Two years ago, San Antonio went up 2-0 in the 2012 Western Conference Finals having only lost one playoff series after going up 2-0 in the Tim Duncan era.
The Thunder has history on its side as they were able to astoundingly win four straight games over head coach Gregg Popovich and company to reach the NBA Finals.
Gregg freaking Popovich.
Two years removed, and the Spurs have done a great job of limiting the perfect execution of OKC.
Remember in Game 4 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals when Serge Ibaka shot 11-of-11 from the field? Even if perfectly healthy, that wouldn’t happen this year due to the emergence of players like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard. In 2012, Splitter was new to America, and Leonard was just an inexperienced rookie with gigantic hands.
Sure, Green is shooting the lights out, and Diaw made a huge shot against Dallas, but it’s each player’s defense within the rotation that has killed the Thunder. Just ask Thabo Sefolosha (via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated):
The veteran Swiss guard has yet to score against San Antonio, shooting 0-9 from the field, and he’s grabbed just two rebounds in 26 minutes combined during the first two games.
In 23 total minutes together this series, Oklahoma City’s starters have been outscored by San Antonio’s lineups by 14 points. The group has shot just 32.6 percent while on the court together and has posted an anemic 80.3 offensive rating against a 104.6 defensive rating.
Sefolosha’s offensive limitations have stood out to a greater degree in Ibaka’s absence, as Perkins and Collison are not known as scorers. The collective drag of three non-scorers has forced Durant and Westbrook to shoulder extra responsibility on offense, and they combined for just 30 points (on 14-for-40 shooting) as Oklahoma City scored a season-low 77 points in Game 2.
“It’s unfair to label Nick and Perk and Thabo, that they need to score more,” Brooks said. “As a group, we need to play better for longer stretches against one of the best teams. We’re not asking for guys all of a sudden to be a 15-point scorer and block shots, we’re just asking the group to play better.”
Even if Ibaka doesn’t return, it’s unclear why Brooks would hang on to the punchless Sefolosha with the Thunder’s season hanging in the balance. The Spurs have done well to run him off the three-point line, and he hasn’t yet found a way to contribute in other areas. Keeping two big men on the court to shore up the interior is a must for the Thunder, a fact that seemingly requires the threat of a scoring punch to come from a perimeter adjustment.
What’s more, the Thunder have previously made this very change with nothing but success to show for it. Brooks inserted Butler in favor of Sefolosha during Oklahoma City’s first-round series against Memphis. Staring down a 3-2 series deficit, Brooks turned to Butler for Games 6 and 7, both of which the Thunder won by double digits
Unlike Brooks, Pop knows exactly when and what changes to make in regards to the starting line up, minutes, defensive rotations, etc, especially after
two blowout losses a loss. Granted, Pop has well-over a decade of head coaching experience compared to the former assistant coach of the Seattle Supersonics. Rich Bucher of Bleacher Report explains how a franchise can make its own Gregg Popovich:
It’s easy to forget now, but Popovich was not well liked at all in San Antonio in the early days. He was originally hired as GM and soon after fired the very popular coach he inherited, Bob Hill, installed himself and then promptly presided over a 17-win season, orchestrated in part to improve the team’s chances at landing Tim Duncan.
One of his early managerial moves, however, also included dealing Dennis Rodman for Will Perdue, providing the Chicago Bulls with the vital third piece to their second three-peat.
Popovich relinquished the GM title to RC Buford in 2002, but there’s never been a division in authority. Whatever Popovich has felt he needed for his team, Buford has sought to provide. Whatever role owner Peter Holt has served in making that happen never has seen the light of day, other than the results.
Credit Holt for, if nothing else, never pushing Popovich and Buford to chase the splashy names for which most fan and media bases—and some owners—clamor.
The changes the Spurs make are generally subtle and new stars magically emerge from them. In time.
“That’s what everybody misses with the San Antonio teams,” says a rival coach. “They’ve generally kept the same personnel, particularly the same core. It’s easy to work in a Kawhi Leonard or a Tiago Splitter because you’re only teaching the system to one or two guys.”
Splitter is also an example of valuing IQ and intangibles over salary or box-office concerns.
This is why every coach wants to have personnel control,” a former NBA assistant coach said, citing Doc Rivers with the Clippers and now Stan Van Gundy with the Detroit Pistons. “Doc can go get his own groceries, because he knows what he wants to cook.”
The one member of this year’s final four coaching fraternity yet to be mentioned, of course, is Frank Vogel, who is the seventh-longest-tenured coach in the league.
He’s also the one who has had the biggest questions swirling about his future; perhaps not coincidentally, his team has looked the shakiest in reaching its current place in the postseason.
The point? There is a way for every team to find the next Popovich.
It simply starts with finding the next Peter Holt, an owner who is a fan but doesn’t operate his franchise like one. Finding a Buford, a GM who is constantly seeking outside opinions about how to improve the franchise but doesn’t attempt to satisfy any outside it, also would help.
Finally, it’s about everyone else who wishes for their success to shut the hell up and let them go to work. Allow that to happen and who knows—you too might just find your team on the doorstep of a championship.
I’m sick of that doorstep. Pop needs to break it down and win that title.
He’s done it four times before, and we all know he can do it again.