Get all of Rob Mahoney’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
OKLAHOMA CITY — If the San Antonio Spurs fell off a cliff somewhere in the course of their second-round playoff series, it was because the Oklahoma City Thunder pushed them. Players age. Teams struggle. Games are lost to slumped shooting or flustered decisions. Yet Oklahoma City took a proactive role in bringing these facts of basketball life to the forefront in each of the final five games of the series, thereby forcing San Antonio to confront its every limitation. A 67-win team with a historic regular season point differential does not bend but by force.
The Thunder showed that force in spades. With each successive game, they stripped away at a few more elements of the Spurs’ offense. The fluid system that once delighted basketball purists devolved first into desperate pick-and-rolls and then into sputtering isolations. By Game 6, OKC defenders were on top of everything. San Antonio couldn’t manage a single three-pointer in the first half of its 113–99 loss. Set plays were recognized and snuffed out immediately while the creative abilities of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge were pushed to their reasonable limits. There was ultimately nowhere left to turn.
Gregg Popovich, in classic elimination-game fashion, left no stone unturned. Little-used reserves Boban Marjanovic and Kevin Martin both played actual, competitive minutes before the game got out of hand. Boris Diaw was nixed from the rotation entirely. San Antonio started the second half down 24 points and in its smallest lineup of the series—a direct counter to the jumbo, bulk-rebounding lineups that had turned the series in Oklahoma City’s favor. The sum of those moves and the Spurs’ increasing desperation cut the deficit to 11 points in the fourth but no further. Just when it seemed San Antonio had ground the game into something manageable, Serge Ibaka obliterated a Tim Duncan layup attempt and triggered Kevin Durant for a fast-break dunk. A final air of decision came with it.
Controlling a team like the Spurs game after game demands rare persistence. The Thunder of the regular season didn’t seem capable of it; that team would drift when tasked with defending consecutive actions, slacking gradually as a possession wore on. Despite that, Oklahoma City’s executional endurance was never much of an issue in this heavyweight series. Sequences that would have worn down the Thunder just months earlier were handled deftly.
“I thought we did a really good job defensively in the series,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “Because listen: they’re really, really hard to guard. They’re unselfish. They’re smart. They’re very, very savvy. They play the right way. They’re a hard team to guard."
Classic Sports Illustrated photos of Tim Duncan
Rare SI Photos of Tim Duncan
There wasn’t a single matchup or adjustment that won this series for the Thunder. There were waves of them. San Antonio’s best efforts in defending Durant and Russell Westbrook amounted to little; both were able to work their way to enough quality shots to justify additional pressure, off of which the supporting cast thrived. A defense will almost inevitably come up short when committing extra attention to a pair of superstars, scrambling to contest any shooter that mattered, and making a mad dash to contend with huge, physical bigs on the glass. Even possessions of near-perfect execution too often left the Spurs wanting.
“Sometimes it’s not meant to be,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. That much was hinted by the basketball gods when a wild, promising sequence at the end of Game 2 turned to dust in the space of a few seconds. It was reinforced when Game 5 slipped away with missed shots from Parker and missed calls when San Antonio desperately needed them. A few bounces might have turned the results of those games, though it wouldn’t have changed the general tenor of the series once Oklahoma City locked in and played the best basketball of its season. The Warriors, who await the Thunder in the Western Conference finals, will demand every bit of it come Monday.
Donovan, when asked how his team might match up with the Warriors, almost laughed off the question. This was some 15 minutes after his team had claimed victory over a foregone conclusion: Golden State and San Antonio, two of the best regular season teams ever, destined to meet late in the playoffs. Oklahoma City didn’t just upset that premise but proved it definitively false. The Thunder will advance because they deserve to, and in the interim can claim the luxury of a moment’s reprieve.
“I think the best way to describe it is, if you do win a playoff series, it’s an unbelievable relief,” Popovich said earlier in the series. “One would think there would be joy, but it’s just an unbelievable relief. When you lose, it’s a devastating feeling. The key is to get over it quickly, either way. Do not think it’s such a big deal if you win and it’s not the end of the world if you lose.”
Life goes on in Oklahoma City and San Antonio alike. Donovan will soon reconvene with his staff to parse video and Thunder players will be so immersed in the matchup they’ll count Stephen Curry jumpers as they lay down to sleep. The Spurs move on—perhaps, in some cases, beyond basketball entirely. Tim Duncan is 40 years old. Manu Ginobili is 38. Their illustrious careers may well have ended with their season, played off by a Thunder team that took full advantage of all they could no longer do. No fan of the game should root for their exit, though it would hardly come as a surprise. Never is the vision of basketball mortality clearer than when a legend falls victim, all at once, to context, twilight and a clearly superior opponent.