We saw those end-of-bench guys execute really well toward the end of Game 4, and they’ve done it so many times before that. This is obviously a different stage, but I’m not talking about long stretches of time with guys like Bonner, Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph running the show, just short spurts. This might be effective, especially in a friendly home environment where role players typically perform well. Take advantage of the depth you have.
OK, except these guys
I think Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard need to play as many minutes as possible without going beyond what is sane. (Andrew wrote about Kawhi, too, by the way.) Leonard has not been good since Game 1, and hopefully he’ll pick Thursday as a time to break out again, but he has to spend a ton of time on the floor if he’s playing even marginally well. He’s by far the team’s best defender, and he’s the only player with the size and athleticism to punch back against OKC. Durant is going to get his points, but he’s the only one remotely capable of making life difficult for the MVP, and he’s also an option to slide down on Westbrook if Russ starts to get going. He averaged just 24 minutes per game over the last three, so he’s more than ready to go.
Duncan doesn’t have the young legs, but holy hell he’s been important around the basket in this series. With Splitter underperforming, Diaw a bit undersized and guys like Baynes (experience) and Bonner (ability) a bit limited in the rebounding and rim-defending departments, Timmy is far and away the best line of defense. Obviously you can’t just go wear the guy out, but he needs to spend a ton of time on the floor.
I know I just spent all this time talking about depth and maintaining energy, but those two need to play big minutes.
So, what’s going to happen?
The truth is, I don’t know. I’ve got confidence in the fact the role players on this team do play much better when they’re at home, and that’s a big deal for the Spurs. Plus, things aren’t as bad as the last two games made it seem.
A blowout at the hands of the Thunder feels more debilitating than it may actually be, especially in their own building. Everything about them is so spectacular, so violent, so explosive. Every jaw-dropping steal turns into a backbreaking basket on the other end. Each Westbrook deep ball seems to count for more than three points and is always followed by the expressive point guard holstering pistols and doing a little groove thang back to the other side of the floor. Instead of a finger-roll to the tune of crickets, it’s a rim-shaking dunk accompanied by the chorus of a raucous crowd. A blowout in Oklahoma City is pure insanity, but it counts as much as any other loss.
The Spurs can bounce back, but it’s going to take a hell of an effort against a team that’s won 12 of the last 14 matchups. But effort shouldn’t be a problem at this juncture for a team with title aspirations and last year’s Finals still fresh on the mind.
After all, this is what they’ve been fighting for ever since then. The chance to take control of a series on their home court.