As the dust settles on the enthralling Western Conference Finals Game Six between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder one notion keeps coming to the fore; the best “team” won.
The Thunder have two of the top seven consensus players in the league in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Their individual brilliance is unquestionable, but this writer still believes that they have yet to learn how to consistently make their teammates better.
The Spurs are the perfect antidote to this, a team that win because of the basketball that Gregg Popovich has his team play. They have great players; Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard are all very talented. However, Duncan is now in the twilight of his amazing career, as is Ginobili. Parker is not at the level of a Durant or Westbrook, whereas Leonard is only in the early stages of fulfilling his huge potential. But they all fit into Popovich’s system perfectly.
On the other coast, the Miami juggernaut shows no signs of burning out just yet. They dispatched Indiana with minimal fuss, and were never in any danger of losing that series. One must remember that this Heat group have only been beaten in one playoff series since the “Big 3” came together in the summer of 2010. Four years. Four NBA Finals appearances, the numbers speak for themselves. After a shaky start the Miami Heat’s grand experiment has certainly been a success.
Since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics went to ten straight Finals, only two teams have made it to the championship round four seasons in a row. Those two teams were Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers from 1982-85 and Larry Bird’s Celtics from 1984-87.(Jordan would likely have gone to four straight finals also had he not walked away after three-peating in 1993 and again after the second three-peat in 98.) Not so shabby for a team declared a failure after losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
Whatever way you look at it, it is hard to argue that the two best teams in the NBA are contesting this year’s Finals. As basketball fans we should all be rejoicing that we get to see these two teams battle it out again , after last year’s epic finals. The Spurs know they should never have lost that finals, a five-point lead with less than 30 seconds looked beyond solid.
Then everything that could go wrong did go wrong, culminating in Ray Allen’s miracle 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation and the Heat’s 103-100 overtime win.
Bill Simmons has described it as “the greatest shot in the history of the NBA, when difficulty and importance are both considered.”
Last year’s loss hurt the Spurs deeply.
“We’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still.” – Tim Duncan
They have waited a year for revenge and Tim Duncan uncharacteristically stated after the game last Saturday night that “We got four more to win. We’ll do it this time.” Such fighting talk from the normally insular Duncan shows what this means to him and the team.
The Spurs are the more battle hardened of the two this playoffs, having advanced through one of the toughest Western Conferences in living memory. The Heat on the other hand had a far easier ride, and dare I say may come into this series slightly undercooked. I would favour the Spurs*, I believe that they are stronger than what they were last year, and the Heat have not improved enough from last year.
The status of All-Star point guard Tony Parker’s sprained left ankle is a hugely relevant and fluid factor. He missed the second half of Game Six but gets four days off to rehab with the hope that he doesn’t have to hobble his way through the Finals as he did last year.
I do not see a way in which the Spurs lose if they keep all their guys healthy and T.P is fully fit. Parker forces Miami to put either Dwyane Wade or Lebron on him freeing up Kawhi Leonard or Ginobili to attack.
Ginobili is experiencing an Indian Summer, playing at a mid 2000’s level again. After an awful playoffs last year the enigmatic Argentinian nearly walked away from the game. He has answered the bell this postseason however, none more so than in Game Six when he showed why he is considered to be one of the fiercest competitors in the league by hitting the biggest shot of this year’s playoffs late in the fourth quarter of Game Six.
Duncan crushing Derek Fisher with a screen, Ginobili rising up to bury the shot from the top and Duncan hugging Ginobili and cradling his head like he often holds the basketball – poetry in motion.
Duncan, at 38 years of age, is still hugely effective as Serge Ibaka can attest to. When the Spurs needed to find some offense in overtime of Game Six, it was Tim Duncan who stood up and carried San Antonio back to the finals, scoring 7 points in that period.
Home advantage for the Spurs is another reason why this writer is tipping them to avenge last year’s gut-wrenching loss. In the 2013 Finals, the Heat certainly profited from having home court advantage over the Spurs. Each side won one game on their opponent’s turf, but when Miami took Game Six they became overwhelming favourites to close out the series at home.
This year, however, San Antonio finished the regular season with the league’s best record. After coming so close to winning the title on the Heat’s floor last year, they will certainly feel confident that they can take victory in the rematch.
The battle of the coaches will also be hugely important in this series. Popovich is the best coach in the league, and won his 3rd Coach of the Year award this season. His brilliance lies not only in his tactical awareness, but also in his ability to make huge calls.
This was underlined in Game Six against OKC. Popovich revealed after the game that Parker had sprained his ankle in Game Four and then aggravated it in Game Five.
It was bothering Parker before Game Six to the point that Popovich told Ginobili to be ready to play more point guard than usual.
“He couldn’t cut. He was limping on it. He couldn’t cut sideways or forward, really. He showed a lot of guts to be out there and do what he did. But at halftime I talked to him. He stiffened up a little bit, and I just made the call. He wanted to go, and I said, ‘You’re not.'”
Just before the Spurs left the locker room at halftime, Popovich told Cory Joseph he would be starting the third quarter. What transpired next: the Spurs’ best quarter of the series, in which they outscored the Thunder 37-20 to take control of the game.
One cannot imagine Scott Brooks telling Westbrook that he was not going to play him in the 2nd half with the player telling him that he wanted to play.
The Spurs ball movement in the first half was woeful, with Parker continuously over-dribbling causing the offense to become completely bogged down. At half time of the game I tweeted that the Spurs didn’t look like the Spurs. The motion offense that is the key to the team’s success was absent, at the time I did not know that Parker was being hampered by injury.
Pop trusted his team to be able to run Spurs offense without its lynchpin who was not able to carry out his duties as he usually does so excellently. Pop’s faith in his team paid off, and Pop in that small instance again demonstrated why we consider him the best coach of his generation.
The Heat too are very well coached by Erik Spoelstra, and he has shown his ability to adapt his team’s lineup to the situation. His decision to start Rashard Lewis against the Pacers was rewarded with nine three-pointers over the three games. Spoelstra will not be found wanting in the coaching department, but with the Spurs thirsty for revenge and better than they were last year, one feels that they will have too much for the LeBron-led Miami Heat.
Let’s all look forward to what is going to be a great matchup between two exceptional teams.
Prediction: Spurs 4-2
Game 1: 9:00 PM ET
Thursday, June 5th
Conor O’Mahony, Pundit Arena.
*When the Spurs trailed the Mavs 2-1 in the first round, I backed the Spurs to win the championship at 9/2.
After a time away from Pundit Arena due to college commitments, I will be writing articles throughout the upcoming NBA Finals. It’s great to be back.