Spurs Emerge as Championship Favorites as Playoff Dominance Continues

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Spurs Emerge as Championship Favorites as Playoff Dominance Continues
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SAN ANTONIO — This time Tony Parker was there, too.

The Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan halftime summit—or the sit-together-and-sometimes-don’t-say-anything minute—which happens on the bench just before each San Antonio Spurs second half, included Parker on Wednesday night.

Popovich sat between Duncan and Parker and did speak, drawing a little on the clipboard, too. Good idea to do a little more in the Western Conference Finals, apparently. The Spurs proceeded to annihilate the Oklahoma City Thunder in the third quarter and take a 2-0 series lead with a 112-77 victory.

Yet the connectivity and accountability within the Spurs’ family was so strong on this night it felt like Popovich could’ve chilled himself in his wine cellar for the evening, and the Spurs machine would’ve rolled through the Thunder without a glitch.

The Thunder already know now. The Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers don’t yet, and they aren’t going to be ready for this.

The Spurs are absolutely the team to beat, no matter the Heat’s potential three-peat. And it’s not complicated why.

The Spurs play basketball better, cleaner, smarter and more together than anyone else. They have all season, and they surely are now. After three days off before Game 3—and perhaps a much longer rest before the NBA Finals—Parker’s sore left hamstring that he describes as “good enough to play” will be stronger, and the Spurs will be even better.

While it’s not complicated, it’s difficult to understand until you come into the Spurs’ presence just how much the togetherness creates one superstar of a team.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, one of Popovich’s few true peers, made the first round interesting with his veteran players executing clever schemes. All that switching on defense and a determination to force Parker into shooting tested the Spurs, and as happens with great teams, they learned and became greater as they marched toward their goal.

When Oklahoma City tried a variation on Carlisle’s concepts, the Spurs were ready in Game 1 of this series. Beyond that, they were ready in Game 2 for the Thunder’s adjustments before they even came, with Duncan acknowledging after this victory that the Spurs were loading up the three-point barrage with the expectation that Oklahoma City would try much harder to protect its Serge Ibaka-less paint.

“That’s how we attacked it,” Duncan said.

Hello to Danny Green and his 7-of-10 three-point onslaught.

And the Spurs are wise and experienced enough to be on guard for the next thing: a potential letdown. The in-house locker-room talk right after Game 2 was about the Thunder winning four consecutive games after the Spurs took a 2-0 series lead at home in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Beyond that, Manu Ginobili was already laughing about how he knew everyone on the outside would be ready to anoint the Spurs “the best team that ever played.”

“We might get a little satisfied,” Ginobili said. “And we can’t allow that feeling to be in our heads.”

What is different with the Spurs than your average sports team is when one guy says something, it’s actually safe to assume everyone feels the same. That is the real power of what Popovich refers to as “the program.”

There is a fraternity feel here, with jokes all season long tapering off as the playoffs near so that any new players understand it’s time for the commitment ceremony. And it’s not just Popovich and Duncan with Parker and Ginobili, though of course that core continuity is huge.

Just look at Popovich’s timeout huddles. It’s amazing. It’s a true huddle. Everyone surrounds him; every head is leaned in. The extra guys—including starters who are being subbed out—aren’t just standing there vacantly or eyeing the dancers; they are all stooped in as close as they can to hear every word of wisdom or letter of law Popovich is offering.

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All in, basically.

With a 96-68 lead and done for the night and the rest of the week, Duncan could’ve detached with the other top players in the unusual role of standing instead of sitting on the bench in front of the coach. Instead, as Popovich began his message, Duncan bent down to get his head as close as possible—and standing right behind him, also listening, were Ginobili and Parker.

Not long before that, Duncan had been over on the bench waving his hand frantically to get the guys on offense at the other end of the court to run their stuff quicker to get the shot off. The right thing to do was to get the two-for-one possessions via the shot-clock and end-of-quarter clock differential.

And in San Antonio, they simply don’t let that stuff slide.

That’s why, a little earlier, Tiago Splitter had been so frustrated he couldn’t hit an inside shot after Ginobili had made the extra pass to him. Splitter slammed the floor in frustration and a moment later threw a towel on the bench entering a timeout...up by 26.

Kevin Durant had preached about the need for ongoing Oklahoma City trust after Game 1, but he didn’t follow through. He tried to do more, forcing three-point shots and even overhelping on defense to the point that Russell Westbrook berated Durant for it late in the first half. Westbrook, meanwhile, had been in his own world of emotion-driven individuality that let the game get away in the second quarter.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

They tried to pull it together after the game: “I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff, and he got on me right back, and that’s what teammates do; that’s what leaders do,” Westbrook said.

And it’s true that by yelling, Westbrook was desperately trying to keep Durant accountable to the team. Durant also owned it postgame, saying: “I made three bonehead plays.”

But it’s all relative: Duncan already has a master’s degree in accountability.

Duncan wasn’t hitting shots early on the way he wanted, so he just concentrated on rebounding to make sure he was still contributing.

“Make a play for my teammates,” he explained simply.

What did Duncan, knees packed in ice, think would be a good way to kill time in the fourth quarter of this blowout? Walking over to join the coaching staff at the elbow for every one of its strategic meetings early in timeouts and just listening there before Popovich went to the bench to address the team.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

As big as Duncan’s 27-point Game 1 was, this one with a game-high 12 rebounds was just fine also. Not only did the Spurs roll, but his eight-year-old daughter Sydney caught two T-shirts in the stands from the in-game entertainment crew, as she excitedly reported to him after the game.

The moment late in pregame warmups when Duncan sits on the Spurs bench with Sydney on his lap and six-year-old son Draven at his side is the real important stuff.

On Wednesday, Sydney in her black No. 21 shirt gave Tim kiss after kiss after kiss, nuzzled his head and then immediately wiped the sweat off, high-fived him six consecutive times and then shook her hand in pain. When it was time for them to leave, Tim poked her one more time anyway, and she responded by giving one more kiss.

But when Duncan sits there in that very same spot on the bench late in halftime warmups next to Popovich, it’s something special, too.

Pop and Timmy: the old married couple. They don’t always have to talk to each other to be on the same page, setting a tone for the whole Spurs family. 

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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