No longer is it a series worthy of analysis. The Spurs were passing Go and returning to the NBA Finals upon Serge Ibaka’s first calf tug, and when they win Game 2 of this Western Conference afterthought by 35 points, it’s time to look for more relevant angles. Such as, Steve Miller showed up to watch in San Antonio, probably ridin’ along on his big ol’ jet plane, which was impressive in that I hadn’t heard his name uttered since my classic rock station went hip-hop. That Miller is a fan of the Spurs suggests, once again, that Gregg Popovich’s system is inspiring all demographics.
More importantly in the here and now, they look primed to close out an Oklahoma City team that seems to have misplaced Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — 15 points each, on 13 of 40 shooting combined — and may just expire quickly enough to allow the Spurs a week of rest before the NBA Finals. Veterans and Popovich disciples that they are, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the guys are professing concern that the Thunder could return home and win a game or two. “Manu said it’s a dangerous win but I believe in our group,” said Danny Green, who continued his blistering shooting with seven three-pointers in a 112-77 win. “I believe that we have the maturity, the character and the experience to stay focused and not take this win to head.”
Please. The Thunder can’t defend the paint, the perimeter or their choice of deodorant. The league’s Most Valuable Player, not playing much defense himself, seems resigned to another defeat two years after losing to Miami in the NBA Finals. “We lost by a lot two games in a row,’’ Durant said. “It’s hard for you to stay together, but we have a group of guys that are not frontrunners.’’
Maybe so, but the non-frontrunners are being carved up by Tony Parker and a Spirs team that is deeper and better than last year and hungry to avenge its own Finals loss to the Heat. Not that they’re going to talk about their ache publicly. When Tim Duncan was told that the Big Three — Duncan, Parker and Ginobili — had broken an NBA record with 111 victories by three teammates, he would have been more excited about getting a parking ticket. “Haven’t thought about it,’’ he said. “Our only goal, our only purpose, is winning this series and moving on.’’
Boring? Wait until he’s holding another champagne bottle in three weeks. The San Antonio Express-News tried to inject excitement in the series by mocking The Oklahoman’s regrettable headline about Durant — “Mr. Unreliable’’ — after his erratic play early in the Memphis series. “Mr. Reliable,’’ the paper splashed about Duncan, who definitely has been that for 17 years. “I always show up and assume that the game depends on me,” said Duncan, 38 on paper but owning the lane like a 21-year-old without Ibaka to clog it. “I know it does a lot less in these years and this season, but I still show up and I feel responsible for what happens out there — so I want to play as well as I can.”
Thing is, all the Spurs are operating at peak efficiency, just in time. Even Popovich conceded that his acclaimed system robs his players of numbers in a sport that celebrates individuals. “I think about our guys sometimes, and their stats,” Popovich said. “They really get screwed playing for me. Because really, if you win 62 games and some of (the wins) are by a decent margin … it hurts their stats, without a doubt. But luckily, I’ve got players who don’t think about that, because I definitely have screwed them.”
Now we know why the Spurs were insisting that Ibaka didn’t have a season-ending calf injury. They needed a way to stay interested in this series, at least until it no longer was necessary. Without one of the NBA’s best shot blockers and interior defenders, the Thunder have no chance. Unless a miracle cure is found for Ibaka, go ahead and assume the same conditions will exist the rest of the series, allowing the Spurs a chance in the NBA Finals to right one of their few wrongs of the Popovich Era (we do not gratuitously call him “Pop’’ in this space). Lest you think the Spurs are robots, puppeteered by a dictator whose idea of entertainment is torturing TV reporters, they ARE human beings who still burn at the thought of blowing a title last June. Somehow, they didn’t protect a five-point lead In Game 6 with 28 seconds left in regulation, letting Ray Allen hit his epic three-pointer. And somehow, Duncan missed a late gimme in Game 7, leading to their demise.
They do not talk about that failure much. But it occupies and motivates Popovich, Duncan and the rest every day. A wonderfully enduring system is the star, and with or without Ibaka, the Spurs simply continue a business that mandates selflessness, precision and locating the open man. The Spurs have climbed to another level as Kawhi Leonard develops into a supreme two-way player — watch his work on Durant — while creatively integral parts such as Green, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills all compliment the sturdy Big Three. Remember Green’s shooting struggles in the Finals last year? He has 11 three-pointers in two games and has been terrific defensively. And what was that nonsense about Parker having a hamstring issue?
Bring on Miami. Or, dare I say, Indiana.
“It definitely doesn’t feel good and it shouldn’t,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “ hope our locker doesn’t feel good. You shouldn’t feel good. We got our butts kicked.’’
Now that the Spurs are acknowledging Ibaka’s absence, they’re reaching down for more reasons to stay interested — their loss to the Thunder in the 2012 Western finals, for one. That seems a very long time ago. Said Parker: “We knew that we have to play our best game to compete against them, and I think it’s great to have an appropriate fear. They played great against us in 2012, and we know that we have to be perfect. They’re younger than us and more athletic, and so we have to be more perfect.”
More perfect than perfect? Don’t put it past them.