SAN ANTONIO -- One of the San Antonio Spurs’ most admirable qualities -- their resilience -- is now one of their most essential. The resolve that helped them bounce back from last year’s devastating loss in the NBA Finals and put themselves in position to grab another championship is what they’ll need to draw from in Thursday night’s Game 5 and the remainder of the Western Conference finals.
“They’re a real professional group,” Gregg Popovich said of his team. “There’s not going to be any team at this point in the playoffs that’s not professional and hungry and play hard, whether it’s a win or a loss.”
Popovich is right, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary the Indiana Pacers provide. His words are particularly accurate in the West, where it’s quite possible that the Oklahoma City Thunder’s athleticism advantage is more significant than the Spurs’ wisdom edge.
Yes, the lineup of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard -- the Spurs’ second-most used unit this season –- boasts a collective 725 playoff games of experience. But if Scott Brooks wanted to he could easily field a lineup with a total of 584 playoff games to their credit: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Derek Fisher, Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins.
The other day, Durant said that experience pays off in “knowing that we’ve been here before and knowing how we responded,” as well as saying “just knowing that a couple of possessions can switch the series up.” It’s the knowledge mixed with the athletic ability that makes them so dangerous. Popovich used Westbrook as an example of a player whose effort on the court reflected the stakes of Game 4.
Somehow the Spurs didn’t respond. At the moment, the Thunder have the edge in awareness.
“It’s important for us to have ... a sense of place, a sense of where we are and what kind of an opportunity we have here, and to what degree do we want to take advantage of it,” Popovich told reporters Wednesday. “These things don’t come along every year, to be in this kind of a position. I’m anxious to see what our approach is mentally to the game.”
The rest of us are curious to see whether Popovich has any significant adjustments for Game 5. He got everything he could have asked for from the lineup of Diaw, Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner and Aaron Baynes that he sent in once the Spurs fell hopelessly behind. That doesn’t guarantee we’ll see more of it, in any form.
“That was a situation that called for something like that,” Popovich said. “But I wouldn’t think that that’s going to be a staple.”
The Spurs could use a “stretch 4” to pull Ibaka away from the basket.They actually have one in Bonner, but he brings defensive concerns and has fallen out of the rotation in the past couple of years. His reduced usage can be traced back to the 2012 conference finals against the Thunder, when Bonner’s play increased from 11 minutes in Game 1 to 17 minutes in Game 2 to 23 minutes in Game 3, then dropped to two minutes in Game 4, 50 seconds in Game 5 to not playing at all in Game 6. Bonner’s time in the 2014 series has mostly come once the outcome has been decided.
Diaw has been the primary frontcourt sub, but he’s shooting only 27 percent on 3-pointers in the series.
The Spurs had some success running their offense through Duncan in the high post and letting him make passes to players cutting to the basket. He had assists on three of the Spurs’ eight baskets in the second quarter of Game 4. That’s another area they could explore.
The longer a series goes on, the less it becomes about adjustments. Radical change at this stage often reeks of desperation. It’s more about maximizing than countering, as Ginobili alluded.
“We’ve got to get to a point where we play much harder and much smarter,” he said. “We’ve got to attack quicker, don’t let their pressure bother us or get us on our heels.”
They’ve got to dip into their well of resolve.