HoopsHabit – How The San Antonio Spurs Let The 2013 NBA Finals Slip Away

No one can question that the Miami Heat were the better team in Game 7. But here’s my HoopsHabit article on why the San Antonio Spurs let this series slip away in Game 6

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HoopsHabit – Are The San Antonio Spurs A Dynasty In The Making?

With their fifth NBA Finals appearance since drafting Tim Duncan, the question has to be asked: are the San Antonio Spurs a dynasty? Here’s my HoopsHabit article on what a fifth NBA title would do for the the legacies of Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in general.

David Stern Sanctions On San Antonio: Justified Or Too Much?

Soon after Gregg Popovich announced he’d be resting his team’s stars for tonight’s game against Miami and sending them home on an airplane to prepare for San Antonio’s next contest, David Stern said the Spurs would be facing “substantial sanctions” for these actions. Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were all sent home early and given a day to rest for a primetime game against Miami which was televised nationally on TNT. And since Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson are both currently injured, that meant San Antonio was playing without its best six players. Stern apologized to NBA fans, saying this decision was “unacceptable.” In his statement, it seemed that Stern was apologizing for a lack of competitive spirit in what should have been a matchup between two of the league’s best teams.

Let’s be clear, though. David Stern doesn’t give a damn about how competitive a game is between two contenders in November. What he does give a damn about, though, is how competitive a game is between two contenders on national television. Had this game not been televised, these kind of sanctions might not be happening. However, considering how often Popovich rests his starters and the fact that this would have been a great primetime matchup (and possible NBA Finals preview), it’s no wonder Stern is taking action.

Whether or not you agree with Popovich’s right to rest his starters or David Stern’s financial motivations is irrelevant. The fact is, Stern is probably in the right here. No matter what his motivation is, there are plenty of reasons why Pop can’t be pulling this kind of stuff in November. It doesn’t matter that the Spurs’ second string made it a game; what matters is TNT probably didn’t pull in the ratings it would have if Duncan, Ginobili and Parker had been on the floor. And since this game lost a lot of its luster with the news that the Spurs’ starters wouldn’t be taking the floor, a lot of people missed out on a good game. And in a league centered on competition and primetime matchups, sitting stars is frowned upon, but sending them home before the game to prepare for the next one? That’s just unacceptable.

Popovich is a terrific coach. But his decision to rest starters so often is not good for the league.

Can you imagine a league where stars are consistently given the night off and aren’t even in the arena when their teammates are playing? That’s a league nobody would take seriously. These guys are paid millions of dollars a year to play a game. People pay a lot of money to see their favorite players live. If they’re old and aching, that’s fine. But there’s no excuse for these guys to be treated like prima donnas and not even show up to the game. And that’s the kind of precedent that would be established if Pop were allowed to continue to rest his starters like this.

Popovich is a tremendous coach and clearly knows how to manage his players in preparation for the postseason; his coaching San Antonio’s reserves to a near victory over the defending champions on the road is proof of that. But every team has older guys on their roster. You can complain all you want about Stern’s hypocrisy in allowing teams to tank for draft picks but coming down hard on this kind of stuff, but the fact is, there’s a reason the NBA’s profits have increased exponentially during his tenure as commissioner. The man knows how to turn a profit and whether you’re a businessman or not, resting starters as consistently as Pop does is not good for the NBA from a financial perspective. And no matter what Stern’s motivation is, as basketball fans, shouldn’t we be siding with him anyway? Yeah it’s hard to argue with Pop’s coaching decisions considering his immense success in the league, but how can we call ourselves true fans of the sport if we don’t support actions to enforce better competition? You can’t tell me Spurs fans were excited to hear their favorite players wouldn’t be suiting up (or even in the arena) for a nationally televised game against another title contender, regardless of whether or not the game turned out to be a good one. Because even if fans do see the benefit of resting the older guys, that kind of constant disappointment for Spurs fans (and anyone who enjoys watching good basketball games) needs to be put to an end. It’s only one game and Stern may be motivated by financial reasons, but we should be united with him in a demand for the spirit of competition to shine through.

You can dislike him all you want, but David Stern is right. Resting starters is not good for the NBA.

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Thunder Erase 18-Point Deficit, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling behind by 18 points in the first half of a pivotal Game 6 at home, it looked like Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to head back to San Antonio for a next-to-impossible elimination Game 7. Instead, they rebounded with a monumental second half to win their fourth straight and win the Western Conference Finals in six games over the mighty Spurs. Oklahoma City will take on the winner of Boston and Miami in the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1996 back when they were the Seattle Supersonics. Durant led OKC to a 107-99 victory with 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as the Thunder outscored San Antonio 59-36 in the second half.

It certainly didn’t look like things would play out well for the Thunder in the first half, though. After struggling for three straight games with Thabo Sefolosha shutting him down, Tony Parker made a point of starting off on a strong note. Parker single-handedly gave his team a big lead early on, dropping 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Parker had 21 points and 10 assists by halftime. And although he only scored 12 points the rest of the way, his first prolific performance in the first quarter supplied San Antonio with a 14-point lead after one and was the exact spark they needed to get the game started on a good note. Stephen Jackson and Tim Duncan were also terrific in the first half; Jackson knocked down all four of his 3-pointers (in fact, Jackson finished with 23 points and made his first six 3-point attempts) while Duncan was a much bigger force in the paint with 12 points at the half. However, Kevin Durant hit a monumental and impossible 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Spurs’ advantage to 63-48 and give his team a little bit of hope of a comeback in the second half. Which is exactly what they did.

Kevin Durant willed his team to victory once again, leading the Thunder in their comeback from an 18-point deficit.

As soon as the ball was inbounded at the start of the third quarter, the Thunder showed why they’ve been undefeated at home in the postseason so far. Oklahoma City went on an 11-2 run to start the third and it looked like a completely different game. OKC’s defense, which had been at the mercy of Tony Parker and superior 3-point shooting (9-of-15) in the first half, suddenly made its presence known again as the Spurs’ perimeter shooters started to cool down. Russell Westbrook, how had been struggling with his shot for the entire Western Conference Finals, picked a great night to elevate his game, dropping 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists. Durant and Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the third, combining for 22 of the Thunder’s 32 points in the period as they cut the Spurs’ lead to just one heading into the fourth quarter.

James Harden had struggled heading into the game’s final period, but he once again gave the Thunder a huge lift in the fourth by making his free throws and knocking down another killer 3-pointer to put his team up six with three minutes to go as the Spurs were threatening. Harden had 16 off the bench, but Derek Fisher’s performance was even more key for the reserves, as his nine points came at critical moments that kept momentum on OKC’s side and helped him live up to his title as a true “Spur-killer.” Serge Ibaka’s 10 points and Sefolosha’s nine were also nice additions that helped this young and talented team advance to the NBA Finals.

James Harden struggled early on but once again cashed in a solid fourth quarter performance to help OKC finish the series off.

For the Spurs, nobody really got going other than Parker, Jackson and Duncan. Parker had 29, Duncan had 25 and Jackson had 23, but other than Manu Ginobili, no one scored more than seven. The Spurs’ depth all but disappeared once again as no one other than Jackson had any success with their shot. Kawhi Leonard put up a measly five points while Gary Neal could only manage seven. Daniel Green only played four minutes and joined Boris Diaw with a goose egg in the scoring column. It also didn’t help that Gregg Popovich shortened up his bench and it came back to haunt them as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were visibly gassed in the second half. Without their legs, San Antonio’s incredible 3-point shooting in the first half completely disappeared and the Spurs went from 9-of-15 to 11-of-26 by the game’s end. The Spurs missed shots, committed too many turnovers and racked up fouls on illegal screens to forfeit any and all momentum. Parker had a few late layups to allow the Spurs to hang around, but eventually the Thunder finished them off with free throws and the Western Conference Finals ended in six.

After facing a 2-0 series deficit, the Thunder could have rolled over and let their inexperience take over and the veteran Spurs would have advanced to yet another NBA Finals appearance. But Kevin Durant was spectacular, Westbrook and Harden added in key performances here and there and the rest of the Thunder emerged as quality role players and defenders on a San Antonio side that specialized in overwhelming opponents with depth and scoring. Ever since Scott Brooks made the adjustment of switching Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker, the Thunder did not lose. And although Parker lit up OKC in Game 6, the Thunder’s defense stepped up big in the second half and held their tough opponent to just 18 points in the third and fourth quarters. Now the Thunder will have the chance to play for an NBA title against the winner of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. OKC has now beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs on their path to the Finals, eliminating all three teams that have come out of the West for the last 13 years. Either way, OKC should be an overwhelming favorite to win it all; the Celtics, while resilient, experienced and well-coached, cannot compete with the Thunder’s youth and experience, while the Heat can’t perform in the fourth quarter or overcome how well this athletic and energetic team is playing right now. The Celtics are playing their best ball right now and are still having problems with a Heat team that isn’t. And with the way Durant has played lately, along with Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and a bunch of constantly improving role players, the Thunder have a clear advantage of whoever they face in the Finals.

The Thunder aren’t satisfied to just make it to the NBA Finals. They want to win it.

Thunder Grab Control, Take Game 5 In San Antonio

The home team has dominated in the Western Conference Finals this year, leaving a lot of doubt as to whether or not the Oklahoma City Thunder had any chance of advancing with two of the series’ final three games in San Antonio. After Kevin Durant and James Harden willed their team to victory on the road in a 106-103 win in Game 5, that might be all but assured.

Durant led Oklahoma City with 27 points, Harden chipped in 20 off the bench and the Thunder withstood a furious rally from Manu Ginobili and the Spurs to take a 3-2 lead with the series shifting back to OKC for an elimination Game 6. The Thunder have now won three straight and will look to close out San Antonio at home, where they are 6-0 in the postseason so far. Ginobil led the Spurs with 34 points, seven assists and six rebounds and he and Tony Parker went on a tear in the second half, but the Thunder will able to cling to a narrow lead after a 13-point advantage dwindled to just two with 50 seconds to play. Parker had 20 but was once again corralled all night by Thabo Sefolosha’s tremendous defense. However, Ginobili’s insertion into the starting lineup for Daniel Green almost proved to be deadly for the Thunder, as the Spurs’ sixth man was nearly unstoppable all night, drilling five 3-pointers and willing his team back into the game in the third and fourth quarters.

Manu Ginobili was masterful, but it wasn’t enough for the Spurs.

Despite foul trouble for Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and James Harden early on, the Thunder build up a 14-point lead in the first half. Daequan Cook had valuable minutes off the bench with Sefolosha and Harden in foul trouble, knocking down all three of his shots to score eight points in just four minutes of play. However, Ginobili and company stormed back, by minimizing their turnovers during a critical stretch to cut it to eight right before halftime. San Antonio continued their run into the third quarter, taking advantage of sloppy offense and numerous turnovers from the Thunder to take a four-point lead after Ginobili hit back-to-back threes. Unfortunately for San Antonio, just like in Game 4’s masterful performance, Kevin Durant saved his best for the second half, once again warming up in the third and taking control to put his team further ahead. Durant had only five points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, but helped his team weather the storm and eventually a 15-4 run overcame a stretch where Ginobili scored 13 of San Antonio’s 15 points. Good defense and a solid shooting stretch from Russell Westbrook (including this mammoth alley-oop) characterized the critical third quarter run, which was capped off by a Durant buzzer-beater that extended OKC’s lead to nine heading into the fourth quarter.

Now the Thunder had built up a nine point lead on the road heading into the fourth before; in Game 1, Oklahoma City was in the exact same situation before allowing Parker and the Spurs to storm back and steal the series opener. And although San Antonio threatened to do the same in Game 5, Harden’s brilliant fourth quarter performance prevented a full on collapse and gave the Thunder the pivotal victory on the road. Harden scored 12 of his 20 points in the fourth, draining three 3-pointers. These included a four-point play that extended the Thunder’s lead to 13 with five minutes to play and the shot of the game, a long-range bomb and dagger three that was the definition of clutch, putting the Thunder up five with 28 seconds to play and effectively sealing the win. But Westbrook turnovers and OKC’s sometimes annoying tendency to not put the ball in the hands of the NBA’s leading scorer resurfaced as the Spurs made a last-ditch effort to comeback. Westbrook had 23 points, 12 assists and big bucket down the stretch to give OKC a four-point advantage when the Spurs looked like they were about to take over, but he also had six turnovers and didn’t get the ball to Durant down the stretch. Some of the blame should lie with Scott Brooks, but the Thunder will need to do a better job of getting the ball to their clutch closer in tight games in the future if they want to advance and win an NBA championship.

Westbrook has struggled with poor shooting and turnovers so far. Will it matter in Game 6?

After Harden’s critical 3-pointer, Ginobili was able to score a quick layup before the Spurs set up a half court press. Another coaching error was committed by Brooks, who should have called a timeout to draw up an inbounds play. Instead, Durant was trapped and threw the ball to Sefolosha, who lost it out of bounds because of great pressure from Kawhi Leonard, giving the Spurs a chance to hit a 3-pointer with 15 seconds to go. Unfortunately for San Antonio, Ginobili couldn’t hit the one that mattered and Durant iced the game with two free throws before Stephen Jackson knocked down a last-second three that didn’t matter.

With Game 6 in Oklahoma City, the Spurs playoff hopes are steadily dwindling. The Thunder have now won three straight and are undefeated at home in the playoffs this year. Switching Sefolosha onto Parker has made a huge difference in the series and the Thunder’s role players have learned how to step up and contribute. In fact, the depth that was one of the Spurs’ greatest assets has begun to fade as Oklahoma City’s bench outscored San Antonio’s 40-22. Without Parker creating havoc in the lane and the Spurs’ bench knocking down threes, Gregg Popovich has had to rely fully on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to carry the load. Ginobili and Duncan (18 points and 12 rebounds) had great games last night, but it wasn’t enough to overcome OKC’s balanced play combined with great games from their big three of Durant, Harden and Westbrook. Now the Spurs face elimination in a hostile road environment, and history isn’t on their side. The last time the Spurs went up 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals, they lost four straight to fall to the Los Angeles Lakers in six. With a youthful and championship-hungry team led by such a high-caliber superstar in Kevin Durant standing in the way, the aging Spurs have little chance now. The Thunder need to finish them off at home (because they certainly don’t want to mess around and let this go to a Game 7 in San Antonio), but I think they will understand the gravity of winning Game 6 at home and my prediction that OKC would advance in six games is looking like it’ll be right on the money.

Since Kevin Durant wasn’t getting looks, James Harden stepped up as OKC’s clutch player for the night, giving them control of the series.

Kevin Durant Powers OKC Past San Antonio In Game 4

Thanks to a phenomenal performance from Oklahoma City’s big men and a prolific second half from Kevin Durant, the Thunder finished their defense of their home court and evened up the Western Conference Finals. With the series tied at 2-2, the Spurs will have to defend their home court and try to snatch momentum back with a pivotal Game 5 on the line.

By halftime, the Thunder had built up a 12-point lead because of elevated play from their frontcourt. Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison were 15-for-17 in the first half and scored 33 of OKC’s 55 points. Ibaka’s performance was key and showed how deadly Oklahoma City can be when he plays at such a high level, finishing with 26 points on a ridiculous 11-of-11 shooting night. Perkins finished with 15 points and went 7-of-9 from the floor and Nick Collison added eight off the bench. But what was even most impressive about the Thunder’s first half lead was how little Kevin Durant had done up until that point: 1-for-3 from the field and just eight points in the first half. But after exploding for 28 points in the second half (18 of which came in the last seven minutes of the game), it seems he was just warming up for something special. The Thunder’s 15-point lead was cut to just four with less than seven minutes to play, but the Durantula kept his team afloat by scoring 16 straight points for the Thunder to give OKC a nine-point lead with less than two minutes left in the game.

Kevin Durant had a Jordanesque performance in Game 3, singlehandedly lifting his team past the Spurs in the fourth.

Oklahoma City should be feeling pretty good about themselves at this point. They tied the series up and defended home court; they got over the hump and proved that they can beat this high-powered offensive team; Kevin Durant is coming off a Jordanesque performance; Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka were truly impressive on the offensive end; but most important of all, they won in convincing fashion despite the fact that Russell Westbrook and James Harden had meager performances. Westbrook had only seven points and five assists while Harden finished with 11 off the bench. The fact that the Thunder are winning without Westbrook taking a ton of shots should show OKC how important it is for Durant to take the majority of the shots, especially when their role players play to well. All of this should build confidence for a critical Game 5 in San Antonio. They have all the momentum after defending their home court and not collapsing under the pressure of a 2-0 deficit supplied by this offensive juggernaut known as the Spurs. They’ve proved to the world and to themselves that Gregg Popovich’s high-flying team is vulnerable and can be beaten. The question now is whether or not they can do what no one has been able to do so far in this series by winning on the road.

The Western Conference Finals looked dire for the Thunder after the Spurs won Games 1 and 2 at home. Now the series is a best-of-three where San Antonio has home court advantage for two games. But the Thunder come into Game 5 with the knowledge that they can win if their role players and big men play at a high level, they can win the series. The Spurs have a lot of adjustments to make after Game 4. They were out-rebounded 41-31. They got 11 points out of Stephen Jackson off the bench, but Manu Ginobili only took seven shots. And most important of all, Tony Parker had only 12 points and four assists with Thabo Sefolosha once again playing phenomenal defense on him. So while it was reassuring to see Tim Duncan lead the Spurs with 21 points while Kawhi Leonard picked up his play and added 17, the Spurs need to find a way to handle the Thunder defensively. San Antonio shot 50 percent from the field, but they gave up 56 percent shooting to the Thunder. This series still remains a pick ’em, but something tells me the aging Spurs won’t have enough to overcome Oklahoma City’s youth and enthusiasm with momentum on their side, which is why I’m still standing by my prediction that the Thunder will advance in six games.

Serge Ibaka had a huge game for the Thunder. Can OKC’s role players step up again for Game 5?