Wednesday, June 6, 2012

This Time, The Spurs Really Are Doomed

A week ago the consensus was that the San Antonio Spurs would be, right now, lounging around, resting up for the NBA finals, basking in the glory of silencing the Oklahoma City Thunder and planning how they'd trample the likely Eastern champ, the elderly Boston Celtics.

At the start of this series, San Antonio, with a sparkling 2-0 lead, looked like an invincible machine. The Thunder, though, tossed a wrench into that machine, which is grinding to a halt. Suddenly that Ferrari looks like a creaky old Model T. Tonight the Spurs are in Oklahoma City, having lost three straight for the first time this season. Now it's the Spurs, down 2-3, who look dead..

What the hell happened?

Three things. First of all the Thunder coaches figured out a way to stop the seemingly unstoppable Spurs point guard, Tony Parker, who orchestrated those first two wins. Then, the Thunder couldn't guard him. He was zipping around lead-footed defenders, getting easy baskets or passing off the open teammates who nailed easy baskets. The Thunder simply changed their defense, putting quick, lanky Thabo Sefolosha on Parker. In the second game, Parker was 16 for 21 for 34 points. But in the last three games Parker, furiously shadowed by Sefolosha, has been thoroughly thwarted, struggling to get clean shots and passing erratically. In the last three games, he's shot a miserable 16 for 41. In the last one, his turnovers outnumbered his assists. With its conductor faltering, the Spurs offense has degenerated.

Second, in the three losses, the Spurs role players have been totally outplayed by the Thunder role players. In particular, OKC's Sefolosha and center Kendrick Perkins have been gems on offense and defense, while the Spurs secondary players, like Danny Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard, have sputtered.

Third, the Thunder's Kevin Durant has soared, taking control of the last three games in the fourth quarter. Suddenly, he's like a young Kobe Bryant. And the Spurs have no answer for him. In fact they haven't had much luck limiting the Thunder's other two big guns--Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

The big surprise is that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, generally acknowledged the best in the game, hasn't been able to come up with a remedy for the Thunder's tweaks. In the chess match between coaches, Pop has been outplayed by Scott Brooks. Pop's big tweak,  inserting super sixth-man Manu Ginobli into the starting lineup of Game 5, backfired. He scored big, 34 points, but, without its star, the Spurs' second unit was trashed by the Thunder backups.

It doesn't look good for the Spurs. Though San Antonio is an exceptional road team, the Thunder is a great home team--7-0 so far in the playoffs. Yes, the Spurs are desperate but the Thunder is just as desperate--desperate to avoid a Game 7 in San Antonio.

Can the Spurs regroup and  revert to their early playoff form? Probably not. The surging Thunder seems too strong and dominant and quite able to handle whatever the Spurs throw at them. OKC is a five-point favorite but it might be a smart bet to take San Antonio. With both teams in a desperation mode, it should be a close game.