Well, I guess it was too early.
It was too early to proclaim the San Antonio Spurs as the title favorites. The Spurs had won twenty straight games by an average point differential of +14.75 per game. They played unselfishly. Everyone contributed. Points came off of open looks. Defensive rotations were spot on. They looked great, and poised for a title. Tony Parker was spectacular. Tim Duncan was rejuvenated. Manu Ginobili was recovering well from injury and pulling off "Ginobillliiii!" type plays. The Spurs rolled through their last ten opponents of the regular season, and their first ten opponents in the playoffs.
The Spurs had not lost three straight games all season. Who could envision four straight? Well, the Oklahoma City Thunder must have. Kevin Durant played to his superstar abilities. Russell Westbrook continued providing his crucial stretches of brilliance. James Harden hit clutch shot after clutch shot.
So clutch, that every team in the Western Conference cannot wait until James Harden is offered a max contract when he becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2013. Harden is clearly worth more than he is being compensated, and Thunder ownership will be hard pressed to match such an offer from a competing team since Durant and Westbrook are commanding top dollar until at least 2016. Either Harden or Serge Ibaka will have to take a huge pay cut in the summer of '13 for the nucleus of the Thunder to stay together. With their victories over the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavericks, the Thunder obviously look like the team of the future for the Western Conference. However, the Harden/Ibaka contract situation may derail this team in future years.
Anyways, let's get back to the series. The Thunder flipped the script on the Spurs and turned that double digit plus average point differential for the Spurs into a -9.75 per game point differential throughout the final four games of the series. The Spurs ripped off that twenty game winning streak with excellent team play and consistent contributions from the bench. In the last four games, it all broke down. Parker struggled immensely with the defensive strategies of the Thunder. Coach Scott Brooks wisely put the bigger, longer, Thabo Sefolosha on Parker. Parker struggled and shot just 41.2% and averaged just 19.25 points per game in the final four games. Duncan looked old and failed to dominate in key stretches. Ginobili was brilliant - but for just one game. Key bench contributors fell off and could not capitalize on open looks. Everything surgical about the Spurs' offense disappeared. Crisp ball movement and striking execution perished. Open jumpers stopped falling. Confusion and doubt seeped in and led to hesitation and mistakes.
After narrowly defeating the Thunder in games one and two, it looked like the Spurs had broken down the late game moxie of the Thunder. Throughout this postseason run, the Thunder have been exceptional in closing out games. In particular, Kevin Durant is enjoying a Dirk-like clutchness that we all saw just a year ago. When the Thunder lost those close games, albeit on the road, it seemed like the late game invincibility of the Thunder had tapered off.
However, Kevin Durant and company responded with daggers in the next four games.
The Thunder blew out the Spurs in game three with a twenty point victory. The big three of the Spurs severely struggled and combined to shoot 12-32 for 35 points. Obviously such paltry numbers did not get it done.
Kevin Durant exploded in game four to carry the Thunder to a 109-103 victory. Durant shot 13-20, 1-2 from deep, for 36 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 block, and just 1 turnover. Even more impressive, Durant scored 28 of those points in the second half. He even set his playoff career high with 18 of those points in the fourth quarter. Simply put, he was unstoppable. It also helped that Serge Ibaka provided a completely unexpected 11-11 for 26 points. Durant and Ibaka outscored the big three of San Antonio. Duncan had a good game with 9-17 shooting for 21 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block. However, Parker and Ginobili struggled. Parker finished 5-15, 0-1 from deep, for 12 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 turnover. Ginobili finished 4-7, 2-3 from deep, for 13 points, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 6 turnovers. The role players actually stepped up in this game with 23-43 shooting for 56 points. Parker and Ginobili's struggles truly cost the Spurs the winnable game on the road.
Game five featured more of the same. The Thunder won 108-103. Durant finished 10-19, 2-6 from deep, for 27 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, and 4 turnovers. Durant produced another scorching second half performance to deliver the Thunder a crucial game five victory in San Antonio. Durant went off for 22 points on 9-13 shooting in the second half. Despite Durant's heroics, it was James Harden who provided the biggest play of the game. With less than a minute on the clock and a two point lead, the Thunder attempted to run a play for Durant, but the play broke down and James Harden held the ball in his hands. With the shot clock running down, Harden fired up a step back contested 3 that splashed through the net and put the Thunder up five with 28.8 seconds left in the game. Harden's 3 sealed the game.
This loss dealt the Spurs their first three game losing streak of the season. Ginobili provided his best performance of the four losses. He shot 11-21, 5-10 from deep, for 34 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers. Despite his great performance, Ginobili missed a decent looking opportunity from deep to counteract Harden's huge 3. Duncan provided another solid game with 7-10 shooting for 18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. However, it would have been nice to see Duncan demand the ball and get up more than ten shots. Parker struggled, shooting 5-14, 0-1 from deep, for 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 5 turnovers. Ginobili and Parker's inability to take care of the ball led to 21 total turnovers for the Spurs, which the Thunder capitalized on to score 28 points. Of the role players on the Spurs, only Stephen Jackson showed up ready. Jackson went 5-9, 3-6 from deep, for 13 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers in his 30 minutes of play. The rest of the role players combined to shoot 6-20 for 17 points.
Down 3-2 in the series, the Spurs needed to pull off an impressive road victory in Oklahoma City to continue the series. The Spurs came out hot and dropped 34 points in the first quarter. Tony Parker looked to atone for his previous games with some sensational play. Parker finished the first quarter 7-9, 1-1 from deep, for 17 points, 5 assists, and 2 rebounds. Parker scored or assisted on all of the Spurs first 25 points of the quarter. Incredible. Only Deron Williams has had such an exceptional quarter in a playoff game (Williams dropped 17 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter against the Spurs in the '07 playoffs). Parker finished the first half 8-13 for 21 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds, and 1 turnover. The Spurs led 63-48 at the half.
However, when it mattered the most, Parker couldn't make a play. Parker struggled to hit the pull up jumper on the pick and roll, and in doing so, he no longer was viewed as a threat. Parker went 0-7 from beyond ten feet in the second half. Five of those attempts were pick and roll pull up jumpers. The Thunder gladly went under the screens and watched Parker fire up bricks. Lacking the threat of a jump shot, Parker struggled to penetrate the lane and provide easy buckets for his teammates on dump offs or drive and kicks. Parker finished the second half 4-14, 0-2 from deep, for 8 points, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Parker finished the game 12-27, 1-4 from deep, for 29 points, 3 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals, and 1 turnover. That final stat line looks pretty good, but stat lines fail to tell the whole story.
Parker's second half meltdown may have ended the Spurs' season, but he was not alone in the blame. Ginobili also struggled, shooting 4-12, 2-8 from deep, for 10 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 turnovers. The bench also struggled mightily. Excluding Stephen Jackson, the role players went 4-15, 2-7 from deep, for 12 points. Only Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson looked poised and unperturbed by the Thunder and the crowd. Duncan went 11-23 for 25 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 2 turnovers. Duncan's performance was his best of the four losses. "Captain Jack" turned in his fourth straight solid performance by shooting lights out. Jackson went 6-7, all from downtown, for 23 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers. Jackson hit numerous clutch 3's in order to give the Spurs a chance, but his only miss came with 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Spurs down by four points. Jackson had a good open look from the wing, but he missed it. Parker responded by bricking a hurried attempt from the corner following an offensive rebound.
Durant provided another chapter to his legacy with his performance in the game six 107-99 victory. Durant shot 9-17, 4-8 from deep, for 34 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 2 turnovers. Durant's monster performance highlighted his tremendous efficiency and his stat-stuffing capability. Durant was phenomenal. He even played all 48 minutes! Ridiculous. Westbrook backed up Durant with a solid performance. Westbrook shot 9-17, 1-1 from deep, for 25 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, and 5 turnovers. Harden also delivered with his 4-9, 3-4 from deep, for 16 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 turnovers.
All season long the Spurs relied on the big three and consistent bench play. In their only four game losing streak of the season, the big three failed to show up collectively strong. In game three, only Parker played well. Only Duncan played well in game four. Game five featured a great performance from Ginobili, and a solid performance from Duncan, but Parker struggled. Game six featured a great first half from Parker, but a complete disaster in the second half. Duncan played well in game six, but his effort was not enough. Not once during the losing streak did two of the three stars provide great performances in the same game. During the winning streak, these lapses were counteracted by stellar bench play, but in the defining moments of the season, the Spurs failed as a team. Not one guy can be blamed. Everyone turned in worthy, as well as abhorrent, performances.
They won as a team. They lost as a team.
Gone is the opportunity for greatness. The Spurs were on the verge of challenging the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers for the most dominant postseason run in NBA history. Four losses later, that 16-1 record continues to stand above the rest. Instead, the Spurs topped out at 10-4 and will now be spectators to the NBA Finals. The Spurs will come back strong next year, but with another year of wear and tear on Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker, the window for a championship is quickly closing. Despite the disappointing end to the season, I don't expect the Spurs to blow anything up. I expect them to return with the same team, minus maybe one or two bench guys. This team isn't going away, and they will challenge for a ring once again next season.
The biggest winner of the series is Kevin Durant's legacy. Durant is 23 years old, yet he is providing the stuff of legends. His ascension to super-duper-stardom may come with a victory in the NBA Finals, especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James. Durant is riding a Dirk-like assassin streak in order to hit big shots in clutch moments and lead his team to victory. Overall, the Thunder remind me a lot of the '11 Mavericks. The Thunder have a bunch of hungry players who keep coming up big in the most important of occasions. Whether it's a Harden 3 in the final minute, or a Durant steal and transition pull up jumper, or a Westbrook ferocious dunk, it all keeps happening at crucial moments that are changing the momentum of the game.
Durant's "clutch gene" keeps coming through, and his teammates seem to relish the biggest moments because they know that #35 is on their side. Similar to a scene in Space Jam, the Thunder are sipping on the "secret stuff" that Kevin Durant is providing them. In the scene, one member of the Looney Tunes' cast fills up a water bottle and inspires his teammates by giving them the water bottle and saying that it contains "Michael's secret stuff." The teammates frantically grab the bottle and gulp the water down. The placebo effect of "Michael's secret stuff" causes the teammates to play extraordinary basketball because they believe that Michael Jordan's basketball skill has somehow been ingested. Well, the Thunder are doing the same thing. They are piggy-backing Kevin Durant's transcendent skill by providing their own flashes of greatness. They believe that Durant can always come through for them, and such belief lends incredible confidence in the team. It's a lot easier to take a shot that isn't considered a backbreaking miss if you happen to miss. That is the power of Durant. He gives Westbrook and Harden the confidence to play freely because he will always be there to back them up. In doing so, the entire team follows his lead.
Now the Oklahoma City Thunder are headed to the NBA Finals to face off against the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat. Either way, I can't wait. Kevin Durant may begin his incredible ascent as a young superstar champion. LeBron James and the Heat may silence a nation of critics. The Boston Celtics may prove that a veteran core can still get it done. One way or the other, the story lines heading into the NBA Finals are "BIG."
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