Poised Thunder Beat Spurs in Pivotal Game FiveThe 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM