The Thunder/Spur series is some real connoisseur basketball

It really is. Take it for granted at your own peril.

Hey, this is the example of why I love the NBA Playoffs, the most honest, truth-bearing of all the post-seasons. You have to beat a team four times, often in different ways, to vanquish them and move on to the next challenge. No flukes. No obscure catcher winning MVP by hitting twice his career average in a seven game span. No bottom-seeded team catching fire and winning the whole thing. You have to be the better team, in a sport where there are more than enough points being scored to separate the winners from the losers.

Nothing beats it.

And at least for this year, as match-ups go, you aren’t going to do any better than these Western Conference finals. If ever there was a series that epitomized ying & yang, black versus white and all that stuff, it’s this one. It was all set up to play out as the definitive answer to some kind of “what wins basketball games” type of question: Is it execution and preparation, or sheer, overwhelming force of talent? Thus far, it’s delivered on that promise.

Of course, the actual answer has been “a little bit of both”.

 Watching the Spurs play basketball is a study in precision, a definitive glimpse at how you play this game. To my memory, I can’t recall another team that was so proficient at getting open shots, no matter when or how. For most teams, the last five seconds of the shot clock is panic time: for San Antonio, it’s time to give Parker the ball and let him get either a lay-up or a wide-open three for one of the shooters. When they are executing in this manner, it almost seems unfair.

Ditto the Thunder, albeit by different methods. I mean, how many 6’10” shooting guards have you seen that not only have “in the gym” range but can go around a pick and get to (or over) the rim in two steps? Go ahead, rack your brain for the memory of a team with three awesome scorers, all capable of completely taking over a game on any given night. How about a team with three perimeter players that will absolutely murder you if you insist on playing them straight up?

I’ll wait here while you check.

So yeah, it’s no wonder that in these first four games, we’ve seen a dozen or so smaller dramas unfold within the bigger ones, including (but not limited to) watching two sides punch and counter-punch, superstars being forced to suppress their own game for the greater good,  old lions struggle to keep up with the new ones, and unsung players become heroes out of sheer necessity.

And there’s still three games to go!

Scott Brooks' mantra for the first two games: If I can't see it, it ain't happening.

Everyone knows the old “A series doesn’t start until the home team loses” adage, but that hardly applies here. Through the first two games San Antonio dictated the pace, scored seemingly whenever they wanted to, and frustrated Russell Westbrook like you just knew they would. If the Thunder weren’t going yo be willing or able to keep Tony Parker from dancing thru the lane at his leisure, they were going to fail in the same sort of “not ready for the moment” way they did in last years’ Western Conference Finals. That’s certainly how it looked to me as I watched the Spurs get a buttload of uncontested lay-ups, wide-open threes and the like. Shit, everyone knows this ain’t the anything goes, knock ’em on their ass days of the 1980’s, but something, anything had to be done to stop this endless parade of free baskets, did it not?

That’s the beauty of the playoff format. Even after having 120 points poured on their heads in game 2, OKC had a chance to go home and get their act together. After all, offense was never going to be the problem for this team, and if they could find a way to convince themselves of  this importance of keeping Tony Parker on a leash, this one was gonna be over before it started. In a friendly place and armed with that knowlede, the thunder flipped the series on it’s ear by keeping parker in front of them and just like that, the Spurs went from “destined to win the Title” and “unstoppable” to “old and vulnerable”.

The Thunder’s solution was to put the taller Thabo Sefolosha on Parker and do everything humanly possible to jam the lane and force the Spurs’ supporting players to take contested jump shots. For games three and four, Oklahoma mostly made it look easy. If they can do it at least one time in San Antonio, they’ll have it sewn up. Still, knowing what we do about road playoff games and what they tend to do to the average player, this is hardly a foregone conclusion. Nobody is asking for 26 more points from Serge Ibaka. Half of that would do just fine.

You know the feeling you get when you watch one of your favorite movies and it’s almost over? That sad twinge? It sums up how I feel about a series like this that I wish was” best-of-twenty” instead of  only seven. Sadly, we’ll get a maximum of three games more games of this.

Three great games though, to be sure. Whoever wins this series will have earned it, and likely the NBA Championship as well.

Can’t wait to see it for myself.

-John Hathwell


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