Greatness is bubbling over in the Western Conference finals - Grantland
The Spurs-Zombies Retro Diary
You have to love a game where either a legendary series would be born or San Antonio would continue an epic run
By Bill Simmons on May 30, 2012
Memo to my editors on Tuesday afternoon: "I'm waking up at 5:00 a.m., making coffee and banging out a retro diary of San Antonio–Oklahoma City, Game 2. However this plays out, it's going to work. If the Spurs win, that's 20 in a row. Twenty in a row!!!! WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING???? And if OKC wins, we suddenly have a monster series and that's fun, too. It's a no-lose. This can only get screwed up if my alarm doesn't go off. Be ready."
My alarm went off. Let's start at the beginning of the second half, with the Spurs leading by 11 in one of those "even though they shot 58 percent, it still feels like they left something on the table and could go two levels higher" halves. That's the thing about the Spurs — when you're consistently getting layups, wide-open 3s and easy 10-footers, at some point your offensive ceiling has a retractable roof. Could they have a 75-point half in which they shoot 70 percent from the field? Could they score 30 points in a row? And why aren't more people excited about this? Anyway …
12:00 remaining (third quarter) — TNT shows a clip of Gregg Popovich yelling at his players in the first half, "Put a body on them! A little physicality! It's a big-boy game!" He's giving DJ Steve Porter enough material in this series for an Auto-Tune song that's going to be longer than "Stairway to Heaven."
12:00 — The obligatory "here's Tony Parker (17 points, five assists) ripping apart the Zombies on the same high screen over and over again" montage. At this point, there are five people left in America who haven't realized that this is the wrong series for Kendrick Perkins — Perkins, Scotty Brooks, Kevin Garnett, Vinny Del Negro, and the showrunner for The Killing (who loves sticking with plots that stopped working a long time ago). Let's see how OKC adjusts in the second half.
11:03 — After a Thabo Sefolosha layup, Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard answers by draining an open 3. Here's what I wrote as Leonard was falling in the draft last June: "Leonard is officially our 'how the hell did he slide to the middle of the draft' guy, which doesn't happen every year, but when it happens (Danny Granger, Ty Lawson, Roy Hibbert), you know as it's happening. He should have been a lottery pick. That guy is a natural NBA small forward."
Naturally, 14 teams passed on him, and naturally, the Spurs scooped him up (via trade), and naturally, they fixed the one questionable part of his game (3-point shooting) because they're the Spurs and they can do anything short of fixing NBC's prime-time lineup. Last year at San Diego State, Leonard made 29 percent of his 3s. In December/January for the Spurs, Leonard made 25 percent of them. In February/March, that jumped to 45 percent. In 10 playoff games, he's taken 31 3s and made 14 of them (45 percent). Does any of this make sense? NO!!!!!!! Of course not. But that's why they're the Spurs.
10:07 — Following a Westbrook jumper, Parker uses a Duncan screen to sink an open 14-footer. Kendrick Perkins might as well be a stationary Kendrick Perkins hologram at this point. The Spurs are single-handedly making Danny Ainge feel like he won the Perkins trade even though the player the Celtics got for him missed every 2012 game because of major heart surgery. In Perkins's defense, they acquired him thinking that he'd be their Andrew Bynum stopper, never imagining that they'd have to deal with a revived Duncan (or an entire revived Spurs team). This just isn't the series for him. At some point, someone will have to break the news to Scotty Brooks.
9 — Sefolosha blows a layup, then the Spurs have one of those Spursy possessions — five passes in their half-court offense (including two "that guy could have shot there, but he made the extra pass" passes) that eventually yields a 3 from Danny Green. They're like the old guys schooling the young kids in the YMCA, if the old guys were in phenomenal shape and popping that drug that Bradley Cooper took in Limitless. Spurs by 15. Suddenly.
9:00 — Two quality OKC possessions (two Durant free throws, then a Westbrook layup) are rendered moot because the rejuvenated Boris Diaw scored five straight. Remember back in December when an astonishingly heavy Boris was wasting his career away on a historically putrid Charlotte team, and Grantland's Rafe Bartholomew made the joke that "Boris and his boobs are the next Big Three"? The Spurs somehow saved his career, too — he's turned into a heavier version of the 2006 Phoenix Boris, a skilled big man who can pass, shoot 3s and help San Antonio fulfill their "Greatest Incarnation of the European Team That We Always Worry Will Kick Our Ass in the Olympics" destiny. No wonder Steve Nash was so pissed off when the Suns didn't sign him two months ago.
8:11 — Mini-run by OKC: a Perkins free throw, an Ibaka block, then a Durant 3, followed by Durant doing the backpedaling "come on, fellas, we can win this" clapping thing. Skipping ahead a little: I watched this entire game thinking, Durant can score anytime he wants. Durant ended up with 31 points on 17 shots; Westbrook ended up with 27 points on 24 shots. If you can tell me how this makes sense, I'll give you $200.
6:03 — The Spurs are doing that "Screw it, we're going to another level" thing. First, Parker nearly does a figure eight around a Duncan screen (using it twice, basically), and by the time it's over, Westbrook is watching Parker shoot an uncontested 15-footer (swish) as the Perkins Hologram hovers near both of them. Next possession: Parker comes off a staggered Diaw screen for another open 15-footer. Next possession: Parker rips down the middle for a seemingly wide-open layup (drawing a gasp from Marv Albert), draws two guys, then dishes out to Leonard for another 3 … swish. Spurs by 17.
"Marv, you're a basketball purist, you're loving this right now," Reggie Miller gushes. "Because this is old-school basketball. Everyone's touching it, everyone's on a screen, everyone feels involved. This is how basketball should be played."
(Cut to me nodding with tears of joy rolling down my cheeks. Wait, did I just agree with Reggie Miller on something? I forgot to take my pills!)
5:12 — Marv blesses the 2012 Spurs by comparing them to "the Knicks of the early '70s and some of the Boston Celtics teams." Other than Bob Ryan, he's the closest thing we have right now to an NBA Media Yoda, so I'm going to call that a meaningful moment even if he should have mentioned the '77 Blazers.
On cue, the Spurs submit their coolest play of the game: Parker dishing to Ginobili on the right wing on a pseudo-fast break; Ginobili passing up a semi-open 3 that just about any other NBA player would have taken, putting the ball on the ground and pretending to drive to the middle; Parker and Manu connecting on that "we've played together for a decade" ESP level, with Parker sliding toward the right corner and Manu hitting him with a behind-the-back pass; then Parker draining a wide-open 3 as THREE bummed-out OKC guys stood under the basket watching him. I think Parker and Ginobili just leapfrogged Isiah and Dumars on the "All-Time Greatest Backcourts" list on that play.
(Spurs by 20. They've scored 78 points, made 31 field goals … and notched 20 assists. Yowza.)
4:47 — Duncan to Diaw for a goaltended layup. Spurs by 22. Meanwhile, Steve Kerr is doing everything short of walking over to OKC's huddle and screaming at Scotty Brooks, "YOU NEED TO TAKE PERKINS OUT! OK? THIS IS NOT THE SERIES FOR HIM! YOU'RE STARTING TO SEEM LIKE SCOTTY DEL NEBROOKS! TAKE PERKINS OUT! TAKE HIM OUT! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TAKE HIM OUT!!!!"
3:52 — OKC scores six straight, followed by a furious Popovich calling timeout and ripping Tony Parker for mangling the last possession. Here's the difference between that moment and Spoelstra/Wade from the Indiana series — as Pop was yelling and Parker was (mostly) taking it, two teammates weren't instinctively jumping between them with frightened "Uh-oh, it's happening again" looks. Let's hope Pop keeps that anger going for the Craig Sager interview in a few minutes.
3:52 — Subtle ways to know when you're watching a well-coached team: During timeout huddles, everyone is locked in (even the bench guys); the players spend a ton of time talking with their arms wrapped around each other; they call a timeout right when you're thinking, "Uh-oh, the momentum feels like it's starting to shift here" (instead of two plays after that moment); and they always get a killer shot coming out of a timeout. That last one just happened … except Leonard missed a wide-open 3, leading to Durant getting a Gervin-like finger roll on the fast break. OKC keeps hanging around. I don't think I've ever been more impressed by a team that's been practically getting killed. They don't go away.
3:52 — James Harden just came in, which reminds me … more than once this season, including this game, I've gotten my 4-year-old son to watch Oklahoma City for extended stretches by convincing him that Harden was a werewolf. You do whatever it takes to get your kids to like sports. You just do.
2:46 — Durant is playing a terrific all-around game — he just got into the paint, drew three guys and found Fisher for a wide-open 3. Clank. Three years ago, I would have made the "It's too bad it wasn't three years ago; that would have gone in" joke. Fisher is like the square root of washed-up. And yes, that was my biggest question mark about OKC all season — they're most dangerous when they play smallball with Ibaka and Durant as their "bigs" (along with Harden and Westbrook), but no matter who's playing as the fifth guy, it's always a weak link.
Quick tangent: There's no bigger Sam Presti fan than me, but man, he's needed that specific player for two solid years (one more reliable shooter who could make open 3s) and just never found him. Steve Novak (47 percent on 3s this season), Brandon Rush (45 percent), Jordan Farmar (44 percent), J.J. Redick (43 percent), Courtney Lee (40 percent), Boobie Gibson (40 percent), Mike Dunleavy (40 percent), Randy Foye (39 percent) … I mean, those guys are out there every year, right? Here's where you say, "What about Sefolosha? Didn't he shoot 43 percent on 3s this season?" True … but in 17 playoff games last spring, he went 4-for-26. And also, he's never been one of those guys who makes you say, "Uh-oh, Sefolosha is heating up!!!" Really, Redick would have been the perfect fifth wheel for this OKC team — someone that made you say, "This is ridiculous, I don't know how you stop these guys when they spread the floor." Fisher doesn't give me that unstoppable feeling … you know, unless he's ruining the Players Association. Either way, it's almost impossible to believe that he's prominently involved in the 2012 playoffs. He's single-handedly making me feel better about my team's reliance on Keyon Dooling and Mickael Pietrus in Miami on Wednesday. Anyway …
1:38 — Scotty Brooks pulls a page out of Pop's book and orders the hideous Hack-A-Shaq on Tiago Splitter, who makes five of 10 free throws over the next minute before Pop pulls him out. Did it work? Yes and no. OKC only made up one point in that minute, but it knocked San Antonio out of their deadly offensive rhythm (just a little) and uglied up a game that had developed a decisively pro-Spur flow. Then again …
1. Nobody in the history of mankind has ever said the words, "Remember that awesome playoff game when one team kept intentionally fouling the other team?"
2. Just a few minutes earlier, the Spurs played so beautifully that Marv Albert nearly had an orgasm on live TV. Now he's calling free throw after free throw. I'm gonna say we're worse off as basketball fans here.
3. There's a very easy fix — just tweak the rule so it's like the defensive three-second rule. If officials determine that a player who's not involved in the play was intentionally fouled for the specific reason to put him on the line, it's a technical foul and the player's team keeps possession. We'd never have to watch Hack-A-Shaq again.
4. Here's a good rule in general for all professional sports: If something sucks, you need to make the appropriate rule change so it doesn't suck anymore. This isn't rocket science. Back to the game.
1:15 — Durant (27 points) makes two freebies, Duncan makes one of two (Spurs by 14), then Westbrook air-balls a horrific 3 with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. For the record: I like Westbrook. He's young, he's a good teammate, he's fun to watch, he gives a crap, and he's absolutely breathtaking in person. He also gets dissected on the Internet like no NBA star other than LeBron, something that undeniably affected him last summer and led Presti to tell me a few weeks ago that he's never seen an athlete face more scrutiny at a younger age than Westbrook faced during last year's playoffs. That's just the nature of the beast now — basketball has become a 24/7/365 sport, and once we're down to one playoff game a night, every flaw and every bad decision gets exacerbated. A lot of times, unfairly.
(Hold on, there's a massive "Having said that …" coming up.)
Having said that, when Westbrook (a 32 percent 3-point shooter) launches an off-balance pull-up 3 with 20 seconds left on the shot clock in the midst of a possible momentum swing of a must-win playoff game — as his buddy Durant is residing somewhere between "hot" and "scorching hot" and doing whatever he wants offensively — I mean, at what point does the light bulb start flickering on here? Westbrook needs to find that sweet spot between "aggressive" and "reckless," and actually, I don't doubt that he will. Just know that his last 3 was reckless. And it's hard to win the title when you're reckless.
Let's just fast-forward to the end of the quarter because I can't wait for Sager vs. Popovich any longer. Our score after three: San Antonio 92, OKC 76. And yes, the Spurs just rolled off a 37-point quarter and made 65 percent of their shots. That's why they're the favorites.
12:00 remaining (fourth quarter) — Pop through gritted teeth after answering his 200th What's working so well for you guys out there?–type question of the past month: "Usually when you get a lead, it's a combination of getting stops at one end and keeping the pace at the other."
Translation: WHY ARE YOU MAKING ME DO THIS? WHY DO I HAVE TO TALK TO THIS MORON WHO'S WEARING A PEACH SUIT? I'M TRYING TO WIN A PLAYOFF GAME! I'M IN CHARGE OF A TEAM THAT HAS A CHANCE TO BE ONE OF THE BETTER TEAMS EVER! LEAVE ME ALONE! GET THIS PEACH IMBECILE AWAY FROM ME! NEXT TIME I WILL STAB PEACH IMBECILE IN THE JUGULAR WITH A PENCIL!!!!
11:15 — Westbrook goes coast-to-coast and makes an impossible lefty layup in traffic. Spurs by 14. By the way, kudos to Brooks for earning this e-mail from my buddy House: "Congrats to Scott Brooks — he starts the 4th quarter with the game *almost* out of reach with his best lineup. 3 guards + Durant + Ibaka." Only took Brooks eight quarters.
(On the other hand, you have to love the Scotty Brooks Era, if only because there's an adult film star named Scottie Brooks who's suckered in a bunch of accidental Google searches from people who misspelled "Scotty" as "Scottie," landed on the @scottiebrooks Twitter page (NFSW) and ended up screaming, "AHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHHHH!" Shouldn't Scottie Brooks play up the whole Scotty Brooks thing and change his Twitter avatar to a clipboard-holding basketball coach who's wearing a suit jacket, dress shirt, tie and no pants?)
10 — The Zombies (flying around now) cut San Antonio's lead to 12, then Gary Neal stops their momentum by draining a 3. At this specific point of the game, Durant, Westbrook and Harden have made 23 of 40 shots combined … and their team is losing by 15. Wow.
9:37 — OKC keeps coming and coming. They just got a driving Harden banker, a Parker miss (good defense), then a pretty Harden layup ("and the foul!!!") in which Harden picked up his dribble at the top of the key before taking three giant steps to get to the basket. Even LeBron James thought that was a travel. Does anyone hate high-definition slow-motion more than NBA referees?
9:37 — Even if these John Malkovich iPhone ads aren't as fun as the potential of Sam Jackson screaming at Siri, "WHAT DOES MARCELLUS WALLACE LOOK LIKE????," I'm still hoping for a Con Air exchange like …
Malkovich: "Stewardess? Oh, stewardess? What's the in-flight movie today?"
Siri: "Well, I think you'll like it, Cyrus. It's called I'll Never Make Love to a Woman on the Beach Again, and it's preceded by the award-winning short, No More Steak for Me Ever."
8:20 —The Zombies just got consecutive stops for the first time in eons, leading to Durant's two free throws cutting San Antonio's lead to eight. At the very least, let's agree that Scotty Brooks should be replaced with Scottie Brooks if Ibaka-Durant-Harden-Westbrook-Sefolosha isn't their most consistently used lineup for the rest of this series.
8:20 — What were the odds in March that Steve Kerr would have said during a Conference Finals game, "Five fouls on Diaw, that's a huge factor here." 15 to 1? 20 to 1? 30 to 1?
8:06 — "We're Fine With Letting Danny Green Beat Us," by Oklahoma City. He just missed an open 3. If San Antonio is going to seriously consider running the table in the playoffs, they'll need Green, Neal and/or Leonard to sink a couple of monster shots along the way. There's just no other way. You wouldn't call it their Achilles' heel, just the reality of the situation. And by the way? I think they can go 12-0 heading into the Finals. I really do. They're that good.
6:59 — Fisher misses a HUGE 3 that would have cut it to five. Wide-open, too. Store that moment away in the "lost momentum swing" and "um, why is Derek Fisher playing right now?" files. If you're a Lakers fan right now, you have four silver linings: You might turn Bynum into Dwight Howard, you might get someone to overpay for Pau Gasol, you get to snicker to yourself every time Fisher misses a big shot in this Spurs-OKC series, and at least you're not rooting for the local team that inexplicably just rehired Vinny Del Negro.
6 — Remarkable lefty runner by Manu. Spurs by eight. I gotta be honest … I don't understand how anyone could say the Spurs are boring when they have two guards who (a) play beautifully together, (b) get better when it matters, and (c) consistently make some of the most incredibly unique baskets in the league. Three times per Spurs game, either Manu or Parker invents a shot or a drive that makes you say, "Wait, have I ever seen that before?" That's boring?
5:49 — San Antonio's lead just quietly dwindled to six thanks to a free throw binge (OKC has already taken 13 this quarter), some inspired smallball defense (which did a better job of clamping down those high screens) and the Perkins Hologram (hovering over the OKC bench, where it should be). And you know what? Watching this live, I never thought the Spurs were in trouble. It's like I wrote last week: When you're great and you know you're great, you trust the system and the process and sweat out the momentum swings. Here, watch.
5:24 — Pick-and-roll, Manu and Duncan … two Duncan free throws. Spurs by eight.
5:11 — After Miller and Kerr spend the last few seconds debating whether Oklahoma City should be playing Fisher or Sefolosha down the stretch, Fisher settles the debate with a ghastly running banker. (The lesson as always: Oklahoma City can't win the title if they keep ignoring Kevin Durant down the stretch of massively big playoff games.) That's immediately followed by Green bricking another 3 and me muttering to myself, "T-minus Pop pulling Green in 3 … 2 … 1," then the sight of Pop ordering Diaw off San Antonio's bench even as Durant is missing a 3 on their end. (The lesson as always: Gregg Popovich doesn't mess around.) You can't say OKC didn't have their chances in Game 2.
4:33 — Big sequence of the game for OKC: After a pretty drive by Parker draws an Ibaka goaltending violation, Westbrook answers with a 3 and Green misses ANOTHER open 3 (his fourth of the quarter) even as Diaw eyeballed him from the scorer's table like a cheese croissant … but Duncan slides in for the big offensive rebound (how many times in his career has he done that???), with Manu eventually drawing a foul and making two freebies. After that, Westbrook blows a mildly difficult layup and Parker nails an off-balance jumper. We're officially in "Can the Spurs win AND cover the spread?" territory. Can we top Harden's seemingly meaningless (but meaningful) 3 to cover a 5.5-point spread in Game 1? What, you didn't notice that one? What, you think I have a gambling problem? Let's just move on.
3:39 — Spurs by 11. The next two minutes: Harden scores (driving layup); Manu makes a free throw but misses the second one (and, of course, Duncan keeps the play alive and gets the ball back); Ginobili scores (off-balance jumper); two Fisher free throws; Leonard gets a layup off a pretty Duncan pass (classic Spurs possession); Fisher makes a 3 (he finished 2-for-11); Durant layup (off a Manu turnover); dagger 3 from Manu (game over).
Here's the thing: When you can get quality shots pretty much whenever you want, nothing else really matters. The Spurs, as presently constructed and in their present state of health, are unbeatable. In 10 playoff games, they're averaging 104.1 points, making 49.4 percent of their shots, hitting 41 percent of their 3s and getting assists on 65 percent of their made baskets. They can survive a lousy offensive game from Parker (happened in Game 1), Ginobili or Duncan (happened in Game 2) without being affected in any way, as long as two of them aren't struggling at once. They can play smallball; they can handle bigger teams; they can play fast or slow. They can handle absolutely anything.
They've won their 10 playoff games by an average of 12.5 points, a potentially historic pace; of the best teams ever, only the 1971 Bucks (+14.5) and 2011 Lakers (+12.8) topped that number, with famous juggernauts like the '86 Celts (+10.6), '96 Bulls (+10.6), '87 Lakers (+11.4), '83 Sixers (+5.9), '91 Bulls (+11.7) and '72 Lakers (+3.3) falling short of that mark. They've also won an astonishing 20 straight games dating back to the regular season; only three other teams have EVER won more than that (all regular-season streaks, too), and if they sweep Oklahoma City, that 22-game streak will tie the '08 Rockets for the second-longest streak ever (even if the NBA won't officially recognize it). Oh, and they're only six wins away from being the first NBA team to sweep the NBA playoffs. Let's be honest: This is insane.
And that's before you get to the historical ramifications here. There's never been a quote-unquote great Spurs team, just a series of extremely good ones. We poured dirt on them last spring after the Memphis upset, only to watch them resurrect themselves with their finest group yet. Parker and Manu have never looked better; one more title cements them as Hall of Famers and one of the best backcourt duos ever. Duncan hasn't looked this good in five years; one more title vaults him ahead of Wilt Chamberlain and leapfrogs him back ahead of Kobe as the sixth best player of all time (at least in my opinion), as well as "The Greatest Lottery Prize Ever, Hands Down" instead of just "The Greatest Lottery Prize Ever". Popovich would have to be mentioned in the first few words of any "Greatest Coaches Ever" discussion, period, end of story. And this particular Duncan/Popovich run (potentially, five titles in 13 years with the same coach and franchise player) would only have to answer to Russell's Celtics, Jordan's Bulls, Magic's Lakers and (god, I hate admitting this) Kobe's Lakers on the "Most Successful Runs Ever" rankings.
Even better, the Spurs pushed themselves to such heights that they're magically Botoxing away every glaring footnote and asterisk from this lockout-shortened, injury-riddled season. They've transcended it simply by being as potent as any basketball team we've ever watched, the first NBA franchise to fully perfect a European offensive style (slash-and-kicks, high screens, open 3s, back-door cuts and everything else) while maintaining their defensive dignity. ****, they even managed to pull off something that never seemed possible: They turned a team featuring LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in their primes into an underdog for an NBA Finals. If you can't get excited for that matchup, then you don't have a pulse. Thank you and please drive through.
NO D, NO RING!!!!
With 26 points on 4 of 4 shots from distance in only 20 minutes of PT. Efficient eviceration.
Wolves' fan: ginobili vs. the wolves is like he's just kind of laughing to himself all game...kind of like he thinks it's cute that they're trying to play basketball.
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