San Antonio Owns the West and Proves It
Three months ago, I wrote an article about the San Antonio Spurs as they were playing the then Number Two seed Los Angeles Clippers.
As I watched them, I pointed out they couldn’t be beat in a half-court game because it was a pick-your-poison situation:
- Opposing teams could focus their defensive scheme on Tim Duncan, who was putting up numbers that hadn’t been seen since his rookie year, or
- Another of their big men, and they could kick it out to their shooters,
- For example, Kwahi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, or Danny Green, and they would nail the three ball or
- Teams could guard the three-point line and then get punished down low.
Then there's Tony Parker, who was once considered during the season as the league’s MVP before being sidelined due to injury and missing quite a few games. Parker showed during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Memphis Grizzlies on Mon 27 May that the Spurs' fate is dependent upon how he plays. He was unbelievable, scoring 37 points with his slicing, crossing over, and running circles around Memphis.
But as much as I want to give all the credit for the Spurs advancing to the NBA Finals to Parker, it was team effort. On several occasions during Game 4 against Memphis, the ball found its way from the player furthest from the basket to the paint to eventually a player three feet from the basket. As well, Spurs' role players did their job throughout the playoffs and knocked down the open three when they were given the ball.
Greg Popovich said it best during a timeout in Game 3 of the Conference Finals, “It’s not about one person on the team, but as a whole.” At the start of Game 3, when the Spurs looked disinterested and almost every other play had a turnover, Pop substituted not just one of his starters but all five of his starters at the seven-minute mark of the first quarter.
Yes, the Spurs have their stars, you need them when the game is tight, and you need that go-to guy and it showed, especially in Game 4 with Tony Parker. But I was more impressed with Game 3, because in the first half, a key player carried the game at different points. The first half was controlled by Tony Parker. In the second half, despite his shooting slump, Manu Gionobli took control, scoring 19 points for the game. And when during overtime, the oldest guy on both teams, the Big Fundamental, Tim Duncan, took control, leading the Spurs to the victory.
From the beginning of the playoffs, San Antonio has played team basketball. The Spurs picked the Lakers apart in four games (but clearly, it wasn’t the same without Kobe Bryant on the floor). They had a little trouble with an up-and-coming team in the Golden State Warriors with their sharp shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson; the Spurs made their adjustments like every team does and were able to lock down The Splash Brothers.
In my previous article, I stated that the Oklahoma City Thunder would be in the Conference Finals with the Spurs but were going to lack the energy they had from last year without James Harden, who I believed was the main focus for their series win against the Spurs. And when Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury in the first round against the Houston Rockets, there was too much to ask from Kevin Durant in trying to lead his team back to the finals. The Thunder got out-muscled against the Memphis Grizzlies in five games, which set up the pairing in the Western Conference Finals.
At the start of the series, I was nervous about the matchup because I thought of two years back when Memphis, the eighth seed, upset top-seeded San Antonio. Their two big men, Marc Gasol and Zack Randolph, are one of the most physical tandems in the league and could’ve worn on Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter; but as the series went on, you could see they were the primary source of their offensive production, which consumed most of their energy. Their lack of outside shooting hurt, and it became evident they were never going to outscore the Spurs.
San Antonio locked down Randolph and frustrated Gasol the entire series. Those two never got a rhythm going, and their offensive output was nonexistent. The Grizzlies have a rising point guard in Mike Connelly Jr, but he couldn't provide the scoring they needed from that position. When they finally did find scoring through Quincy Pondexter, it was too late and the San Antonio Spurs were finishing their sweep, setting the stag for their fifth trip to the NBA Finals.
The Eastern Conference match-up looks similar to the finals in the West, a dominant two-way team in the Miami Heat against a defensive minded, offensively limited Indiana Pacers. Should Indiana upset Miami, San Antonio would face a team similar in characteristic to Memphis. If the Heat prevail, the NBA Finals will showcase two teams that move that ball well very well but also have a 'big three' they can count on at the end of the games.
One thought that crosses my mind is this: last year, the Spurs' role players faded after Game 2 in the Western Conference Finals only to bounce back this year and knock down their shots, helping carry the load for their stars. They said they learned and felt more mature going into this year’s Western Conference Finals. But now that the stage is bigger and the lights are brighter, will they be able to keep calm and do what they have done throughout the playoffs, or will their play diminish because they haven’t been to the Finals before?
If the Heat win the Eastern Conference Finals, then they’ll be bringing in a team where they know what to expect since they are the defending NBA Champions.
Does that give the edge to the Miami Heat against the Spurs?
Nothing is a given in the East yet, but the Spurs proved they own the West.