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SAN ANTONIO — The revelry of the Spurs came in their excess. It took only a few minutes for San Antonio to build a double-digit lead over Oklahoma City in Game 1 and a few minutes more to grow that lead to 20. There weren’t runs so much as occasional lulls; the Spurs extended their control from the first stretch to the first quarter to the first half to the first full game of the series, never relenting until the Thunder had been buried. This game was over, 73–40, at halftime. Still San Antonio’s reserves piled up points and stops deep into the fourth quarter, long after OKC had anything left to play for in a 124–92 victory. The only silver lining to be found was stitched into the uniforms of the victors.
No margin this daunting comes without its outrageous performances. The Spurs had many: LaMarcus Aldridge made 18 of his 23 field goal attempts for 38 points, Danny Green (who has struggled with his shot all season) made five of his six three-pointers, and San Antonio on the whole converted at such an ungodly rate that it finished with an effective field goal percentage of 66%. What is exceptional, however, is not always aberrational. Players like Aldridge and Green did only what they ought to do when confronted with the most porous defense they’ve seen all season.
The Thunder’s base coverage of the pick-and-roll fell to pieces when presented with actual scoring threats. Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, both quality defenders on balance, drowned in the open air the pick-and-roll created. A lot is asked of any big tracking Aldridge in the two-man game, and even perfect coverage on their part can be made to look foolish by a counterpart who ambles in his recovery. The Thunder bigs were miles short of perfect. Still it was Russell Westbrook who had, in many cases, abandoned them with the impossible options of a drive they are responsible to hedge and an Aldridge midrange jumper they are responsible to contest.
“I thought, at times, because LaMarcus drove us a few time early, I thought we were closing out short to him and giving him that shot,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We’ve gotta be able to do both. We’ve gotta be able to long closeout to him and we’ve gotta be able to move our feet and guard him. It was a multitude of things.”
There is no way to progress in this series for Oklahoma City if it doesn’t execute more cleanly in this very basic way. The Thunder even switched on a handful of plays in the third quarter out of some desperate overcompensation. If Westbrook couldn’t be bothered to get back to Parker in good time, perhaps he might at least lock in to the prospect of defending against a mismatch. It did so at the cost of organizational confusion; the free-switching Thunder spent time roving, pointing, and guarding no one in particular, deficits that only enticed the Spurs to pile on. No matter the means of initiation, OKC’s defense always seemed to need one more body in rotation. The Thunder can, and probably should, experiment with bringing more bodies into the mix to contain the Spurs in motion or zoning up areas of the floor. By doing so, they create a real issue with more open cutting lanes and three-point looks, but one a team already giving up 124 points on amazing efficiency probably shouldn’t concern itself with.
Game 2 will offer no clean slate. This matchup tilted as wildly as it did because of problems endemic to the Thunder—problems that will be very difficult to resolve through adjustment alone. Donovan and his staff can try to coax better defensive focus out of Westbrook and fine-tune the positioning and timing of OKC’s bigs. Still the stability of the system relies on a collection of players who have never maintained high-level defensive synergy throughout the regular season. To produce that kind of precise, intuitive team defense now would run counter to all that we’ve seen of this Thunder team to date.
This isn't to say Oklahoma City can’t play better. It simply may not matter that it does. The 32 points that separated the Spurs and Thunder on Saturday are as indicative as they are severe. Fundamental advantages were exploited and exploited, one feeding into another, until the matchup burst. Kawhi Leonard spent many of his relevant minutes cross-matched to defend Westbrook. His length threw off one of the league’s most explosive scorers, as did the variety of help defenders positioned to alter Westbrook’s attempts at the rim. The presence of a complete non-threat like Andre Roberson didn’t only give the Spurs a place to hide their shakiest individual defenders. With it came the invitation to pack the paint, pre-rotate and do whatever was needed to wall off the basket.
PHOTOS: NBA championship rings throughout the years
NBA Championship Rings Through the Years
2017-18 Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers to win their third title in four years. The team got reversible rings with 74 sapphries on one side of the ring. The 74 represents the total number of victories the team earned during the regular season and playoffs in bringing home the franchise's sixth championship.
2016-17 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals to win their second title in three years.
2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA Finals MVP LeBron James and the Cavs defeated the defending champion Warriors in seven games for these rings featuring the Cavaliers’ “C” wrapped around the Larry O’Brien trophy.
2014-15 Golden State Warriors
The Warriors took home these beauties after upending LeBron James and the Cavaliers in six games for their first title in 40 years.
2013-14 San Antonio Spurs
The Heat aimed to three-peat, but the Spurs had other ideas. Kawhi Leonard had a couple of breakout performances on his way to series MVP, and San Antonio ran away from Miami in five games.
2012-13 Miami Heat
These rings would have never seen the light of day had Ray Allen not made one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history. Thanks to Allen, the Heat rallied and defeated the Spurs in overtime in Game 6, and then won two days later to repeat as champs.
2011-12 Miami Heat
LeBron James got his first ring as the Heat overwhelmed the Thunder in five games. James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists.
2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
Dallas won three straight games to erase a 2-1 deficit and squash the newly formed Miami Big Three's title dreams. This was also the Mavericks' first NBA title in franchise history.
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics held a 3-2 lead in this series, but the Lakers took care of business at the Staples Center in Game 6 and 7 to repeat as champs. This was the fifth and final set of rings for Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant.
2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers survived in a pair of overtime battles and then pulled away from the Magic in Game 5 to win their first NBA title since 2002's three-peat. Kobe Bryant won series MVP with averages of 32.4 points and 7.4 assists.
2007-08 Boston Celtics
Acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen during the off-season paid off quickly for Boston. In their first year, Garnett and Allen teamed up with Paul Pierce to defeat the Lakers in six games and bring the Celtics new jewelry for the first time since 1986.
2006-07 San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James' Cavaliers broke through to the finals, but they were no match for the Spurs, who completed the sweep for their third title in five years.
2005-06 Miami Heat
In their first-ever NBA Finals appearance, the Heat became the third team in league history to win a championship after trailing 0-2. Dwayne Wade averaged 39.3 points in the next four games as Miami won the series in six.
2004-05 San Antonio Spurs
This series was almost as close as possible. The Spurs and the Pistons entered the fourth quarter of Game 7 tied, and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili led San Antonio in the fourth quarter to its third title under coach Greg Popovich.
2003-04 Detroit Pistons
Larry Brown had an NCAA title ring, and a 4-1 victory over the Lakers gave the coach his first NBA championship ring. Brown remains the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA title.
2002-03 San Antonio Spurs
In one of the great all-time playoff performances, Tim Duncan fell barely shy of a quadruple double with 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks in the series-clinching Game 6.
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets did not put up much resistance as the Lakers completed a 4-0 sweep for their third straight title, giving coach Phil Jackson his ninth NBA title in 12 seasons.
2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
Allen Iverson carried the 76ers to a Eastern Conference title and Game 1 victory against the Lakers, but Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal were too much for The Answer. Los Angeles won the next four games, including three straight in Philadelphia, to win its second straight championship.
1999-00 Los Angeles Lakers
In his return to coaching, Phil Jackson guided the Lakers to a 4-2 series victory against the Pacers, coached by Larry Bird. Shaquille O'Neal averaged 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds, earning his first of three straight Finals MVPs.
1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
In a battle of dominant frontcourts, David Robinson and Tim Duncan bested Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson as the Spurs defeated the Knicks in five games for their first NBA title.
1997-98 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan's jump shot with 5.6 seconds remaining in Game 6 gave the Bulls their second three-peat of the decade. Since then, Chicago has no NBA Finals appearances and only one conference finals appearance.
1996-97 Chicago Bulls
In a series featuring six Hall of Fame players, the Bulls defeated the Jazz in six games as Michael Jordan fought through food poisoning to lead Chicago to wins in Game 5 and Game 6.
1995-96 Chicago Bulls
Dennis Rodman tied an NBA Finals record in Game 2 with 11 offensive rebounds against Seattle and then did it again in Game 6, the series clincher, but Michael Jordan was once again the no-brainer series MVP, averaging 27.3 points 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
1994-95 Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon taught young Shaquille O'Neal a few lessons in this series as the Rockets swept the Magic for their second consecutive NBA title. The Rockets were the first No. 6 seed to win a Finals series.
1993-94 Houston Rockets
The Rockets ended a five-season title drought for the Western Conference as Hakeem Olajuwon charged victories in Game 6 and Game 7 in Houston.
1992-93 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls became the first team to three-peat since Bill Russell's Celtics in the 1960s. Chicago defeated Phoenix in six games, leaving Charles Barkley without a ring.
1991-92 Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan shrugged his way to a NBA Finals record six first-half three-pointers in Game of 1 of this series, and the Bulls went on to win in six games.
1990-91 Chicago Bulls
The Bulls recorded their first-ever NBA title as Michael Jordan led the way averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks to defeat the Showtime Lakers in five games.
1989-90 Detroit PIstons
For the first time since 1979, the NBA Finals did not include at least one of the Celtics or the Lakers. The Bad Boy Pistons faced Clyde Drexler and the Trail Blazers, winning in five games for their second straight championship.
1988-89 Detroit PIstons
The Lakers led entering the fourth quarter three times during this series but could never hold on as the Pistons swept them in four games.
1987-88 Los Angeles Lakers
This time, the Lakers got the best of the Pistons in a thrilling seven games series where the final two games were decided by a combined four points.
1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
In a high-scoring series, the Lakers and the Celtics each broke the century in the first five games. Then Los Angeles held Boston to 93 points to win the series in Game 6.
1985-86 Boston Celtics
The Celtics captured their second title in three years, defeating the Rockets in six games. Larry Bird fell just shy of averaging a triple with 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists.
1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers
In a series that featured nine Hall of Fame players, the Lakers got revenge from one year earlier with a 4-2 victory against the Celtics.
1983-84 Boston Celtics
The Celtics came out on top in the first of three 1980s finals meetings with the Lakers. Larry Bird averaged 27.4 points and 14 rebounds, getting the best of Magic Johnson, who's Michigan State team got defeated Bird's Indiana State squad in the 1979 NCAA championship.
1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
In a rematch of the 1982 finals, Moses Malone tore up the Lakers front line for 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game as Philadelphia swept Los Angeles.
San Antonio seized on the opportunity by leveraging it into another. Misses at the rim may not create long rebounds, but they do create openings against a spatially imbalanced opponent. Westbrook often ended up at the baseline or on the floor. A teammate or two usually stood deep in the corner. The Thunder bigs looked to pursue the ball on the offensive glass. In conjunction, these factors left OKC painfully exposed to quick surges in transition.
“We were able to get out on the break by making it tough for them on that end of the floor, making them take some tough ones,” Green said. “They obviously didn’t get a rhythm. They were cold. Luckily for us, they missed a good amount of them so we were able to get out on the break and we moved the ball well, took some good, uncontested shots, and everybody kind of got a rhythm going that way.”
An attempt to move some of the pieces around runs into more of the Thunder’s core issues. The spacing is compromised in every one of Roberson’s minutes and won’t be remedied by the insertion of Kyle Singler or Dion Waiters. Oklahoma City will need to strike gold on low-value plays be it the spot jumpers of its least reliable shooters, the decision-making of the team’s biggest loose cannon, or Westbrook’s difficult finishes over multiple layers of excellent defense.
This is what San Antonio’s defense can reduce an opponent to. The Thunder will be made to carry the weight of their role players’ limitations on every offensive possession. Even superstars offer no quarter.