The Spurs and Thunder have been here before. In 2012, San Antonio went up 2-0 against Oklahoma City by playing a gorgeous brand of offensive basketball, only to see the Thunder roar back to win four straight games and make that year's NBA Finals. Even with the Spurs going up 2-0 on Wednesday night, downing the Thunder 112-77, Oklahoma City has to feel confident that past is prologue.
All the team needs to do is further feature scoring guard James Harden, who has a chance to shoot 60 percent in this series with helpless Spurs defenders clueless as to how to handle his inside/outside game. Then the Thunder need to let big man Serge Ibaka loose on both ends, allowing him to roam defensively while giving him the confidence to let fly on offense when he sees fit. Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison, who are both only 27 and 31 years of age, can handle things defensively. The Spurs will have to rely on 20-year old Kawhi Leonard's nervous touch and Danny Green's sub-average 34 percent shooting from long range, in addition to their aging stars who will have to become too old at some point.
So, yeah, we know that the Thunder can't do this. The team's big men are older, Ibaka is injured, Harden was traded by the team's fearful ownership group because of payroll concerns, and the squad just isn't deep enough to pull off that sort of mid-series four-game sweep, as it did when it topped the Spurs 4-2 in 2012.
More importantly, though? This isn't about the Thunder. This is about the San Antonio Spurs, the type of team that pulls off a 112-77 blowout in May's third week, the sort of outfit that has you wondering if a front court full of Serge Ibakas could have made any difference in this series.
Oklahoma City's needed enhanced defensive pressure helped keep things close early in the contest, but all that overplaying and emphasis on crowding the middle did was make Spurs coach Gregg Popovich angry. Midway through a competitive first half, Coach Pop went back to some of his more trusted pet plays, leading the Spurs away from the sort of read-and-react offense that has made things so fascinating to watch in San Antonio over the past five months.
As a result, Danny Green turned into a world-beater. His big men set expert down screens for him, allowing him to dive into the corner, and he responded by nailing 7 of 10 3-pointers. Green is now hitting a white-hot 51 percent from long range during the postseason, and the Thunder acted as if they never saw those sorts of plays being run for Brent Barry in 2006.
That is what's so astonishing and admirable about this team, because as much as things have changed (the addition of Leonard, who played just under 16 minutes in the blowout; the ascension of Green, Tiago Splitter), this truly is the same cast of characters in both 2006 (the big three) and 2012 (Boris Diaw, Patty Mills), working with a coach who thinks on his feet. Tony Parker (22 points in 28 minutes) doesn't appear to have lost a step, Manu Ginobili (facilitating as usual, 11 points and four assists in 22 minutes) still looks like he's in his prime every other game, and while Tim Duncan has slowed, he'll find other ways.
Duncan contributed a double-double (12 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks) in just 28 minutes, but it was his screening, his movement and his presence that made all the difference. This seems like silly, intangible-obsessed fawning, but the Thunder were obviously making a point to crowd the Spurs big man and take him away from the 21-point first half he offered in San Antonio's Game 1 win. As a result, Duncan decided to stick his rear end out and open up shots for his teammates, and Green owes him dinner tonight.
This mix of elegance (Game 1) and function (Game 2) can't help but leave you in awe. The Thunder did truly get after it defensively, but the Spurs crossed them over in so many ways. Kendrick Perkins' strength lies in the low post, so San Antonio penetrators made him the object of several drives. Nick Collison would rather show on a screen and roll than have to act as a weak-side shot blocker, so San Antonio forced him to play the role of Elmore Smith. It was borderline cruel.
San Antonio out-rebounded Oklahoma City by 15, even the makes that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (30 combined points on 32 percent shooting) had were crowded, and once again the Thunder role players just could not contribute offensively when the Spurs tilted their proverbial pinball into their uneasy hands.
Perhaps there are answers coming out of that Oklahoma City playbook (stop laughing), and that Thunder rotation. Perhaps the vaunted OKC home crowd can make a difference. Perhaps those open 23-footers from the corner will rim in and out for the Spurs, and we'll get a series. OKC can only hope that the 2012 magic somehow returns.
It seems as if the Spurs fell in love with their system too much, in 2012, and didn't have the offense to compete with Oklahoma City's emerging offense of its own. Even Phil Jackson called specific plays out of the triangle when his Bulls and Lakers faced a challenge, and it's possible that San Antonio thought floating through a series of extra passes would be the answer, as the Thunder roared back.
They know the answer this year. If the system isn't providing, then take it one called play at a time. Popovich has been doing this since Jaren Jackson was his championship starter, and he seems to have an appropriate reply for just about every question.
Provided you don't ask him to answer it between quarters, of course.