Difference from 2012? Spurs just better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Gregg Popovich speaks at Spurs practice ahead of Game 3

By the time they finally take the floor for the opening tip on Sunday night (8:30 ET, TNT), they will have reviewed it, relived it, dissected it more than a frog in a high school biology class.

Everywhere they turn, every newspaper or blog they read will remind the Spurs of the last time they were in Oklahoma City with a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.

The Spurs actually brought 20 consecutive victories and an air of invincibility onto the court at Cheasapeake Energy Arena. And they left it eight days later with a fourth straight loss and the shards of a season in their bloody hands.

But you’ll excuse Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the rest of the silver and black for not being kept awake by scary reminders and bumps in the night.

This time around is like returning to the haunted house in broad daylight when it doesn’t seem quite so spooky. Gone, for one, is the ghost of James Harden, who hit big shots and was the third weapon in the OKC armory. Then there’s the skeleton of Serge Ibaka, out with a calf injury, that is now locked away in a closet.

“We’ll remind everyone of that situation,” said Duncan, showing the proper amount of the so-called appropriate fear. “We need to go into Oklahoma for that first game with the focus we’ll need to win the game.”

However, there is another more basic reason that the Spurs can walk a bit more boldly. They’re better.

In the past two years, the Spurs have added to their depth, improved their balance and become a more potent overall team than any of the remaining contenders in either of the conference finals.

The Heat are the two-time defending champs and may still have the best player in the game in LeBron James. But his supporting cast, beginning with Dywane Wade, has fallen off and James is now required to do more. Often much more.

The Pacers with the emergence of Paul George may be a step up from 2013. However, their late-season swoon, near-cratering in the first round against Atlanta, overall mood and performance swings — not to mention George’s physical status for Game 3 — makes Indiana shakier than a rope ladder.

The Thunder, of course, have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but are playing without two ingredients that made the previous comeback possible and three-fifths of a starting lineup — Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha — that has produced a total of nine points in the first two games.

While the Spurs’ solar system still revolves around the Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the fact is it’s the emergence of the others that have allowed the veterans to keep their minutes down to all-time lows during the regular season in order to step up now, along with providing some punch of their own.

Danny Green — Parker’s partner in the starting backcourt became so lost and discombobulated during the 2012 series that he was eventually benched by coach Gregg Popovich for the final two games, playing less than four minutes in each.

“He’s come a long way,” Popovich said. “We cut him a couple of times and other people cut him, and he went to Europe and he went to Russia and he went to the D-League and he went all over the place. But the light went on and he become a little bit more aggressive, so that I think he could play at the defensive end. But I think his confidence grew shooting-wise, and I think that he gets a lot of credit for persevering and ending up where he is right now.”

That’s hitting seven 3-pointers in Game 2, giving him 21 points for the night, which is more than the total of 20 he scored in the entire 2012 series against OKC.

Kawhi Leonard — He’s steadily grown into the role that Popovich described as a “future face of the franchise” after the Spurs traded for the No. 15 pick on the night of the 2011 draft. He was a 20-year-old rookie in that previous series against the Thunder, taking the occasional wide open jumper and hustling for loose balls. Now Leonard is the Spurs’ No. 1 defender, locking up with Durant, James and every other big gun in the NBA while also blossoming at the offensive end to quite devastating effect at times, bull-rushing to the hoop or confidently stroking shots from the perimeter. His 14.7 rating is the best in the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs by any player.

“He’s growing month by month, week by week,” Popovich said. “He’s been pretty special for us.”

Tiago Splitter — After nearly two full seasons in the starting lineup alongside Duncan, the Brazilian big man is showing more and more of the ability that got him named MVP of the Spanish League in 2010. OKC coach Scott Brooks shook his confidence by intentionally fouling Splitter during the 2012 series. But now he’s a key Spurs element at both ends of the floor. He and Duncan have developed rugged defensive combination, limiting opponents to 93.4 points per 100 points when they’ve been on the court together in the playoffs. He’s also an excellent interior passer and had a breakout Game 2 with nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Splitter has more rebounds (18) in two games than the entire 2012 series (11).

“What he does for us now is what he’s done in Europe for a lot of years,” Popovich said. “He’s been on championship teams over there. He’s a defender, a rebounder, a solid pick-and-roll player. He doesn’t have moves and he’s not a big offensive threat, but he’s every coach’s dream because he does everything so fundamentally sound.”

Patty Mills — The Australian dynamo only got off the bench for mop-up duty in the 2012 meeting with the Thunder. But now he’s Parker’s first backup at the point and he steps onto the floor with a fearless sense of belonging. His offense punch has not been needed so far against OKC, but Mills scored in double figures six times in 11 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Dallas and Portland.

Marco Belinelli — The free agent signing is the only newcomer to the core rotation since the 2012 series and has been invaluable all season long with his on-court smarts and excellent perimeter shooting. He was the team’s top bomber from behind the 3-point line this season and has had the best overall shooting year of his NBA career.

15 Comments

  1. 36yrfan says:

    …….Great way of breaking it down player by player…….maybe everyone should know what the Spurs are comprised of as far as the roster goes…….of course Spurs fans have known these things as they unfolded….Tiago’s progress, etc…….. Good article, Fran………. And as MR210 says……. GO_SPURS_GO…… !!!! ! DRIVE FOR FIVE !!!!!

  2. tphen_dot says:

    im a warriors fan but man, no one can deny that the spurs are onto something special this year. definitely the team to beat amongst the teams remaining.

  3. jdub455 says:

    The heat can still beat the spurs despite the knee problems of dwade, the absence of miller, the diminished shooting of battier and the aging haslem because they know how to win, they have a very very good coach and coaching staff, they have riley and they still have the #1 player in the world. The battle with the spurs will be tough though… especially this time cause they don’t have Homecourt advantage… but I think bosh will matchup well against them and hopefully, heat shooters will make their open shots…

    • 36yrfan says:

      …..go to the heater blogs……

    • SharpieOne says:

      IDK. It was a great series last year and the Heat had an amazing come back in game 6. The Spurs had a shot in both 6 and 7 but couldn’t pull it off. However that was last year. The main differences between last year and this year is 1) the Spurs are a lot better team and 2) I don’t think the Heat are as good as they were last year. The Heat will definitely need more than just Lebron and Wade to show up in order to win. At this point in their careers I think Durant and Westbrook are a better duo than Lebron and Wade (even though Lebron is the best of the 4) and we’ve seen how things have gone with the first two so far. I agree with everything the author above said. This entire Spurs team is a lot better than the were this year than they were in 2012 or 2013.

  4. pacersbandwagon says:

    spurs weakness is miami nuff said heat in 6

    • 36yrfan says:

      ….you as well….plenty of blogs for your heaters to post n……

    • SharpieOne says:

      The Heat aren’t nearly as good as they were last year and the Spurs are a lot better than they were last year. Durant and Westbrook are better than Lebron and Wade, and we all see how this series is going. The Heat are good at home and mediocre on the road. Spurs are good at home and they’re the best road team in the NBA. The honest truth is we already saw Lebron go 1 on 5 against a overall less talented Spurs team in 07. I like Lebron but his ego has got the better of him. Guys like Chalmers, Cole, Battier, Anderson, Bosh, all those guys aren’t buying what Lebron is selling anymore. Every single time Lebron screams and yells at them because he (Lebron) threw the ball to the wrong spot it ruins their game, messes with their mind and kills their energy. Lebron has never known how to lead a group of men. In Cleveland it was always just him. Then he played follow the leader when he went to Miami. Even now he’s still not a leader, at best he’s a co-captain. He smiles and jokes when things are going his way but he screams, yells and goes through on the court fits when they aren’t.

  5. Mr4thQuarter says:

    I don’t see anyone touching the Spurs this year. No matter who comes out of the east it will be Spurs hoisting that trophy. Die hard fans of their opponents hate all you want, but truth is the truth. Miami focused on the offseason trying to keep their core while OKC seeing their Kryptonite and Indiana…wel they are feeling their way through. Pops silent killers are putting on a clinic and all nba teams need to be taking notes of how to play team ball. Unselfish players, Took paycuts to stay together and forge that “I know what my teammate’s going to do before he does it” unity that eludes most. Wish my team could get that level of cohesion. Tim and Co deserve it this year. Go Spurs

    • 36yrfan says:

      Great post……and I hope the Warriors get some cohesion as well……maybe with SKerr it will finally happen….

  6. cp10 says:

    Good article

  7. MR210 says:

    The more I read Fran’s articles – the more I like this guy.

    Deep down – Spurs might be his favorite team.

    It’s definitely a change compared to years past when all writers seemed to do is label Spurs as boring?
    Finally, a member of the Media who notices what all Spurs fan knew – Spurs are the model franchise and are always a title contender. History doesn’t always repeat itself – Spurs are not the same team as 2012 even though majority of the Roster is similar.

    Our key players are much better now, and are very familiar with the Spurs system.

    GO SPURS GO – DRIVE FOR FIVE!

    • 36yrfan says:

      …..here, here…..

    • SharpieOne says:

      Well to be fair the Spurs haven’t always played like this. As a guy who’s always enjoyed watching the different styles of basketball the Spurs use to be fairly different when they won their championships. It was the same basic concept but it had some key differences. A few years ago the Spurs use to be all about lock down defense and ball movement initiated for Timmy’s post game. They’d force feed the ball into Timmy and he’d either go to town or they’d double and once the double team would come that’s when they’d kick out and swing the ball. I guess I could see how some could think that was boring but I was always amazed that everybody knew what was about to happen but they still couldn’t stop it. However now that Timmy is a little older they no longer force feed him the ball. Now it’s more constant ball movement with perfect spacing mixed with pick and roll and back cuts and screens/double screens. Occasionally Tony or Manu will use the pick and roll and cut to the rim and collapse the D then they’ll kick out and swing the ball (or if the defense doesn’t collapse they’ll just own the paint.) There is just a lot more movement, plus they’re playing a little faster so low IQ basketball fans think it’s more “exciting.” Every style definitely has it’s unique characteristics.

  8. chuck says:

    Summing up, a great coach who knows how to integrate his various parts. Brooks simply is not.