Wednesday, 11 May 2016
After a Spectacular Season, the Spurs Are on the Brink
SAN ANTONIO — Things were not quite supposed to play out this way. The San Antonio Spurs were not supposed to be one loss away from elimination in the Western Conference semifinals.
San Antonio won a remarkable 67 games during the regular season, and its excellence this season was overshadowed only because the Golden State Warriors effervescently compiled a league-record 73 wins. In any case, these were the two best teams, destined to fight for the conference crown.
Yet that foreordained matchup is in peril now, because San Antonio finds itself fighting for its playoff life, trailing the best-of-seven conference semifinal series, three games to two, to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The meeting between the Spurs and the Thunder (55 wins this season) was presented as this: A well-drilled veteran team with a resplendent offense and the league’s best defense meeting a superstar pair, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who lacked very much support.
Yet the Thunder duo have gained the upper hand, carrying their team within a win of the conference finals. For neutral fans, the series has been a blessing. It has been a showcase of high-intensity, high-skill basketball. The Spurs and their fans, however, have been unnerved.
Kawhi Leonard was asked late Tuesday night whether he found it surprising to be one game away from elimination. “Definitely,” Leonard said. “Your goal is to play till June. But it’s not over yet, so I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about winning.”
The Spurs lost one game at home in the entirety of the regular season. They have lost two at home in this series alone after falling in Game 5 on Tuesday night. Whatever happens next, they have been made to look mortal. Embodying the Spurs’ unsteady state has been Tim Duncan, the longtime franchise cornerstone, who in this series has suddenly been recast as a feeble figure.
Duncan played over 28 minutes, but he made just one of six shots. He dunked in the first half, sparking raucous cheers from the crowd, which seemed intent on sending him positive vibes. He blocked Westbrook at the rim with just under five minutes to go and received more booming applause from the crowd moments later as he took a seat on the bench.
Duncan, who could decide to retire this summer, did not speak to the news media after the loss. It may end up being his last game at AT&T Center.
“It’s not over by any means,” the Spurs’ Danny Green said. “Stay positive. Bring the energy. We’ve won there before. We have to do it again or we’re going home, simple as that.”
Oklahoma City has made life tough for San Antonio, but every game, except San Antonio’s Game 1 victory, has been close. And after each game, it has been the same routine: dissecting some small play here, another minor call there, looking at various little things that might have influenced the result.
The referees, for instance, have been under the microscope. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich does not often talk about officiating after the fact, but he said on Tuesday that it was “obvious” that Leonard had fouled Westbrook ina late noncall situation, when the Spurs needed to foul. And he said he was “concerned” about a late foul call the Thunders’ Durant had drawn, when it appeared that the Spurs’ Green had been tripped into him.
“But every call doesn’t get called,” Popovich said. “That’s the way the game is.”
The Spurs have not quite looked like themselves. The Spurs had 39 assists as a team in Game 1. They had 19 assists in Games 2 and 3. After notching just 12 in their loss in Game 4, they had 19 again on Tuesday. Popovich this week pointed out that game play, as a whole, tends to slow down during the playoffs. But he acknowledged the team needed to be sharper moving the ball.
After Game 5, the Spurs were ruing their inability to rebound. The Thunder beat them in that category, 54-36.
“That’s hurt us through the entire series,” Popovich said, referring to the rebounding battle.
The Spurs have struggled of late to find good shots. LaMarcus Aldridge has symbolized the downturn. He made 33 of his 44 field goal attempts through the first two games, scoring 79 points combined, while confounding the Thunder with his one-on-one moves. In Games 3, 4 and 5, though, he faded, making only 22 of his 60 shots and totaling 64 points in those games.
“We all have to put pressure on ourselves,” Aldridge said. “We have to go out there and play like it’s our lives on the line. We have to compete at a high level and do anything we have to do to get the win.”
On top of all that, Oklahoma City has looked poised in these games. Durant played majestically, particularly in Game 4, when he put on a scoring exhibition. Westbrook has been impossible to corral. Even when he has not shot the ball well, his constant motion to the basket has punctured the Spurs’ defensive shape. His rebounding was cited by several Spurs players after the game.
Yet amid all this, Popovich was defiant when asked how much credit Thunder Coach Billy Donovan deserved after pushing the Spurs to the brink of elimination.
“I didn’t know the series was over yet,” Popovich said.