The OKC Thunder just stole a second game in San Antonio and boy was this game loaded with things that annoyed me, excited me and made me nervous. The quite clear annoyance is that my Spurs are down 3-2 to the Thunder, but that is not even the issue I have right now. OKC is playing absolutely phenomenal, the Spurs not so much. This series has to be some of the worst shooting I have seen from the Spurs this entire season. OKC should be winning this series handily. Regardless of the series as a whole, I am going to delve into some issues/questions that pertaining to Game 5 (and Game 4 in Duncan’s case) that I could not stop thinking about/noticing throughout the game.
My first issue was how evident the superstar treatment for Russell Westbrook was in Game 5. This game proved that Mark Cuban was wrong and Westbrook is indeed a superstar based on this superstar treatment. Anyone, especially the refs, that denies the existence of superstar treatment in the NBA is crazy. I have known it has existed for a while, but seriously, at least try to make it not as obvious. First instance where I found myself thinking “seriously?” was when a foul was called on Tony Parker when Westbrook straight up drove into TP’s back! How was that a foul? I am all about the fouls where the offensive player gets the defensive player in the air to draw a foul, but driving into a player when their back is to you and they are running the other way and getting the call? How? It was Russell Westbrook, that’s how.
Another similar play was sometime in the first half because Charles Barkley referenced it at halftime when he said Westbrook was “driving 100 MPH in inner city traffic.” Westbrook drove all the way up the floor so fast that when he got in between four Spurs players off balance, he fell to the floor he got a foul called. Again, this has to be attributed to the fact that it’s Westbrook. If Dion Waiters were to do the same, or Kawhi Leonard even, I would imagine no foul would have been called due to the player being out of control. Message to the refs: we know the superstar treatment exists, but dial it down just a bit maybe? (Disclaimer: I do not think Westbrook is the only player benefitting from this, just describing what I noticed in Game 5 of Spurs/Thunder)
Dear NBA: What the heck is a foul anymore?! Where is the consistency?
I have already talked about two instances with Westbrook, not surprising that three more instances I remember involved Westbrook. One was the foul assessed to Parker on the Westbrook flop. Westbrook sold the refs on a foul to get himself out of a double team by acting like he got hit in the face. This promotes the high caliber Hollywood acting that goes on the in the NBA, and yes, I am aware and agree that Ginobli is one of those actors (this reputation actually cost us Game 2). Why is it so prevalent? The NBA and the refs allow it to be. Fining does nothing. Fouls where players feel there was acting going on should be allowed to be challenged and if correct the flopper is assessed a technical foul. Surely this could help cut down the flopping when it hurts your team, not just your bottomless pocketbook.
Of course I cannot address the foul situation without pointing to the Kawhi no call. As a ref you know a team down four with six seconds left has no choice but to foul, but six seconds left or not how can Kawhi grabbing Westbrook around the waist not be a foul? Seriously, what the heck constitutes a foul when an intentional foul is not called and a world class theatrical act draws a foul? Where’s the consistency here? A non Game 5 flagrant foul I remember was in the first round, may have been the Hawks/Celtics series. I can’t recall who the foul was called on, but the player bit on a shot fake, so much so that they were flipping over the ball handler and the natural instinct of putting your hands out to break your fall led a flagrant being called on the guy. The refs even got to view the replay and were not able to recognize this. Surely they had to have fallen at some point in their life to know about that instinct.
I could go all day about the issues with flagrants, but returning to Game 5 tonight, watch the replay of Kawhi posterizing Westbrook with what should have been an And-1. I thought there may have been a foul live but the replay clearly showed Westbrook clocking Leonard across the face. It could probably be argued that it was a flagrant, but I am arguing more for some simple consistency of at least a foul being called. Was it because Leonard didn’t flop to the floor? Was it because Leonard does not receive this “superstar” treatment because the Spurs pride themselves on being about the team and not superstars? Sure you may want to write this off as an angry Spurs fan ranting, but this issue is throughout the NBA. Need proof, look no further than the New York Times article about how much Jeremy Lin gets hacked and no fouls are called. This is a league issue that needs to be addressed this offseason (preferably sooner than that) because it is taking away from the game of basketball.
Dear NBA again: Amend the shot clock rule!
This will be short and sweet. Late in the fourth the Spurs air balled a shot as the shot clock expired, the Thunder took the rebound down for a layup because eight or nine of the players on the floor quit playing. 999999 times out of 1000000 that is called a shot clock violation and stops the fast break. That was the first time I had ever seen it not called. I am quite frankly for the rule to be changed to favor the fast break like the Thunder got; however, back to the consistency, how was that not called? Please, please, please change this rule to favor the team that made the defensive stop. The change is simple, if the defense rebounds the airball, let them play on. Not too difficult and I am pretty certain no one would sweat over this rule change. Just don’t change it in the middle of a game unannounced.
Durant and Westbrook are the certainly the stars, but where would OKC be without Steven Adams?
One thing I have noticed this series is the play of Steven Adams. Yes, the Thunder are quite reliant on the play of Kevin Durant and Westbrook (both of which are playing at a whole new level than I have ever seen them play in the past), but Steven Adams has been huge for the Thunder. Without the high level of play that I have seen from Adams, this series would already have been over. Don’t believe me, go back and watch the 4th quarter. He made some big time baskets down the stretch. In addition to scoring he has provided rebounding and a great low post defensive presence this series that is crucial for the Thunder. This is where I attribute the 3-2 lead for the Thunder, not the terrible refereeing (It’s consistently inconsistent on both sides, i.e. last 13 seconds of Game 2). The Spurs got killed on the offensive boards this game leading to the Thunder getting second and even third chances. Not something you want to do with Durant and Westbrook on the other team.
Duncan is not finished yet
All the people claiming father time has caught up with Tim need to calm down. Yeah Duncan has not been putting up ridiculous numbers, but you have to look at the big picture and not just get caught up in the numbers. Trust me, I know it’s hard cause I’m a numbers nerd myself, but needs to be done. First, the Spurs were in this game late because of the play and presence of Duncan. He was still rebounding the ball and making smart plays, particularly down the stretch. Second, why should people be expecting so much from Duncan this series. The Thunder (and the Warriors, looking forward to the WCF or back to the regular season, your choice) are just not the type of team to expect much from Duncan. Pop is implementing this switch everything mentality against these teams and I don’t know about you, but I would rather not see Tim Duncan playing defense outside the three point line because of a switch on Westbrook or Durant (or Curry/Thompson/etc). When the game turns into a big boy matter, which Game 5 did a bit, Duncan becomes a factor again.
If we want to point to his numbers being down, I would suggest that Duncan is not taking shots like he should. He’s being too unselfish letting Leonard and Aldridge take over. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but at some point you have to make sure people still respect you. My fiancee gave Timmy a great nickname to sum this up: “Timid Timmy.” There were multiple occasions where I saw Tim Duncan wide open for the mid range jumper and he totally passed on it. Sometimes it worked for the better, other times the Spurs would have been better off with his attempt instead of a turnover. I have watched Duncan hit that shot so well for over a decade. Surely he can still hit that shot and needs to so players are not able to sag off on him and count on father time. This will only lead to an acceleration of the ineffectiveness. I see plenty left in the tank for Duncan, especially with how Pop plays him, but he’ll get in his own head and possibly retire too early if he does not believe in his ole reliable post ups and mid range shots.
Is Pop losing his coaching edge?
I never thought I would say this, but the last few games have led me to question Pop for the first time since the George Hill/Kawhi Leonard trade in 2011. I cannot understand Pop’s lack of timeout usage late in the game and whether or not he understands players being hot or cold. I have always been a big time Spurs fan because they epitomize what I wish every team did.. the value of teamwork. The Spurs way is to play everyone and believe in every single guy out on the floor. However, I do believe in players being hot/cold in a game and Pop does not seem to comprehend this of late. My first problem was in Game 2.
Yes, in any other circumstance I would have been okay with a Patty Mills 3pt attempt, but he was having a horrendous game. Why was he on the floor, why did he take the last shot, and why did Pop not take his last timeout to utilize one of his brilliantly designed plays for someone that was actually shooting well? Tonight was another example of this. Three timeouts late, no real good options opening up, and we settled with a cold Parker taking multiple big time shots and coming colossally short. There are times where I noticed the Spurs wanting to force the issue with certain players even when they were cold, which leads to multiple empty possessions at crucial times in the game. This has been evident with Aldridge in Games 4 and 5 as well as Parker at the end of Game 5 and Mills at the end of Game 2. Go with the hot hand and use those timeouts. Your plays work almost to perfection (i.e. Aldridge getting fouled on a 3 in Game 2). A couple timeouts and going with the hot hand and this series just may very well have been over by now. Unfortunately now we find ourselves down 3-2.