The San Antonio Spurs are one win away from a second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are a single loss from watching that concluding series from home for the second year in a row.
These Western Conference Finals have been filled with one blowout after another, and Game 5 wasn't going to break the trend. San Antonio emerged with a 117-89 victory that did far more than give the home team a 3-2 lead in the series.
It confirmed for us—not for the first time, of course—that coaching is quite important in the NBA. And who better to teach that lesson than Gregg Popovich, who thoroughly outclassed Scott Brooks in just about every facet of the game.
Pop, widely considered both the game's best coach and one of the finest in the history of the Association, did everything right. Brooks, who has been the subject of quite a bit of criticism throughout the postseason, did not.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and all the other players may be the ones deciding things on the court, but let's not overlook the necessity of having a quality figure pacing the sidelines.
The Lineup Changes
While it's almost unfathomable for the Thunder to undergo a lineup change unless it's necessitated by injuries, the Spurs won't hesitate to switch things up at the drop of a hat. Aches, pains and a willingness to be flexible played into San Antonio's 30 different starting lineups during the regular season, per Basketball-Reference.com, and there was yet another change on Thursday night.
Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan started, as is typical under Popovich, but they were joined by a strange face.
Matt Bonner, who started exactly zero games throughout the regular season, ended up on the court when the ball was thrown up in the air to start the festivities. Yes, "The Red Rocket," the same big man who has started only 15 combined games since falling out of the opening lineup in 2009.
The big man wasn't particularly effective, recording an empty stat line—save his two personal fouls—during his 17 minutes on the floor. But he represented the willingness to adjust, which was shown off once more when Boris Diaw entered the game at the start of the second half. Pop was going small to counter what had been working so well for the Thunder.
Brooks couldn't counter. Nor could he make proper substitutions.
Thabo Sefolosha didn't step onto the court until 7:37 remained in the entire game, and the rest of the bench was horrific. Of course, it wasn't used effectively, even though foul trouble from Kendrick Perkins forced Brooks to play Steven Adams more.
No, the head coach who has drawn so much criticism lately seemed content to live and die with the same reduced core he's used night in and night out. And during Game 5, it was more dying that living.
Caron Butler didn't receive enough consecutive run to get into any sort of rhythm. Jeremy Lamb, even though he'd shown off his skills during a Game 4 victory, received only 18 minutes, and the breakdown of them shows that most came in garbage time.
The second-year 2-guard watched the entire first half from the bench, entering when the Thunder were down 14 points in the third quarter.
Nick Collison? He got to come in with 2:54 remaining in the opening quarter, then he exited with just over 10 minutes left in the first half. He wouldn't play again until the game was out of hand in the final period.
How does this make any sense? There's an easy answer.
The Handling Of...Well...Everything
First, let's just establish that Westbrook and Durant have been fantastic during this series.
The dynamic point guard finished Game 5 with 21 points, four rebounds, seven assists and three steals while shooting 6-of-12 from the field. His MVP teammate had a relatively lackluster line of 25 points, five boards and two dimes.
However, each was missing something.
Durant couldn't get into a rhythm, and he seemed a step slow on both ends of the court throughout the night, relying on hitting heavily contested looks to get his points. Westbrook showcased his trademark explosiveness during the first quarter with a thunderous dunk, but he stagnated as the game went on and was getting beat off the dribble and to open spots on the defensive end.
It was a far cry from his point-preventing prowess back in OKC.
Now, fast forward to the fourth quarter.
Durant began the final period on the court, even though his team was down 20 points and had shown no signs of an upcoming turnaround. When he subbed out, Westbrook came in.
Scott Brooks is starting to make me angry. Injured Ibaka, still on the floor. Over-extended Westbrook & Durant, still on the floor. DOWN 25— Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) May 30, 2014
I'll ask the same question I posed earlier. How does this make any sense? Once more, there's an easy answer.
Brooks' handling of his star players has been absolutely atrocious. They're playing far too many minutes because he refuses to trust any of his bench players. And this didn't just happen in Game 5. For some reason, Durant and Westbrook played far too much in Game 4 as well.
The league MVP came into the fourth quarter of that previous contest with under 10 minutes remaining and a 16-point lead being held by his squad. He and the floor general wouldn't leave until there was just over a minute left, despite the fact that his team had maintained a double-digit lead that entire time.
When exactly did Tom Thibodeau take over for the Thunder?
For the postseason, Durant is now averaging 42.7 minutes per game, and he's carrying a ridiculous load whenever he's on the floor. Westbrook, who refuses to play with anything less than 100 percent effort, has played a much more reasonable amount: "only" 38.9 minutes per contest.
"We're guaranteed 48 more minutes. It's been an up-and-down series, but we've got to find a way to come with it in Game 6," Durant said after the game, via NBA.com's Tim Price.
Thing is, he might actually be guaranteed 48 more minutes as an individual.
According to SportVU data on NBA.com, only Paul George had traveled more miles throughout the postseason than either of these superstars, though he'd played one extra game. Of course they're exhausted at this point in the proceedings.
Problem is, much of the running is extraneous. It could be avoided by proper handling, which Brooks is incapable of.
Consider this tidbit: Pop sat his starters in Game 4 blowout & in this one so far while #Thunder core players getting heavy minutes in both.— J.M. Poulard (@ShyneIV) May 30, 2014
On the flip side, Popovich managed to keep Duncan and Parker to 30 minutes apiece. Manu Ginobili played only 21.
And here's the crazy part.
Since Game 1, Parker, Duncan and Ginobili have not played more than 30 minutes in a game.
Hmmm. Who do you think is going to have fresher legs for the rest of the series?
Then again, with Popovich on one sideline and Brooks on the other, I'm not even sure that fresh legs are necessary for the Spurs. After all, one coach seems scarily unable to make adjustments.
No, I'm not talking about the grumpy old codger who runs things for San Antonio.
The Thunder's defense worked nicely at first, but then it quickly took more than a few steps backward. Actually, it didn't in a more literal sense, as SBNation.com's Mike Prada noticed:
Thunder D should take a step back on these hard hedges. I don’t think they will, though.— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) May 30, 2014
OKC came out intending to hedge quite hard with their big men whenever the Spurs ran one of their many pick-and-roll sets, but it proved to be a bad idea. The Spurs consistently burst around them, earning spots on the interior of the defensive sets, from where they could pick apart the Thunder.
Did the visiting team adjust? Of course not.
"But he [Brooks] can be better. He should be better," wrote B/R's Dan Favale earlier in the postseason. "Games and series are never lost because of one man, but Brooks has continuously shown his late-game chops aren't good enough."
Once more, this time in Game 5 of the WCF, there was no strategic change, and the Spurs consistently enjoyed the fact that the Thunder couldn't keep their men in front of them and had fewer players on the interior to slow down ball-handlers because of the constant hedging, hard shows and attempted traps.
And things were even worse on offense.
#Thunder have been rewarded with real stagnant offense by hitting tough shots— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 30, 2014
At first, the team was bailed out by having incredible shot-makers on the floor.
They drained plenty of contested jumpers, and even though the starters were scoring, the offense wouldn't have received high marks from anyone grading them on the process rather than the results. Once the rim started rejecting attempts that were previously falling, there were no major adjustments made.
Isolation. Isolation. Isolation.
That just about summarizes the OKC offense, and that's rather problematic when facing a defense as stellar as the one boasted by the Spurs.
Should Brooks coach the Thunder in 2014-15?
I'd love to have been a fly on the wall while Brooks was making his halftime speech and going over the changes his team would make in order to overcome a 10-point deficit in the third and fourth quarters. Were they talking about the weather? Is it possible that he was talking about whether or not Godzilla was worth going to see after the game?
Surely they couldn't have been discussing basketball. That means changes would've been made during the second half, and they weren't. Well, no effective ones were made, at least.
The Thunder have the luxury of rostering Serge Ibaka, Durant and Westbrook. That's enough for them to beat lesser teams, but San Antonio is a superior squad.
And it all starts with coaching.