The Spurs battled but ultimately fell short against the more talented Thunder. It’s been awhile since I’ve been this depressed over a loss. (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
In seven years when my son is nine years old and asking about Kevin Durant’s career I will tell him how Durant eliminated the Spurs in four straight games in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. I’ll tell him the Spurs played well enough to win all but one of their four losses in the series but Durant simply refused to let his team lose. I’ll tell him about the big shots Durant hit, his 4th quarter heroics, his poise, his leadership, and most importantly, his fearlessness. I may even remember to tell him Durant was only 23 at the time. I’ll certainly tell him the 2012 Western Conference Finals was when Durant officially arrived. In pressure packed moments that shrink stars like LeBron James, Durant came through. He made the leap from superstar to legend. I will tell my son all this soon enough.
For now, though, as a grieving Spurs fan, I want to dwell on San Antonio’s defeat. After all, something tells me there will be plenty of time to gush over Durant and the Thunder in the coming years.
[I’m putting this section in parentheses because it’s not why the Spurs lost Game 6 or the series. Though, it certainly didn’t help their chances. The officiating in the 4th quarter of Game 6 was HORRENDOUS. The Spurs were called for five fouls in the opening three minutes of the 4th quarter. Four of them were offensive fouls and each was a ticky-tacky call AT BEST. It’s the 4th quarter of a deciding game and the officials are taking over on one end and completely ignoring the other team on the other. I was embarrassed for the NBA. No other sport is consistently ruined by its officiating like basketball. As a result, the Spurs were handicapped defensively because every foul sent the Thunder to the line. It’s hard enough to beat the Tunder at home. Doing so with three officials calling a lopsided 4th quarter was an impossible task.]
Moving on… Let’s start with the primary reason the Spurs lost this series; role players. All season long, and for the first two rounds of the postseason, San Antonio’s role players had performed superbly. When the starters took a seat, the bench took over, often extending leads or sparking comebacks. If one of the Spurs stars was out with injury or suffering through an off night, a role player stepped up. The Spurs role players were as responsible for San Antonio’s stellar play this year as the big three.
Then, all of sudden, San Antonio’s role players disappeared completely in the conference finals. A potent rotation of 9 to 10 players shrunk to 5. Only Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal saw extended playing time off the bench and only Jackson contributed anything more than bricked shots and turnovers. The Spurs greatest asset suddenly became its greatest weakness.
People can talk about Gregg Popovich being outcoached by Scott Brooks, but imagine how hard it’d be for Brooks to win a series if Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka bricked open jumpers, or Daequan Cook threw up air balls in his limited action in Game 5, or Derek Fisher didn’t drain big shots in the 4th quarter. It’d be nearly impossible for the Thunder to win. I’m not even arguing Brooks didn’t outcoach Popovich. I’m simply stating Popovich was playing with a short deck, a short deck absolutely no one could have foreseen.
If you want to break down the failure of the Spurs role players on an individual level, I’d be happy to help… For the 2nd year in a row, Tiago Splitter fell flat on his face in the biggest games of the season. He was hesitant, confused, and flat out overwhelmed. The Spurs desperately needed Splitter to protect the rim and score inside. Instead, he panicked at the free throw line, lost his confidence, and was as effective defensively as a swinging door. Then there’s the trio of Matt Bonner, Gary Neal and Danny Green. Bonner did nothing. Couldn’t rebound. Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t defend. “Good job. Good effort.” Neal’s shot was off for most of the series. What’s worse, he was responsible for several of San Antonio’s defensive breakdowns in the critical moments of Game 6 and at least one other game in the series, if not two (I’m too depressed to remember). As for Green, the poor guy short-circuited after a slow start to the series. He shot a dismal percentage from beyond the arc (17%) and completely lost his identity in the Spurs offense. In Similar fashion to Neal and Splitter, Green also allowed his offensive shortcomings to impact his defense. Green, the same defensive standout that bottled up Chris Paul, was consistently torched by the Thunder’s backcourt. While Boris Diaw and DeJuan Blair were equally unimpressive, it was the ghastly play of Splitter, Neal and Green that truly cost the Spurs.
Regardless, the biggest disappointment of the last four games was how the role players let Tim Duncan (and the rest of the Big Three) down after declaring for much of the past few months how badly they wanted to win for Duncan. While Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker weren’t perfect, I thought they played well enough to have a reasonable chance at winning the series. They simply didn’t get any help outside of Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. As the Thunder and Celtics have proven in this year’s conference finals, you can’t succeed this deep in the postseason without significant contributions and clutch plays from your role players. Right now, nobody knows this as well as the Spurs.
I especially feel for Duncan, who believed this was his best and perhaps final chance to get ring number five. I feel for Gregg Popovich, who brilliantly molded this team to buy into a system that relied on humility and the concept of TEAM over stardom and stats. I feel for Tony Parker, who carried the Spurs for much of the season even though he came up short against the size and quickness of the Oklahoma City defense. I feel for Stephen Jackson, who fought tooth and nail to bring his friend Tim Duncan another title. I feel for Manu Ginobili, whose unique style of play will soon fade away as his body betrays him.
In fact, the last time I felt this awful following a sporting event was after the Eagles lost another NFC Championship Game, this time to the Arizona Cardinals in January of 2009. Much like the Spurs, the Eagles came out of nowhere, were playing the best of any team in the postseason and were expected to advance to the Super Bowl but lost in devastating fashion.
I’ve spent countless hours watching nearly every one of the Spurs 66 regular season games and 14 playoff games over the past six months. I bought into everything they were; teamwork, humility, respect, greatness. To see them lose feels like everything I believed in was wrong. But then I look at the Thunder and realize everything I cherished about the Spurs is so obviously present in the Thunder. So, even defeat – heart aching and soul crushing defeat – I still feel a small twinge of victory. The Spurs drew the map, the Thunder followed it to perfection.