By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
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.