The Western Conference Finals have been half about system and half about talent. The question is, which one will actually prevail?
The Oklahoma City Thunder sit tied at two with the San Antonio Spurs as the series heads back to Texas for Thursday's Game 5. And now, after winning the first two contests of the set, the Spurs have to be wondering if back-to-back blowouts to the star-studded Thunder are cause for concern.
San Antonio has great players on its own, but its offense relies on a more detailed system than Oklahoma City's. The Spurs screen like crazy, don't hold onto the ball much and depend on floor spacing and timely off-ball cuts to get their points. They need rhythm and consistent outside shooting, both of which can be mucked up whereas superstars can usually only be slowed down.
In two games against an OKC defense that was missing Serge Ibaka after the Thunder's best defender was ruled out for the season, San Antonio chiseled Oklahoma City like Michelangelo's David, and the offensive result was as beautiful as anything the Italian sculptor had ever made.
San Antonio averaged 123.4 points per 100 possessions over Games 1 and 2. That's such a high number that it would be a vast understatement to say it would be the best offensive efficiency in the NBA. But then we found out that Ibaka was not, in fact, out for the year, and everything changed.
All of a sudden, Oklahoma City got its athleticism advantage back with the return of yet another star to add to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And coincidence or not, San Antonio hasn't been the same since.
In its simplest form, the Spurs bank on system and the Thunder lean on their talent and youth. But if the Spurs are the tortoise to the Thunder's hare, then why has OKC wrecked San Antonio with every step over the past two games?
Essentially, the Spurs have been caught out of their comfort zone.
If you rely on the system, then it actually has to work. As tremendous as the Thunder stars have been in Games 3 and 4 of this series (especially Westbrook, who went for 40 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and five steals in a 105-92 Game 4 victory), the Spurs' system has let down.
Go back and watch Games 1 and 2 against OKC, and the Spurs were spreading the ball around like peanut butter. The spacing was...well, it was Spurs-like to such a degree that I felt possessed enough to write 2,500 words chronicling exactly why it was so effective after Game 2.
You can credit Ibaka or Thunder adjustments, but the Spurs just looked different in Game 4. The spacing went away, and some of that was purely on them, like on this play that Coach Nick of BBall Breakdown pointed out, when San Antonio had two guys purposelessly standing right next to each other in the corner:
Even the Splitter backdoor cut was screwed up as 2 Spurs were standing next to each other in corner. pic.twitter.com/F931YV4MRy— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 28, 2014
This isn't just on the Spurs losing their mojo or the Thunder's best defensive player making his return. Let's give some credit to the rarely lauded (and sometimes overly criticized) Scott Brooks, as well, who has crafted a dependable defense, which takes advantage of its freakish personnel. But let's not take all the credit away from Ibaka either, because the "star power," or more so the athleticism, is what can change this series.
Ibaka is the definition of a guy who defends the rim, but that doesn't always mean blocking shots. He was never the Serge Protector until this year.
In the past, he used to miss rotations, bite on every pump fake and find himself out of position far too often. Now, he's deterring shots and making some Spurs become particularly passive. Namely, Tiago Splitter looks like a bigger pushover than Donna Martin.
Plays like this, when Splitter should be shooting, have killed San Antonio:
That's just a Spur seeing Ibaka, getting scared and not taking a shot he should. Splitter has a few feet of free space to put up a four-footer and make a shot or possibly get fouled, but Ibaka's rotation throws him off completely:
That's just overpassing. It's the presence of Ibaka's athleticism changing the mentality of a team whose reputation says that its mind is near perfection.
Who wins this series?
It's possible Splitter actually feels too comfortable giving the ball up there, considering how fluid his big-to-big chemistry is with Tim Duncan, but if he isn't going to produce when he's in the post with his Hall of Fame counterpart, then maybe giving Boris Diaw some more minutes to stretch the floor wouldn't be the worst plan.
No, that's clearly not going to help counter OKC's athleticism, but the Spurs won't be able to do that anyway. Remember, for San Antonio this is all about scheme, and getting a little more spacing from a guy who knocked in 40.2 percent of his threes during the regular season may convince Ibaka to stray from the hoop a little more often.
Of late, the Spurs aren't playing their game. The problem is that when there are lapses, athleticism is often going to prevail.
Again, this isn't necessarily an issue of superstardom.
The Spurs have one of the 10 best players of all time in Duncan. They have a top-three or -four point guard in Tony Parker. They have another Hall of Famer in Manu Ginobili.
Just because those guys don't lead the NBA in endorsements or talk inappropriate amounts of trash doesn't mean they're not superstars. Duncan and Parker, especially, are the absolute definition of the word.
What they're not are top-tier athletes.
Westbrook is a martial artist. Parker is at the arts and crafts studio. And Duncan is the teacher overseeing all the kids at their tables.
But when the arts-and-crafts kids stop building with wood and start trying to chop through it, that's when you have your issues. And in Games 3 and 4, San Antonio has partly gotten away from what it does best. Basically, the Spurs just haven't looked as prepared as you'd expect.
That sounds insane to say about a Gregg Popovich-coached team, but maybe that's why Pop benched all his starters for the final 17 minutes of Game 4, keeping those guys in warm-ups even when it looked like the backups were within closing distance of the Thunder.
After the contest, Pop was his usually brief self. When asked if he considered bringing his starters back into the game, he responded, "Nope, because I didn't see any sense in it."
He went on to clarify that he was thinking about giving his best players some time to rest before Game 5.
And maybe it did have something to do with rest. Maybe it was a motivational tactic. Or maybe Pop was trying to get his guys to pay attention, something they didn't really do in Game 4.
Nothing tells the story of the Spurs' Game 4 struggles better than Parker's three turnovers. And it's not that he was reckless; he was just somewhat unaware.
Watch Westbrook trail Parker and knock away the ball from behind him on these plays:
Mostly, these are just tremendous plays from the most athletic guard in the league. The speed to catch up to Parker, along with the coordination and prediction to get to the ball, make both of those plays ones almost no other player can make. But Parker shouldn't be shocked by that move.
Actually, he should be surprised if he doesn't see it.
Lunging for the ball-handler from behind is one of Westbrook's favorite on-ball, defensive moves. That exact play is one of the reasons why he's earned the reputation of a "gambler" on the defensive end.
Parker, who's dribbling high and seems to be unaware of exactly what his defender is doing, has to know Russ is coming for him. Trying to get the steal from behind the ball-handler is often his first move, and like a gambling addict, when Russ gets it to work once in a game, he obsessively goes to that strategy even more, thinking he'll get the steal every time.
Normally, someone like Parker knows that. It's un-Spurs-like for him to have that sort of lapse. But over the past couple of games, San Antonio has made those sorts of plays.
When you don't have the athleticism advantage, you have to make sure to out-execute. And over the past two games, the Thunder defense, with its size, speed and quickness, has made sure to eliminate the grease of the Spurs attack.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.