NBA: Don't forget the Alamo ... or the Thunder
By GAVIN SCHALL
College Contributor Network
Tim Duncan caught the ball high while being hounded by Reggie Jackson, and just avoided having it swatted away by Russell Westbrook. The ageless behemoth took one dribble towards the center of the paint, his momentum already shifting in the opposite direction.
Duncan, as he has done hundreds of times before, spun counterclockwise and released a high arcing fadeaway off his back leg over both Jackson and Westbrook. (Why were two guards responsible for shutting down the best big man of the last 20 years on the most pivotal possession of Oklahoma City's season? Scott Brooks!). The ball hit off front rim then the backboard before finishing its inevitable descent to the bottom of the net.
What else for the guy who has put together one of the most extraordinary careers in NBA history leaning on that feathery touch?
That shot put the San Antonio Spurs up 110-107 with 19 seconds left in game six of the 2014 Western Conference Finals. A missed three by Kevin Durant wrapped up the series. San Antonio would go on to dominate Miami in the NBA Finals in what amounted to a five game clinic on ball movement, range shooting and the merits of team basketball.
Oklahoma City, despite another playoff run marred by injury (Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of the series with a calf injury) and having to live in a world where they traded one of the five best players in basketball at age 23 for pennies on the dollar, still had the brightest future of any team in the association.
Fast forward a season and you have another historically strong Western Conference. Golden State has spent the majority of the year boasting the league's best scoring margin since the 1996 Chicago Bulls, Memphis with the addition of Jeff Green looks stronger than ever, and Houston and Los Angeles led by their all-NBA guards remain viable threats.
The Spurs and Thunder decided to "run it back" this off-season with the biggest off-season addition between the two teams being the immortal Anthony Morrow. The lack of new blood looked to be a mistake for the majority of the season.
For Oklahoma City in particular it's been the season from hell. Durant required surgery for a Jones fracture in his big toe, that left the Thunder without their best player for the first four weeks of the season. Westbrook after an electric opening night went down with a fracture in his right hand and missed the first three.
All of the Thunder's weaknesses, normally rendered meaningless by the overwhelming talent of Durant and Westbrook, became readily apparent in the team's 3-12 start.
Brooks didn't suddenly develop an aptitude for coaching sophisticated offense and it was clearer than ever that pending further development from Steven Adams, Oklahoma City really did get nothing for Harden.
Behind Ibaka the Zombie Sonics still pieced together a league average defense, but the offense was cringe worthy and there was talk of the Thunder falling out of the playoff race.
Fortunately for Sam Presti and Co., New Orleans didn't have the depth or coaching to take advantage and Phoenix had a painful tendency to lose games in increasingly heartbreaking ways.
Killer PHX Ls: -OT to SAC after Boogie fouled out -Blake's banked 3 -Middleton's shot -Double OT to OKC -Harden's buzzer beater -Tonight- Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) February 3, 2015
With both of their stars back by early December, Brooks' inability to put together a cohesive game plan and tell Kendrick Perkins to take a hike became irrelevant again as the Thunder ripped off seven straight wins.
The Based God's curse clearly wasn't resolved as Durant, in the midst of ripping Draymond Green's DPOY candidacy to shreds with 30 points in the first half of a mid-December matchup, sprained an ankle.
Durant came back and was inconsistent before adding to his litany of foot problems with a bruised toe and has missed the Thunder's last 12 games.
Fortunately for Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook has slowly turned into the league's most dominant force. Here are Westbrook's numbers pre and post all-star break:
Westbrook Pre All-Star: 25.8 PPG, 7.6 AST, 6.3 REB, 3.7 TO, 2.2 SPG
Westbrook Post All-Star: 33.6 PPG, 10.3 AST, 10.1 RPG, 6.7 TO, 2.6 SPG
Describing just how overwhelming Westbrook has been surpasses the bounds of hyperbole. He became the second player in league history to boast those averages over a 10 game stretch along with a certain high flier from North Carolina named Michael Jeffery Jordan.
He also became the first player since Jordan to string together four straight triple doubles. He also resembles Jordan in his ability to utilize his superior strength, athleticism and body control to get to the rim and finish combined with his newfound willingness to do it 30+ times a game.
It's worth pointing out that despite Westbrook's play, going into Monday's game the Thunder since Durant's has been out have a net rating 13.5 points better without Westbrook on the court.
While Westbrook's transformation into a superhuman has rightfully gotten the headlines, it's not the key to Oklahoma City's title chances. That would be their active trade deadline.
The (quite literally) biggest acquisition was Enes Kanter. The 22-year-old 7-footer gives the Thunder a legitimate interior threat, something the franchise hasn't had in well...their entire existence.
That's 20 and 12 for Enes Kanter. He now owns the only two 20 and 10 games from a Thunder center in history.- Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) March 9, 2015
Kanter has averaged 16 points and 10.4 rebounds in his 11-game Thunder stint and already has six double-doubles or one more than former starting center Steven Adams accumulated in 134 games with the franchise.
While the low post area in which Kanter likes to operate could lead to spacing issues down the road, it obviously hasn't been much of a hindrance to Westbrook. Kanter should only be more efficient when Durant returns and defenses have a second MVP candidate to worry about.
The combination of Ibaka, if and when he returns from minor knee surgery, and Adams, covers up for Kanter as a defensive liability and will allow him to play big minutes against teams not named Memphis.
DJ Augustin has proven to be a much better fit than Reggie Jackson with his combination of shooting (39% from beyond the arc), and actually wanting to be on the team.
The addition of Kyle Singler in the Jackson trade offers up yet another dose of shooting off the bench.
Last season, current New York Knicks coach Derrick Fisher combined with the remnants of the disastrous Harden trade; Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, to make up a significant portion of Oklahoma City's bench production.
The Spurs relentlessly attacked those weak links (not to mention the corpses of Kendrick Perkins and Caron Butler) until they inevitably broke and cost the Thunder in big moments.
Oklahoma City, despite poor coaching, Ibaka's injury and relying on guys who didn't belong in an NBA locker room, were still one Manu Ginobili three away from game seven of the Western Conference Finals.
The upgrade from that motley crew to legitimate NBA rotation guys, in Kanter, Augustin, Singler, and dare I say Dion Waiters, cannot be understated.
For the Spurs it was a similar story. Being the league's second oldest team injuries are inevitable, but thanks to Gregg Popovich's much acclaimed stinginess with his star's minutes the Spurs have done a pretty good job avoiding them over the years
Perhaps it was consecutive seasons of over 100 games, but whatever magic elixir, Popovitch was giving his guys seemed to have run out. The Spursstarting lineup has played just 160 minutes together on the season, a not insignificant portion of which has come over the team's last seven games.
Tony Parker (hamstring) and Kawhi Leonard (bruised hand) combined to miss 32 games on their own for the Spurs. The duo played in just three games when the Spurs lost six of seven back in December, a stretch that nearly dropped them out of the playoffs for the first time that late in a season since 1996.
While injuries throughout the bench and some age related inconsistencies also played a role in the Spurs slow start, Parker and Leonard being hurt and playing poorly when they weren't was clearly the biggest issue holding back the Spurs from their seemingly annual assent to the top of the Western Conference.
As of two weeks ago Parker was boasting the lowest shooting percentage of his career and the hamstring injury seemed to rob him of the explosiveness that defines his game. After a three game stretch in late February when Parker shot a combined 3-21 from the field and had more turnovers (10), than points (9), it was starting to look like Parker, who despite being just 32-years old is 12th among active players in minutes played, might have been done.
For Leonard, it was equally frustrating to see him deal with a variety of ailments and fail to consistently perform at the level that won him the Finals MVP and had him going toe-to-toe with the best player on the planet.
Leonard's shooting percentages are down from 52% from the field and 37% from beyond the arc in 2014 to 46% and 31% respectively this year. While the hand injury explains some of it, the massive drop off from beyond the arc brought up concerns about Leonard's ability to consistently perform as the focal point of an offense.
Suffice to say the duo have turned things around the last seven games:
Parker February: 12.5 PPG, 5.0 AST, 39% FG, 2.2 TO, 0.5 SPG
Parker March: 23 PPG, 5.9 AST, 57% FG, 1.6 TO, 1.4 SPG
Leonard February: 13.5 PPG, 6.1 REB, 42% FG, 2.3 SPG
Leonard March: 20.3 PPG, 7.4 REB, 54% FG, 2.7 SPG
It's no coincidence that the Spurs have started winning.
San Antonio's role players excel at attacking off-balance defenders and turning good shots into great shots with their ball movement. For that system to work you need elite creators to get defenses a step behind and that's exactly what peak Parker brings and he's brought it these last six games.
With Ginobili a couple years past his prime and the Spurs other guards not at the same level Parker's ability to attack and start the offense has become more essential than ever. While it's unlikely Parker keeps up this pace, if he can come close it raises the Spurs ceiling back to title contention.
If Parker playing his best is what the Spurs need to be themselves, Leonard doing the same allows them to be the world destroying force that put together the most dominant finals performance in NBA history .
While the Spurs have put out a top ten defense without him, a healthy Leonard takes it to another level. He's comfortable hounding elite offensive players over 94 feet. The best defenders in the league play defense with an offensive mentality and attack the ball handler before they get attacked. If Leonard wasn't there already last season's Finals gave him the confidence to take that approach against any player in the league.
Mentioned on Bill's pod Monday, but had he missed fewer games, Kawhi might be DPOY favorite. He's everywhere. Still belongs in convo.- Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 11, 2015
Against the Cavaliers last Thursday, Leonard showed exactly why he's going to get a max contract this summer. Even if he hasn't figured out how to do it over the course of a season just yet last season's playoff's demonstrated that he has the ability to play the league's best to a draw when it matters most. He did it again against the Cavaliers, the second quarter essentially amounted to James and Leonard's personal showcase.
James started off the quarter coming down and scoring five consecutive points, Leonard ended the run with a vicious dunk. LeBron went right back at Leonard, using his impossible combination of size and body control to draw a foul and hit his fourth and fifth free throws of the quarter. Two possessions later, it was Leonard regaining the upper hand going directly into James's body, drawing the king off-balance with an up-fake and then hitting a righty jump hook in his face. Leonard went on to finish the quarter with 10 points and didn't allow James to score again.
Though the Cavaliers eventually won the game due to Kyrie Irving's heroics, it was apparent just how difficult it is to beat these Spurs when Leonard's operating at an elite level on both ends of the court. The former San Diego State star's six consecutive 20 point games are a career best, and he's doing it while still hitting just 31% from beyond the arc this month. Given that Leonard has yet to shoot less than 37% from distance for a season, he's bound to get hot.
Perhaps the most important development in Leonard's game is his progression as a playmaker. In his pre-game talk with TNT's crew last Thursday, Popovich stated that Leonard is "starting to get it." Popovitch went on to explain that the former San Diego State star was slowly learning that when a play is called for him the intent is to give the Spurs as a team the best shot at scoring, not necessarily Leonard himself.
It was obvious throughout the Cavaliers game that Popovich knew exactly what he was talking about. Following a timeout in the second quarter Leonard caught the ball on the move accelerated past Kevin Love and threw a one-handed bounce pass that danced along the sideline as it sped past the outstretched arms of Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith before hitting Patty Mills squarely in the chest, setting the Aussie up for an easy trey.
It was the type of play you'd expect out of the best point guards in the league, and not a 6-foot-7 small forward who has averaged less than two assists per game for his career.
Just like Parker, Leonard's new found playmaking ability put his teammates in advantageous attacking positions all night, which is how you end up with those incredible passing sequences that define the team at their best.
Writers have been digging San Antonio's grave for years, this is just the first time it felt like they had packed in the dirt.
Yet once again, they're peaking at exactly the right time. Last season they dropped the hammer and went 16-0 in March. A season later they've won seven out of nine with all their stars simultaneously reaching full health right as the playoffs approach.
Popovich has always been ahead of the curve in treating the regular season as a tune-up versus something worth winning in and of itself. While it's probably giving him too much credit to say he could have predicted the litany of injuries that hit his squad, they've worked to his advantage. So is the charmed life of the Spurs. Whatever seed they finish with they'll be rested and playing their best against whoever's unlucky enough to draw them in the first round.
All the same applies to Oklahoma City with the prerequisite of a healthy Durant. Foot injuries are always tricky, but it seems as if the Thunder have learned their lesson from rushing their superstar back the first time, and after a lengthy rest they expect a fully functional Durant within the next week.
The Ibaka injury is a bummer, but for the first time since they got him, the Thunder have the front court depth to survive it.
It'll be interesting to see if Brooks can figure out how to keep Durant one year removed from an MVP and Westbrook who's playing better than anyone else on the planet happy, especially considering how accustomed Westbrook has become to having the ball in his hands, but NBA history tells us time and time again that talent trumps all.
Even if the Thunder figure everything out, it might not matter if they can't avoid the eighth spot and a match up with that historically great Warriors team.It's a gargantuan task to have to win three consecutive series on the road in this Western Conference, regardless of matchup. But given the fact that these Spurs are starting to look an awful lot like last season's champions and the Thunder a more talented version of the team that pushed them to the brink, it might just be doable.
Gavin Schall is a sophomore at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. The New York native and Knicks fan has miraculously managed to avoid total apathy towards the NBA and actually quite enjoys it. He covers the Phoenix Suns for valleyofthesuns.com, and can be heard broadcasting Sun Devil basketball and football on the school's radio station, the Blaze 1330 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @GavinSchall