The Margin: San Antonio Spurs 117, Oklahoma City Thunder 89

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These ‘Margin’ pieces are going to kill me, but if every time I take them on it means the Spurs win by double-digits, I may just have to sacrifice myself for the good of the people. Martyr much? Anyway…

As you probably already know by now, The Margin — a blatant rip-off of Rob Mahoney’s ‘The Difference’ — takes the difference in the final scores and flips it into bullet points. So in this case, there are a lot of them — 28 bullets for a 28-point victory.

  • This was a clinic, especially from the second quarter going forward. I thought the move to start Matt Bonner was a good one because it took care of two issues. 1) It created much more space and allowed the Spurs to find their footing from the beginning and 2) it separated the Duncan-Splitter duo that has been very ineffective with the return of Ibaka.
  • Bonner wasn’t very good in and of himself, but his presence made a big difference. Instead of facing a clogged paint, the Spurs’ attack had room to operate, and attack they did. After being denied around the rim for two straight games, San Antonio bounced back to shoot 15-of-21 from inside the restricted area and 20-of-28 from inside the paint. And of course, this opens up the perimeter as well.
  • The Thunder allowed the Spurs to take 42 and 44 uncontested field goals in Games 3 and 4, but San Antonio failed to capitalize. On Thursday, the Spurs were given 44 such chances but still managed to hit on just 20 of them. The difference was the 19-of-32 the Spurs shot on contested shots. (Per SportVU data.)
  • Somehow, the Internet found a way to criticize the move to put Bonner in the starting lineup. Then again, nitpicking is the Internet’s specialty. If you want to criticize Bonner for not shooting or playing well, that’s fine; but the move to separate what had become a clunky Duncan-Splitter duo and insert a stretch ‘four’ alongside Timmy instead absolutely worked. Ibaka spent the majority of time on the perimeter with Bonner in the game, and there were acres of space because of it. San Antonio wasn’t great in the opening minutes, but as I said at the top, starting Bonner set the wheels of the Game 5 strategy in motion. If the goal was to spread the floor and lure the Thunder’s best shot-blocker away from the rim, then the mission was accomplished. Just my opinion. What are we even talking about?
  • The Spurs’ defensive rating with Bonner on the floor was 84.8. THAT’S the reason they started him. Right? Totally.
  • In the 67 minutes that have passed since Gregg Popovich yanked the starters in the third quarter of Game 4, the Spurs have outscored the Thunder by 42 points. The guy knows what he’s doing.
  • Speaking of that, it’s clear that move by Pop meant something to this team. Not only did that bench unit come out and remind the starters of how the hell the offense is run, the regular guys took the hint: You’d better step your game up and quit pussyfooting around. (How great is it that that’s an actual word?) Little things, like that Cory Joseph dunk that was anything but little, left a mark on these guys. Bonner called it “inspirational” after the team’s Game 5 win.
  • Another adjustment from Pop: planting Kawhi Leonard on Russell Westbrook instead of Kevin Durant. There’s not much you can do about KD. He’s going to score. But it’s Westbrook that tilts the scales as we saw in Game 4. His 21 points and seven assists in Game 5 weren’t bad, but that’s hardly backbreaking. That’s the thing, the Thunder need these guys to be spectacular every night. On this night, they combined for 46 points. That’s almost a guaranteed loss.
  • Leonard did a really good job of cutting off Westbrook’s lanes to the basket. Green is a good defender, but Kawhi is just such a big body with a bit more lateral quickness. Russ hit half of his 12 shots, but he only had two attempts from inside the restricted area and got to the line nine times. In Game 4, he was 6-of-8 inside the restricted area and was 14-of-14 from the stripe. I’d say the move worked, if only because it kept Westbrook from just dominating the paint offensively. The farther he stays from the basket, the better off the Spurs are.
  • Pop had more adjustments in this game than immediately met the eye, and even more than what I saw after revisiting a bit. But one thing I liked, and this came with flipping the rotation to include the floor-spacing ‘four’, was the way they utilized players off the ball as pressure-release valves out of the pick-and-roll. And with Diaw being such a great passer, this worked incredibly well. It forced the Thunder to defend a totally different high-low element, just adding to what was already a full plate.
  • In actuality though, the Spurs just executed more effectively. Passes were sharper, players were more deliberate in their actions and much less hesitant, there was a new level of aggression in getting to the basket which, miraculously, led to more free throws (30)! There were tweaks in the game plan, but as Pop kept explaining, sometimes it’s just about playing with a higher level of intensity and more focused effort.
  • Speaking of Diaw, he’s become such a weapon for the Spurs. We all remember how great a player he was in Phoenix when he was playing all five positions for Mike D’Antoni, but then he just kind of disappeared and got fat out in Charlotte before having a falling out with Paul Silas. But since he signed in San Antonio, he’s become more valuable by the season as his understanding of the system improved. Now he’s the Spurs’ Swiss Army Knife and one of the best utility men in the league. I’m really enjoying Boris Diaw, the remix.
  • In case you missed it in my player grades, Tim Duncan became just the fourth 38-year-old in NBA history to record at least 22 points and 12 rebounds in a playoff game. He’s good.
  • The average margin of victory in this series is now 20.4 points. That’s ridiculous for a competitive conference finals. Duncan called it the craziest series he’s ever played in.
  • I brought up the idea yesterday of the Spurs utilizing their depth a little more in an effort to keep players fresh for what they needed to be a fast-paced affair. Nope. Turns out they just needed their best players to play better. Weird.
  • I’ve been wondering when this might come up again, and perhaps it was a bit lost in translation, but Serge Ibaka told reporters yesterday he feels about the same way he did during Games 1 and 2. That doesn’t seem good. Again, Ibaka still struggles a bit with English, and I wonder if he meant it to sound the way it did, but his miraculous recovery does sort of leave you wondering if it’s going to jump back up to bite him at some point.
  • The human brain is a complex thing. If you’ve never played sports, it’s almost impossible to understand how a team can look so bad one night and so good the next. In a sport that’s become so measurable by numbers, this is the human element that will always make it so fascinating.
  • Danny Green at home during the postseason (10 games): 57.6 percent from the floor, 59.2 percent from the 3-point line; Danny Green on the road this postseason (7 games): 38.8 percent from the floor, 30.8 percent from the 3-point line.
  • The TNT crew on the Thursday night call discussed whether or not fatigue was a factor for the Thunder after Westbrook and Durant played so many minutes in that Game 4 blowout. I have no idea if it mattered or not, but you do wonder about the buildup. I understand these guys are young and can handle big minutes, but 45 is a lot during a blowout when there’s another game less than 48 hours away. Even young players can feel these effects, so I don’t think it’s such a crazy discussion. Road games are where the most energy is needed, and the Spurs hit a level that OKC couldn’t seem to match coming out of halftime. Again, I have no clue if this was actually a factor, but given the way Pop handles players’ minutes, even young guys like Leonard, leads me to believe there’s something to it.
  • This series has been thoroughly entertaining despite all the blowouts. I think that’s because of each coach’s adjustments over the course of the five games. Spurs hit the Thunder in the mouth, then Ibaka returns and Scott Brooks responds with lineup changes, then Pop counters with one of his own and the strategy change that came with it. It’s been fun to watch.
  • Speaking of the coaches, Brooks gets such flack for his lineup/rotation decisions; and then when a particular strategy or change does work, he gets little to no credit because of the two remarkable stars he’s got on his team. Brooks might not be the best in-game strategist, and his sideline pep talks are fairly jam-packed with clichés, but that team is always prepared to play and seems to only get stronger the longer a series lasts.
  • Marco Belinelli is saving himself for Game 6, right? OK.
  • Patty Mills finally got his shot going in Game 5. It’s gone missing for much of the postseason, and without it his value diminishes because he can be a defensive liability at times (though he does make opposing point guards expend energy when defending aggressively). He’s the non-Manu spark plug of that second unit, and his ability to shoot off the dribble really does open up the floor when that shot is falling. Did he rediscover his stroke, or was it just a one-game thing? I guess we’ll see.
  • How did I get this far in without mentioning Manu? My goodness he was brilliant. Ginobili’s 19 points and six assists in 21 minutes killed the Thunder, and then you throw in the fact he had zero turnovers. When Bad Manu doesn’t make an appearance at all, the opposition is in major trouble. If the Spurs are playing well as a group, they’re a difficult enough matchup to begin with; but when Ginobili is rolling like that, when their wild card is freelancing successfully away from the script, they’re almost unbeatable.
  • I thought Tiago handled his move to the bench really well. He played with energy and with efficiency in Duncan’s stead, and he provided a solid big man presence for that second unit. Given the depth of the Thunder, having a guy like Splitter come off the bench to deal with Steven Adams and Nick Collison is just as much of a luxury as having someone as versatile as Diaw capable of stepping into whatever role needs to be filled.
  • So, now the guessing game begins. It feels like each time we get a grasp on something in this series it completely flips in the opposite direction. Does Brooks pull another rabbit out of his hat to combat San Antonio’s smaller starting lineup? Does Pop make any other changes or stick with what just worked so well? Does Bonner start again, or will he go straight to Diaw? The good news is we won’t have to wait long to have these questions answered.
  • There have been some wild momentum swings in this one, but last night was yet another reminder of how overrated momentum can be. Each game is its own entity. Blowouts don’t necessarily mean much more than just a singular win. Enjoy the win, Spurs fans, but just remember the way you were feeling after Games 3 and 4. Remember how the sky was falling? Things can change in a hurry, and home court is clearly a major factor in this series. And oh yeah, the Thunder are REALLY good in Oklahoma City. But, having said that…
  • I picked the Spurs to win in six games, and I’m sticking to that. You don’t often see San Antonio veer off course two times in a single series, and this team seemed to have righted its ship after the Ibaka return and lineup changes of Games 3 and 4. There was a renewed energy level and re-established focus on Thursday, and I think that will carry over this time. OKC doesn’t really have much more in the way of surprises, and I’m fairly certain they don’t have some other All-Star caliber big man lurking in the background just waiting to be unleashed. So, I believe the Spurs will close this thing out on Saturday. But really, as this series as shown us all, your guess is as good as mine.
  • Tyler

    Great write up. Food for thought though – maybe b/c there were so many bullets, but it’s somewhat difficult to read with no space in between each bullet. (meaning, the end of one paragraph with the next bullet point right below). Just a suggestion, but you might want to think about inserting a space after each point.

    The slight tweak on SA’s PnR was pretty effective. In addition to Diaw/Bonner, it definitely allowed the guards a direct avenue into the paint.

  • ferscia

    Great “The Margin”. Only thing that got me a little worried was bullet number 3.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    I’ve tried. When nothing is filled in it auto-formats back to no spaces. Will keep trying.

  • JImbo

    Great write-up, thanks for all the time you guys put into this site. Game 5 was one of the best victories I’ve seen this Spurs team have. Just awesome. The fatigue question is interesting- OKC had two tough series leading up to this and their stars have played big minutes. I watch OKC fairly often and I have seen Durant get tired before, but as far as I know RWB does not tire. Then again, Kerr mentioned that he looked tired last night. Diaw could be so awesome but he has a tendency to get passive. To borrow an Eddie House quote, Boris brought the French pastry on OKC’s ass last night. I think the rest of the series will hinge on how well Green guards Durant and Leonard guards RWB. They were both real solid last night. I’m guessing OKC will get game 6 and we’ll have one for all the the marbles back in SA. Thank God for homecourt.

  • Matthew R Tynan

    OK way better.

  • DorieStreet

    Green is living up to his “IcyHot” moniker to the extreme.
    Seriously, he needs to smash through that roadblock of shooting poorly on the road. It’s not like he’s a bench player that does not get consistent minutes game in and game out–he’s a STARTER.
    How about this summer he tours all the league cities, but while there he goes to the arenas and puts in full day shooting the ball. (Oh, wait; they don’t leave the goals up after season’s over.)
    Next stop: a sports psychologist.

  • Tyler

    Green’s production is really only a function of how well SA is moving the ball, moving players around the court, getting stops and pushing in transition. So when I hear people say, “Danny Green needs to shoot the ball better,” what they’re really saying is that the team as a whole needs to move the ball better, look for early offense, etc. Green is the team’s best three point shooter, and if he doesn’t shoot it well, it’s almost always because he’s not getting clean looks – not because he’s missing wide open shots.

    He’s really a barometer for the Spurs as a whole. If you didn’t watch the game and just looked at his box score, 9x out of 10, if he plays well, it probably means the offense was flowing. If you were to think about it as a cause and effect, ball movement is the cause, and the effect is Green making shots.

  • SanDiegoSpursFan

    I’m amazed that Manu ONLY played 21 minutes in game 5. He had such a massive impact I had the feeling he was closer to 30 minutes. Good sign for game 6.

    As far as OKC’s adjustments go — I could see Brooks putting Ibaka on Duncan in order to allow him to hang back in the paint. Perkins probably can’t hang on the perimeter with Bonner and he definitely wouldn’t be able to hang with Boris. Essentially, would require Brooks to start Butler to cover Bonner/Diaw which could be easily exploited by posting Diaw up.

    I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think OKC has any real adjustments to counter our moves. If we play solid in game 6, it’s over.

  • fkj74

    I called for the Leonard on Westbrook, Green on Durant dynamic for awhile. It works well, they just have to avoid foul trouble. Also I think Bonner hits some big shots Saturday. He will be left open until he hits a couple.(Reminds me of when Kerr hit some big 3′s in another championship run). I picked Spurs in 6 and am sticking with it. Tony Parker big game time..say 30-35, 10 dimes.. less than 3 turovers. We withstand a Durant fueled push at the end. Also need to ‘good’ Manu and the ‘hot’ Danny.

  • spurs10

    Excellent, if arduous, write up. I can only hope with your track record you take one for the team and sign on for Saturday. I don’t care if we win by 1 or 28, although anothe good thrashing is prefered! Thanks once more, a whole lot of great points.

  • camnpat

    RWB may have more stamina than Durant but that doesn’t mean he does not fatigue, and fatigue doesn’t always show up in physical form. It can affect mental acuity and I’d say RWB shows this pretty often. Watch games when the team has lost and he played extensive minutes and you can see this: he loses track of teammates, makes bad passes, judges defenses improperly and gets himself in trouble by getting trapped and forcing tough shots. Those are the instances when he tries to play by himself.

    There is certainly an ego factor with him as well, but the more minutes he plays the more mentally fatigued he gets and the more he tries to play “hero” ball.

  • Philip Fletcher

    No, Marco Belinelli is saving himself for the Heat, it is obvious he wants them for what they did to him in Chicago, as the Spurs in the Finals. This will be good.

  • Colin

    Sefolosha in game 6?

    A potential Brooks lineup card…….

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    This series reminds me of the Dallas series in this way: The longer you are in a series with the Spurs nowadays, Pop eventually figures you out (provided he has a healthy and deep roster). The Game 7 blowout in that Dallas series was the result of the Spurs finally figuring out Dallas’ schemes, and playing with desperation.

    It kind of feels this way for the Thunder. The more videotape Pops gets on you, the more tinkering and strategizing and chess playing he gets to do, you’re eventually going to be checkmated. His roster is so deep and versatile that he’s gonna find the winning combination the longer a series lasts.

    So now that the Heat have finished off the Pacers, they’ll have at least 5 days off before the start of the Finals. What do we do in Game 6 at OKC? Do we empty the tank to get it done on the road, or do we throw in the towel early if things aren’t looking good in order to rest up for Game 7 at home?

  • psage

    you guessed wrong