June 8, 2012
It was just a week ago that the San Antonio Spurs were on top of the basketball world. The team won their final ten regular season games and followed that up with ten more victories in a row to start the postseason. Their twenty game unbeaten run spanned more than seven calendar weeks and they sat six victories from the fifth NBA championship in franchise history. Their experience and veteran savvy seemed poised to carry the day against the exuberant, young and raw Oklahoma City Thunder.
In the span of one week, seven days, the Spurs’ dream season turned into a nightmare. With the sudden change of fortune, San Antonio has now gone five years without a title, the longest stretch in the Tim Duncan era. One also has to wonder what the future may hold for an aging Spurs lineup, who after posting the league’s best scoring average in the regular season, were unable to keep up once the Western Conference Finals shifted from San Antonio to Oklahoma City for Game Three.
The Thunder won their fourth consecutive game to claim the series, four games to two, with a 107-99 victory over San Antonio. With the win, the Thunder move on to the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise was still the Seattle Supersonics back in 1996. The stunning reversal of fortune marks the first time since the Utah Jazz made the second of back to back NBA Finals appearances in 1998 that the Western Conference will be represented by a team other than the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs. That trio combined for ten NBA titles in that span: five by Los Angeles, four by San Antonio and one by Dallas.
Game Six: A Tale of Two Halves
With their backs against the proverbial wall, San Antonio came out swinging. Tony Parker, who had struggled in the three previous losses, was on fire. He had a hand in the first twelve San Antonio baskets, scoring seven of them himself and assisting on the other five. Gregg Popovich continued to go with a shortened bench, with Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal the only players seeing more than a handful of minutes.
San Antonio roared out to a fourteen point advantage after the first quarter and their lead ballooned to as many as eighteen in the second quarter. Jackson was hot off the bench, hitting four first half three pointers to bolster the Spurs. San Antonio hit a scorching 60 percent from three point range in the first half (9 of 15) and were up eighteen in the closing seconds of the half. Kevin Durant’s three point basket with 0.4 seconds left before halftime trimmed San Antonio’s lead to 63-48 at the break. Oklahoma City would use that basket to change the momentum of the game.
After trailing by fifteen at the break, the Thunder outscored San Antonio by 23 in the second half, 59-36. They opened the third quarter on an 11-2 run; after Serge Ibaka’s dunk, the lead was sliced to 65-59. San Antonio would extend the lead to nine but was sufficiently rattled. Kevin Durant’s three point bucket with 1:39 to play in the quarter capped a 31-14 run and gave Oklahoma City a 79-77 advantage. The Spurs would rally to score four of the final five points of the frame to regain a one point edge heading to the fourth, but it was clear that the momentum had shifted and the Spurs were drained.
In the fourth quarter, Durant, Russell Westbrook and company took over. San Antonio scored just 18 points in the final stanza and never led after James Harden’s driving layup with 9:32 to play gave the Thunder an 85-84 lead. In a ten second span in the final minute with San Antonio down four, Kendrick Perkins blocked a Duncan layup, which was followed by misses from three point range by both Jackson and Parker. It was the lone miss in seven attempts from three point land by Jackson, who finished with 23 points off the bench. In the blink of an eye, it was all over for San Antonio, which has yet to win an NBA title in a season that ends in an even year.
Duncan had one more epic performance in the tank, scoring 26 points and pulling down 14 rebounds but Manu Ginobili failed to step up. After his huge performance in Game Five, it seemed Ginobili fired all the bullets from his gun in that defeat. He was just 4 of 12 from the floor, 2 of 8 from three point range, and finished with 10 points. Parker went flat after his hot first half: after posting 21 points and 10 assists in the first half, he scored only eight points and had two assists in the second half. He was 12 of 27 from the floor; Duncan and Parker combined for 23 of San Antonio’s 37 field goals.
What’s Next for the Spurs?
Clearly, the window for the dynamic trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili is closing, if it hasn’t shut completely at this stage of the game. Duncan is 36 with 15 seasons and 1,111 regular season games plus an additional 190 postseason games on the odometer. Ginobili turns 35 in July and while he hasn’t been in the league as long as Duncan, his legs are feeling the toll of long postseason runs in the playoffs. Parker is the youngest of the trio by far at 30, but he showed flaws in his game in the conference finals when he was outplayed by Westbrook.
San Antonio needs to work on developing capable players to step in and take the load off the talented trio, should all three return next season. They also need to find quality depth; Boris Diaw starting in an elimination game is not something that a successful team wants to see. Diaw, who was released from the league worst Bobcats earlier this season, played 25 minutes in Game Six, finishing with five rebounds, two assists and two steals while missing his only shot from the floor.
Kawhi Leonard may eventually pan out to be a solid pro, but he was overmatched in recent games against the length and speed of the Thunder. Tiago Splitter was capable of playing defense, but his offensive game needs substantial work to be successful. Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair are young and need experience to become substantial threats. Daniel Green’s numbers improved from his time in Cleveland during the regular season, then did next to nothing in the playoffs for San Antonio.
Matt Bonner is a three point shooting specialist which is a luxury that teams with depth can afford. San Antonio is lacking in depth and may need the roster spot to add some more effective players. At 34, Jackson is nearing the end of his career and commands a salary of over $9 million per season. Patrick Mills and Cory Joseph will have to show that they can play at the NBA level in order to add something off the bench for the Spurs.
Popovich is arguably one of, if not the best, coaches in the NBA. He has the basketball IQ to make substitutions and alterations to the starting lineup to best create and exploit mismatches. He is on pace to become the second coach to win 1,000 games with the same team, a group that currently features former Utah coach Jerry Sloan. He’s the longest tenured coach with the same team in the league currently and has the backing of General Manager R.C. Buford and owner Peter Holt.
The bell tolled for the Spurs sooner than the team would have liked. Whether it signifies merely the end of a season or something far gloomier such as the end of an era remains to be seen. It will be an interesting offseason for San Antonio as they make decisions that will affect the franchise in both the short and long term futures.