Charles Barkley made a really good point after the San Antonio Spurs took the first game of the Western Conference final series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. Yes, somewhere in the hilarity of what TNT has going on with that NBA analyst team of Barkley, Shaq and Kenny Smith, one or two of them gives you spot-on game quotes from time to time.
"Oklahoma City is in trouble. ... Because the Spurs didn't even play well," Barkley said on Inside the NBA.
It's true. The Thunder went into halftime after watching the Spurs commit 14 turnovers in the first half, compared to seven by OKC. And still, the Thunder struggled to maintain single-digit leads, only up by one point at halftime, and nine points after three quarters.
OKC never gave San Antonio what it had coming for committing those turnovers, but the issue had nothing to do with the Thunder's offense, and not even the defense until late in the game. I think Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry put it well with this:
The Thunder made Tony Parker look human, held Tim Duncan in check (relatively, of course), defended the pick-and-roll extremely well (for its standards against the Spurs) and finally guarded the 3-point line (again, fairly well considering recent history against this team). Still, the Spurs were able to steal a game it had no business winning after the third quarter.
Now, for the main source of why the Spurs are better suited to run away with it in the fourth quarter, consider the most glaring advantage San Antonio has over OKC: coaching.
A big part of breaking down this series takes you to how the Manu Ginobli/James Harden/Thabo Sefolosha minutes are going to be managed, as SB Nation's Mike Prada pointed out in his column before Sunday's game.
Ibaka played the fewest minutes of any OKC starter and didn't commit a single foul in Game 1. Even with the Thunder playing small ball, Ibaka has to be in the game for defensive purposes if San Antonio's offense is unlike anything OKC has seen in these playoffs, right? Wrong.
Mayberry addressed this issue as well:
Everybody seems to be up in arms about Serge Ibaka not playing in the fourth quarter. Can't say I had a big problem with it. The writing was on the wall. You knew going into this series that the Thunder would play a good amount of small ball with Kevin Durant at the 4. That meant one of the bigs, Ibaka, Collison or Kendrick Perkins, would have to sit. It's been that way all season, and for the most part all season Thunder coach Scott Brooks has relied more on Collison or Perk in those situations. Brooks went with his gut and it didn't work. But by no means can you say pin this loss on that one decision.
Having said that, Ibaka's presence as a shot-blocker certainly would have helped. Once Ginobili got rolling, Ibaka could have protected the paint better, for sure. But here's the problem with thinking the adjustment was that simple. Had Brooks stuck Ibaka in there, he would have had to defend Duncan first and foremost. That could have led to the future Hall of Famer taking the torch from Ginobili and taking his turn lightening up the Thunder. Secondly, the Spurs, and Ginobili in particular, is savvy enough to read and react to Ibaka at the rim. Had Ibaka been there for weak side help, Ginobili easily could have dumped it off to Duncan or kicked it out to shooters once he broke down the defense. All what ifs, sure. But highly plausible ones. So, again, plugging in Ibaka wouldn't have necessarily won this game.
It wouldn't have necessarily won the game, but not playing your best defensive big man and a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year down the stretch can't lead to anything good. Not against a team this good.
That's how the Thunder roll, though.
This is a really good thing for the Spurs, because they aren't accustomed to backing their way into victories. Sure there was a come-from-behind win against the Clippers in the previous round, but the Spurs are known for being sharp, crisp and any other superlatives like that.
They weren't that on Sunday, but still mustered up a win against a Thunder squad that played well, for the most part. If the teams are evenly matched talent-wise (and one might argue OKC is more talented), then Gregg Popovich has to be the star of this series, without question.
It may be worth asking, though, how many points do Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have to combine for in order to make up for the handicap?