The Spurs were playing damn fine basketball.
Before Game 3 they hadn’t lost since early April. They were riding a 20-game winning streak, and after winning the first two games against OKC, were 10-0 in the playoffs.
Talking heads in the media, and the casual fan, were beginning to entertain the possibility of the Spurs running the table—winning the NBA championship by going 16-0. That was pure fantasy of course, but the fact that people were even broaching the subject, underlines how absurdly well Gregg Popovich’s team was playing.
It wasn’t all about stats either. The Spurs passed the ‘eye-test’. They were winning and looking mighty good in the process. In the 3rd quarter of Game 2, the Spurs played some of the finest basketball I’ve ever seen.
And it wasn’t like the Thunder played poorly in that game—they scored 111 points! The Spurs just looked invincible. They moved the ball around like the 1970 New York Knicks—if you put Red Holzman’s team in a time machine and made them more athletic, better-conditioned, and devastating from the 3-point line.
In sweeping the Jazz and the Clippers, and taking Games 1 and 2 against the Thunder, the Spurs looked like a complete team. They had exciting young players who could play tenacious defense, in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Veteran glue-guys who could be relied upon to take big shots (Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw), and a Big 3 with skill, heart, and copious amounts of championship pedigree. Telling San Antonio’s mayor to book the parade didn’t seem that presumptuous.
So what happened?
Well, the Oklahoma City Thunder happened.
Sometimes in sports the first response to an upset, or a shocking event, is to look internally for blame—to pick apart the faults and weaknesses of a team that was destined for greatness, but came up short. We’re currently doing that with the Heat, and it’s not without good reason.
We can blame the fact that Tim Duncan got old overnight—struggling to dominate guys he would’ve slaughtered one-on-one in his formative years. We can dissect Tony Parker’s game and question why he wasn’t more assertive after Game 2. Hell, we can even dump more scorn on poor Danny Green and wonder why he devolved from critical role player, to all out scrub, in just a few days.
But there are two teams in a basketball game. The Spurs didn’t show up to an arena and beat themselves. They came up against a very Very special basketball team—one that might just become the youngest team ever to win a championship.
That special team has the 2nd best player in the world, and the best guy on the floor throughout the series (Kevin Durant, in case you’re living in a cave). They possess an unbelievably dynamic point-guard, and the 6th man of the year—a player who is quickly earning the title of “2nd Most Fearless Player in the Clutch”, after his buddy who wears number 35.
For fun, throw in the NBA’s best shot-blocker in Serge Ibaka—a guy who can knock down the open jumper so well that his coach thinks he might be better at it than Durant, the best one-on-one post defender in the NBA (Kendrick Perkins), and a slew of seriously competent role players.
Again, to re-iterate: The Thunder are a special, special team—and there’s more:
They’re a team that isn’t remotely scared of high-pressure situations.
A team that was down late in games and kept their composure to hit staggeringly gutsy shots.
A team with a coach who made extremely savvy adjustments after defeats.
A team that managed to cut out their biggest weaknesses from the regular season—turnovers and lack of ball movement.
A team that has no concern for reputations, or what the media says about their inexperience and supposed playoff ceiling.
That is what the Spurs were up against.
In 1991 Magic Johnson’s L.A. Lakers were favoured against the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. Like the Spurs, the Lakers had experience and rings to their name, while the young Bulls were ring-less and led by a player whose intangibles were still questioned.
The Bulls won that series 4-1, and would end up winning 5 more championships. No one talks about Magic’s Lakers blowing that series. Instead, we all just assume that Jordan’s Bulls were always unbeatable.
The Spurs are a great team. They just came up against a better group of players—a team that looks a lot like those ’91 Bulls. There’s no shame in losing to the Thunder.
Sure, it’s healthy to look at internal problems and correct them for the future, but sometimes you’ve got to hold up your hands and acknowledge the external realities.
The San Antonio Spurs were beaten by one hell of a basketball team.