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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Poised Thunder Beat Spurs in Pivotal Game Five

The 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs produced the third longest winning streak in NBA history (20, tied with two other teams) but after Oklahoma City's 108-103 game five victory in the Western Conference Finals the Spurs are in danger of getting bounced from the playoffs with four straight losses. The Spurs collected wins 19 and 20 in the first two games of this series before the Thunder became the first team this season to beat the Spurs three straight times. Confidence and rhythm can be fleeting traits, even at the highest levels of a sport, and the Spurs seem to have lost confidence and rhythm in the face of the Thunder's athleticism, length and precise execution at both ends of the court. Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 27 points in game five but he had plenty of help: Russell Westbrook contributed 23 points, 12 assists, four rebounds and four steals and James Harden added 20 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter.

The better team in a matchup should not have to adjust much; as ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy recently put it, the main adjustment that usually needs to be made during the playoffs is to simply play harder and to execute more efficiently. The coach's job is to come up with the right game plan to defeat a particular opponent and to perhaps tweak that game plan as events necessitate but if the coach has to completely scrap his original plan then he has already failed in some sense; the idea that coaches need to make huge adjustments from game to game or even within games is a bit overstated: even some moves that the media calls "adjustments" were likely part of the original game plan (i.e., the coach starts out the series matching up a certain way defensively but he has already had his team practice and prepare other defensive schemes as well, so a seamless switch can be made if necessary--the so-called "adjustment" was in fact part of the original plan). Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a questionable move versus Golden State in the 2007 playoffs when he changed his starting lineup--Dallas won 67 regular season games and should not have been trying to adjust to an eighth seeded team--and San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich made a similarly questionable move by changing his starting lineup prior to game five. Sixth man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili has been coming off of the bench all season long but Popovich moved him into the starting lineup in favor of the ineffective Danny Green. Ginobili responded with arguably his best game of the season--a game-high 34 points and a team-high seven assists--but an adjustment is only successful if it ultimately helps the team and most of the Spurs' other players looked out of rhythm, perhaps because in the most important game of the season the team had lineups on the court that were not used to playing together. Popovich is a great coach--perhaps the best coach in the league--and he knows his team better than anyone else, so starting Ginobili indicates just how desperate he perceived his team's situation to be; Popovich made a risky, questionable move with the hope that it would spark his team. It is certainly understandable that Popovich wanted to limit Green's minutes and increase Ginobili's minutes but it may have been more effective to start Green but shorten Green's first rotation if Green struggled; that way the Spurs would have maintained a sense of familiarity and continuity and Popovich would have retained the option to play Green his normal minutes if Green snapped out of his slump at home.

The Spurs took an early 11-4 lead in game five but by the end of the first quarter the Thunder were up 26-21 and the Thunder stayed in front for most of the rest of the game. The net result of the lineup change for the Spurs turned out to be that their starting unit improved a little bit--hence the early lead and a similar run at the start of the third quarter--but their bench all but disappeared, with only Stephen Jackson (13 points) having a discernible positive impact. Starters Tony Parker (20 points on 5-14 field goal shooting) and Tim Duncan (18 points on 7-10 field goal shooting) are the only other Spurs who scored more than five points.

When the Thunder extended their lead to 101-88 with 5:16 remaining they seemed to have firm control over the game but the Spurs promptly made an 11-0 run in the next 3:22 before Westbrook hit a jumper and Harden drained a three pointer to seal the win. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 23 different players in this season's playoffs have attempted at least one potentially game tying or game winning shot with 24 or fewer seconds remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter or overtime. Durant has shot 3-4 in that situation, Glen Davis has shot 1-2 and the other 21 players have combined to shoot 0-29, including Ginobili's three point attempt with less than 10 seconds remaining in game five. What do those numbers mean? It is very difficult to score late in an NBA game when the opposing team knows how much time is left and what kind of shot you are most likely to take based on the game situation and matchups--but no definitive conclusions can be drawn about an individual's supposed clutch ability (or lack thereof) based on a small sample size of shots taken in this particular kind of extreme situation. It is also worth noting that, based on this definition of a clutch shot, the Harden three pointer that not only proved to be the game winner but may have ultimately helped propel the Thunder to the NBA Finals was not a clutch shot: Harden's basket came with 28.8 seconds left in regulation, 4.8 seconds outside of the arbitrarily defined clutch boundary. This is why I have repeatedly insisted that being a clutch player is more significant than making clutch shots and why I have consistently noted the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" not just in terms of defining clutch play but also in the larger realm of individual player evaluation; NBA basketball games consist of numerous simultaneous interactions that cannot be quantified as precisely as the discrete actions that take place in a baseball game.

I picked the Spurs to win this series but I also wrote, "The Thunder can certainly challenge the Spurs, though, and I expect this series to go the distance. I would be surprised but not shocked if the Thunder pull off the upset; I definitely expect the Spurs to win this series and then go on to capture the championship but the Thunder have to be respected as a legitimate championship contending team that is capable of beating the Spurs (and any other team) in a seven game series." The 1991 Chicago Bulls began their dynasty by eliminating two recent NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons (1989-90) and the L.A. Lakers (1987-88); if the Thunder defeat the Spurs and go on to win the championship they will have eliminated at least three recent former champions (a total that would climb to four if the Thunder defeat the 2008 champion Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals): the Dallas Mavericks (2011), the L.A. Lakers (2009-10) and the San Antonio Spurs (2007). Such a triumph by a Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio drafted and developed by the Thunder would be a welcome contrast to the way that many young stars have fled from the teams that drafted them instead of trying to build those teams into champions; actually, a triumph by the veteran Duncan-Ginobili-Parker trio drafted and developed by the Spurs would also be very good for the league and show the value of improving individually and collectively from within instead of seeking the supposedly easy way out.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 12:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David, this is Vednam,

If you recall the comments I made last year regarding the Spurs and my skepticism of their ability to win a championship, they still seem to apply this year.

The last two years, the Spurs have been able to run up impressive regular season records relying on big contributions from their role players while their big three have taken a back seat (due to age and declining skill). But as I pointed out last year, that doesn't cut it in the playoffs. Role players who can excel in the right system in pressure-free games against mediocre opposition frequently shrink in big games. To win a playoff series against an elite team, it almost always comes down to the team's superstars and their ability to produce. I was skeptical of the Spurs last year due to the decline of their big three. Sure enough, against Memphis last year, guys like Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair and Richard Jefferson disappeared. It was up to their stars to take over, but Manu Ginobili was hurt and Tim Duncan was far from what he used to be.

The same thing appears to be happening this year. Ginobili has been healthy, so the Spurs have gotten further. But in the last few games, many of the Spurs' role players have disappeared (Green, Neal, Bonner, Splitter, etc.). It has been up to their stars to step up and try to win games for them, but they haven't been up to the task. Ginobili was great in Game 5, but Parker was erratic and Duncan didn't show up until the final few minutes.

I'm not sure how much criticism Popovich deserves for making a change in his starting lineup. I think that Popovich is aware of the flaws of his team and knows whose minutes must be reduced against an elite opponent. If you remember last year, DeJuan Blair started for almost the entire regular season, but come playoff time Popovich inserted Antonio McDyess into the starting lineup. This year, Danny Green was fine in the regular season and in early rounds against teams the Spurs matched up well against. But Green was clearly not cutting it against OKC.

Popovich tries to limit the minutes of his big three when he can to save them for when he needs them. He's achieved this by having very flawed role players playing big minutes. But I think he's aware that you can't rely on role players as much in the playoffs against an elite team. That's when it comes down to the stars and you have to go with your guys.

Maybe you are right that he should have started Green but played him less rather than change the starting lineup. But I don't know how much that matters if the Spurs' stars can't match the Thunder's.

When people were prematurely talking about this being among the best Spurs team of the Duncan era, I didn't buy it. How could that be with Duncan not being half the player he was 5 years ago?

I just want to say again that role players don't go out and win the title for you. Your stars do. Popovich has done a masterful job squeezing regular season wins out of a roster filled with aging, declining stars and limited role players. They somehow compiled a great record with very inconsistent and reduced contributions from their stars. But against elite playoff competition, you can't hide the fact that Duncan no longer commands double teams.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 4:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

The Spurs were good enough to sweep the first two series and win the first two games against the Thunder so, regardless of the outcome of this series, it is overstating the case to declare that the Spurs simply cannot win a championship with this roster. The Spurs and the Thunder are the two best teams in the league but one of them obviously won't even make it to the Finals this year.

Even though the Thunder should be favored now because they can win the series at home, it would be unwise to discount the possibility that the Spurs can win one road game and then win game seven at home.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 4:39:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Avery Johnson might've had screwed up against GS, but you always bring up reg. season records, and Avery was brilliant in the reg. season with the mavs. Also, it's a #1 vs. #8 seed. The #1 seed should dominate regardless of lineups. They're the much better team. But, most importantly in that series, Dirk was downright awful. If he plays even remotely near average, the mavs win.

Vednam makes a lot of good pts. The thunder big 3 are much better than the spurs big 3. And the thunder are also a deep team. And I'd take perkins and ibaka over anyone on the spurs after parker/ginobili/duncan.

I try not to blame coaches for their moves because they know their teams and basketball in general a lot more than I do, and pop's one of the all-time greatest. Inserting ginobili into the starting lineup looked like a great change. The spurs didn't win, but you have to pick up your poison - get nothing early with green or get nothing when ginobili has to sit. Ginobili played 38 min. If he sits the first 5 min. of each half, and plays the final 19 min. of each half, that's 38 min. However, he'd be going 19 min. straight, and this isn't wise to do, especially with a player who's never played more than 31mpg during his career.

By starting ginobili, pop is then able to play ginobili as much as he can. If he brings him off of the bench, then ginobili will have to sit, then play, then sit again, then play some to finish each half, which would then be less than 38 min. If he chooses not to sit him the 2nd time, then ginobili tires a lot quicker and is less effective.

I still think the spurs can win, but doubtful. Sure, they had 2 sweeps in the first 2 rounds, but both those teams were cupcakes, and paul/griffin were banged up after playing an exhausting 7-game series with the grizz.

It will be impressive if the thunder win it all. The next question will be if they can retain harden/ibaka long term, especially since durant/westbrook already have max contracts.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 6:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

My point about Dall-G.S. in 2007 is that Dallas played well all season with Dampier as the starting center so there was no reason for Dallas to overreact and change the starting lineup for game one. Force G.S. to prove that they can deal with a 67 win team before you change the way that you have played all season long. Nelson was Johnson's mentor and I think that Nelson outpsyched Johnson (or Johnson outpsyched himself).

The Spurs have been very successful with Ginobili coming off of the bench so it seems odd to react to two road losses by changing the starting lineup. Role players tend to perform better at home so it seems like the Spurs should have started Green and seen how things played out. Of course, what we outsiders don't know is if Green has some kind of nagging injury that does not appear on the injury report but is affecting his performance and/or if there is some other factor/issue going on that is not public knowledge. All I am saying is that based on what I see and what I know it seems odd for the number one team in the league to make such a big lineup change before the most important game of the season. Now game six is obviously the most important game and it will be interesting to see how Popovich handles his rotation.

Vednam did make some valid points but this series went according to form--with each team winning both games at home--until the Spurs changed their starting lineup and lost game five. I am unwilling at this point to say that one close home loss after changing their starting lineup somehow "proves" that the Spurs are incapable of winning the championship; they can still win this series and go on to win the championship but even if they don't win the series or the championship I hardly think that this proves that they cannot win a title with their present roster. Vednam has been writing off the Spurs for quite some time now but I am not yet willing to do so.

There is something wrong with your math; playing 38 out of 48 minutes represents an increase for Ginobili no matter how the minutes are distributed and I don't think that it would have done much harm to play Green for the first five minutes of the game.

I agree with you that coaches in general--and Popovich in particular--know their teams better than outsiders do but part of my job here is to offer my honest, informed opinion. I may be wrong about this particular move (though I still think that I am right) but I am not taking a gratuitous shot at Popovich. Popovich is a great coach (and Johnson is a good coach, for that matter) but even great coaches can make mistakes or at least make moves that seem questionable.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 7:42:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I understand what you're saying and coming from about everything here.

While the #1 team in the reg. season should never be written off, I do understand if people are weary of the spurs being able to seriously contend, though this line of thinking maybe wrong, and is certainly wrong after the spurs playoff run so far: 1) Last year they were #1 in the reg. season, and then lost to an #8 seed without their best player, and 2) The spurs have no superstars whatsoever, and only 1 player who was an AS, though ginobili and duncan are near AS.

Even though the spurs had 2 cupcakes before the thunder, they proved after the first 2 rounds, that they are for real, with dominating performances, and after the first 2 games of this series. Weird how this series has had so many blowouts. The 2012 spurs look better than the 2011 mavs.

My math of ginobili's minutes is correct, but I may have not worded it in the best way.

All I'm saying about ginobili is that he could've played 38 min. coming off the bench, but that then requires him to play 19 straight min. without any rest in each half. This isn't wise to do. If Pop decides to bring him off the bench, but then has to rest him for a few min. in the 2nd and 4th quarters so he doesn't tire himself out before the end of each half, then he can't really play him 38 min. Maybe 33-35 min., but those 3-5 fewer min. without ginobili could be the difference in the game. If it was me, I'd rather have my best players on the floor for as many minutes as possible, granted that they get a little rest time, if possible.

Sure, it was a big change, but when you're blown out 2 games in a row, even while still having homecourt advantage, change might be needed. The role players still have to make shots and play some defense.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 7:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Any idea that the Spurs are not contenders is clearly wrong. The Spurs are set to play in game six of the WCF.

There are other ways to divide up 38 minutes beside two 19 minute stretches; a player who plays 38 of 48 minutes is not going to get much rest, though with the extra TV timeouts during the playoffs that does not matter as much as it would during the regular season.

The Spurs won both games at home with their original starting lineup so regardless of what happened in OKC it seems a bit desperate to change the starting lineup for game five--but maybe Popovich knows something about his team that the rest of us do not know. Whether or not the move makes sense theoretically--and I still don't like it--the fact is that it did not work: the Spurs lost at home and thus lost home court advantage.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 11:04:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Yes, saying that the spurs aren't contenders at this pt. is nonsense. But, before the playoffs started, that's another matter. Having them around 6th or 7th favorites wouldn't be so far fetched given how they performed last year while being the #1 seed as well. Just saying I understand how some people would be very weary of saying that the spurs are serious contenders before the playoffs started, and with good reason.

Well, how much is green going to play to start each half? Why would pop just play him 2 min.? I find that 5 min. would be the minimum for starters to play. I rarely see any starter not play 5 min. to start a half, unless it's because of foul trouble.

And where are these extra TV timeouts coming from? They have an under 6 and under 3 min. timeouts in 1st/3rd quarters, and under 9/6/3 min. timeouts in 2nd/4th quarters. Where did they add extra timeouts? But, I understand the breaks in action giving players more rest, but many players are still wearing down in 4th quarters.

I understand your reservations with ginobili starting. But, how do we know that the spurs would win with ginobili coming off the bench? Maybe the spurs came a lot closer to winning with ginobili playing higher minutes and starting. I know it was a home game, and role players tend to play better at home. But, ginobili coming off the bench in games 3/4 resulted in thunder beatdowns That certainly didn't work either. I tend to trust the coach, especially Pop, and the spurs had big mental lapses in game 5. If anything, it seemed that ginobili starting was a brilliant move.

 
At Tuesday, June 05, 2012 11:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Watch a regular season game, a game on NBA TV and a playoff game carefully and you will notice that there are more (and longer) stoppages of play during playoff games. An NBA regulation game officially lasts 48 minutes but it can last anywhere from two hours and 15 minutes to 2 hours and 45 minutes; a regular season game on NBA TV may be over in 2:15 but a playoff game will rarely be over in less than 2:30-2:40. Halftime is also longer during nationally televised games. It is well documented that Phil Jackson and other coaches take this into consideration when they increase the minutes of their key players during the playoffs.

You are entitled to your opinion but it seems nonsensical to me to say that the number one seed in the West--a team whose core players have won three titles together--is not a contender. You are way, way too obsessed with the Spurs' first round loss last year. Were the 1982 Lakers not a contender because the 1981 Lakers lost in the first round?

Saying that starting Ginobili was a "brilliant move" is like saying the operation was a success but the patient died. It was a desperate move and it ultimately did not work. I think that it was the wrong decision, you apparently think that it was the right decision. We will never know what would have happened otherwise but the reality is that the Spurs won two home games in this series with their regular lineup and all that they had to do to win this series was win their home games; they did not have to win in OKC. If starting Ginobili is so "brilliant" then Popovich should have done it in game three or after halftime of game three or certainly by game four.

 
At Wednesday, June 06, 2012 9:40:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

I didn't say the spurs weren't a contender. I said that it makes sense to me if people are weary of the spurs being a contender before the playoffs, mainly from what happened last year. The spurs have no superstars, and their core 3 are old, and older than last year. If nba history tells us anything, you need that one superstar to carry you in the playoffs.

You often tell your readers that there's 5-7 franchise or elite players in the nba at any given time which could lead a team to a title. You have never mentioned any of the spurs' players as being one of the franchise/elite players.

I didn't say that starting ginobili was a success, because it wasn't. I said it was brilliant, which I think it was, but it could still lead to failure, which it did. Each of our opinions on the matter is just as valid, and it's all speculation at this pt. I'll side with Pop on this one. If ginobili doesn't start, the spurs very well could've gotten blown out again, which they almost did anyway.

 
At Wednesday, June 06, 2012 11:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

This is Vedam.


I will admit that I did not expect the Spurs to be contenders this season. I was surprised by their success. But while you are right that they technically have to be considered contenders considering what ended up happening this season, I still think my reasons for being skeptical of their ability to actually win the championship are valid.


With a few exceptions, championships are won teams which are led by an MVP caliber player. These Spurs have nobody close to that. The only recent counterexample to that has been the 2004 Pistons. But they had a great defense, which the Spurs lack.

In the playoffs, role players will often shrink under the pressure and it is up to the stars to decide things. My skepticism of the Spurs stems from the fact that their big three (in particular, Duncan) are not as good as they used to be. It is impressive that Popovich has managed to compile great regular reason records while playing his stars fewer minutes than ever. But that was not going to cut it in the playoffs. Come playoff time, he'd have to rely on his stars a lot more. I had serious doubts about their ability to deliver, since their regular reason performances indicated that they had declined and/or were only capable of playing like superstars for limited stretches.

The Spurs might win Game 6. But it will take great performances from their stars. I don't know if Ginobili can have another game like he had in Game 5. Tony Parker seems to have been bothered by Sefolosha and hasn't been as effective since the Thunder made that switch. Duncan just seems to be running on an empty tank.

Perhaps their stars will surprise me and deliver. But I think that's what they will need for a win. Going on the road in an elimination game against an elite team, I doubt enough of their role players will have exceptional games to fill the void.

 
At Wednesday, June 06, 2012 3:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

While it is true that the Spurs do not have one of the 5-7 players who I consider to be franchise players (some people put Tony Parker in that category, though I do not), the Spurs have a top five pg (Parker) and two former All-Stars who can play at an All-Star level at key times (Duncan, Ginobili) plus a great coach and a deep bench. Those factors are enough to make them a legit contender and that is why I ranked them as a top three team in the West prior to the season. As the season progressed and they moved to the top of the conference while the Thunder--my preseason number one pick in the West--stumbled a bit I came to believe that the Spurs were the best team in the league. They still can win game six, take this series and win the title, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

We will have to agree to disagree about Popovich's move being "brilliant." It was desperate, it may have been necessary, it may have even been correct (though I still don't think so) but I don't think that it was "brilliant" either in concept or execution.

 
At Wednesday, June 06, 2012 3:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Welcome back. Your well thought out, interesting comments always add something of value to the discussion, even though I disagree with your take on the Spurs.

If the Spurs lose a tightly contested six or seven game series to the eventual NBA champions does that prove you correct that the Spurs are not legit contenders? I understand the points that you are trying to make but I think that the Spurs have already advanced far enough to disprove your thesis. Only one team can win the title each year, so losing to a legit contender does not invalidate one's own contender status. A good case could be made that this year the WCF is the de facto NBA Finals. You have consistently been saying that the Spurs are far away from being contenders and I think that the Spurs have already refuted that notion whether or not they win tonight.

 
At Thursday, June 07, 2012 12:15:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Pop starting Ginobili was a concession that his team was in trouble with Sefalosha switching on Parker. It worked out early on but OKC pulled it out in the end.

In Game 6 Parker was lights out against Sefalosha early on but again, OKC weathered the storm.

Regardless of any adjustments or coaching wizardry, the Thunder have a younger and more athletic nucleus who turned out to be poised enough to beat a very good Spurs team. Not sure that the Spur's window has closed yet, but OKC looks very scary, assuming they can solve the Harden/Ibaka contract issue looming this offseason.

 

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