The San Antonio Spurs have been a picture of consistency since Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich joined forces in the offseason of 1997, having failed to win 50 games only in the lockout-shortened (and title-winning) season of 1999. Now, however, they've accomplished something that has eluded the franchise during that stretch.
For the first time in their history, the San Antonio Spurs are heading to the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons. It took a truly special effort to get there. In an extremely tight, hard-fought Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, San Antonio outlasted the Oklahoma City Thunder to come away with a 112-107 overtime win at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The victory required fighting back from several deficits, playing the second half and overtime without their floor leader and topping a younger and more athletic squad on its home court. As ever, the Spurs took each challenge in stride, came through with some huge plays and executed as well as they could.
After five games defined by one-sided offensive onslaughts, Game 6 began with neither team looking particularly dominant. The Thunder held a 49-42 halftime lead based on solid shooting (19 of 40 from the field and 5 of 13 from beyond the arc), but they failed to make it to the free-throw line at their usual rate (6 of 7, with all makes from Westbrook) and got zero bench points. Luckily for them, the Spurs struggled as much on offense as they have in any half in the 2014 playoffs, scoring a postseason-low 42 points on 14-of-38 shooting and 4-of-18 on 3-pointers. They stayed close with strong shooting from the charity stripe (10 of 12) and atypically strong offensive rebounding.
Things appeared to get even worse for San Antonio at halftime, when star point guard Tony Parker was ruled out with soreness in his left ankle. Whether Parker was held out as a precaution for a potential Game 7 or simply could not play at a high level, his removal from the game seemed to put the Spurs on the path to a loss. Yet, as they so often do, the Spurs transcended the absence of a major player by adjusting their attack and refusing to consider themselves at any disadvantage. While reserve Cory Joseph started the third quarter, the Spurs primarily went with Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili serving as ostensible point guards while running more of the offense through forward Boris Diaw, who proved to be a frustrating matchup throughout the series with his mix of strength, intelligence and passing ability. Diaw finished the night with 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 7 of 10 from the line, exceeding all expectations and making up for the loss of fellow Frenchman Parker. The Spurs won the third quarter 37-20, in large part due to Diaw, and entered the fourth with a 79-69 advantage.
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They held that lead for several minutes before the Thunder began to fight back. Playing with a small lineup with three guards, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, OKC took advantage of San Antonio's attendant lack of rim protection and used their superior athleticism and dribble penetration to inch their way toward the first fourth-quarter tie of the series. With 4:01 remaining in regulation, the Spurs owned a 93-91 lead but appeared to be losing the upper hand.
That stoppage in play welcomed Duncan back into the game, which helped reverse the Spurs' defensive struggles. However, the last few minutes of the game featured a number of bizarre moments, including this missed goaltending call with 44 seconds remaining that would have given the Spurs a 99-97 lead:
Instead, Durant finished a lay-in on the ensuing possession — after getting a little angry when Scott Brooks called a timeout to set up a play — to give the Thunder that same lead. Holding the ball with 32 seconds left, the Spurs opted to go two-for-one. Manu Ginobili came through with one of the biggest shots of a career full of them:
Down one, the Thunder turned to Durant on the next possession ... who suffered the embarrassment of slipping at the top of the arc as he tried to break down Kawhi Leonard and giving the ball up on a turnover. Ginobili split a pair of free throws with 15 seconds on the clock, and the Thunder set up a play for Durant to take a 3-pointer as an answer. However, Westbrook correctly read strong coverage from the Spurs and quickly bolted to the hoop, where he was fouled. He hit both shots to tie the game, and Ginobili missed a buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime.
At this point, the game appeared completely up for grabs. The Thunder had played their starters about as much as could be expected — Durant sat just two minutes in regulation — while the Spurs had played Duncan, Diaw, Leonard and others more than usual with Parker out. Not surprisingly, the result came down to a few key plays.
The greatest came at the defensive end. With the Spurs up 108-107 at the 48-second mark of overtime, Serge Ibaka blocked a Ginobili layup to give the Thunder a 3-on-2 in transition. Westbrook appeared to have a lane to score — which he usually does, given his athletic advantage in open space — but Leonard came out of nowhere for a combination block and steal from behind:
On the ensuing possession, the NBA's most venerable star came through with the game's eventual icing basket. With the shot clock running down, Tim Duncan pulled off a terrific series of post moves — the sort of display we've seen from him so many times in his Hall of Fame career — for a 110-107 advantage with 19 seconds on the clock:
That hoop finished off a stretch of seven straight Spurs points for Duncan, who finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds in a series-high 39 minutes. At 38 years old, Duncan is not the player he once was, but he's playing at a level the sport has rarely seen from someone so close to 40. He remains one of the Spurs' best players and an absolutely essential part of their title aspirations.
The Thunder had another chance to tie the game, but Durant missed a good look at a 3-pointer after the Thunder's final timeout. At this point, they would require an improbable comeback, and they could not score again to put the result into doubt. It was not a special overtime for OKC — Durant and Westbrook combined to shoot 1 of 10 from the field. Their final lines are impressive — particularly for Westbrook, who was the team's most productive player this postseason — if not hyper-efficient, but those numbers bely just how much was required for the Thunder to beat the Spurs in this series. Their reliance on one-on-one plays and dribble penetration meant that nothing came easy, and Scott Brooks appeared to have few adjustments to confound the Spurs once Gregg Popovich stopped playing Duncan and Tiago Splitter together to draw Ibaka away from the basket. It's not particularly shocking that Popovich out-coached Brooks — he tends to win that battle — but it was notable just how many more options the Spurs appeared to have in this series. They were the better team, no matter how much Ibaka's injury affected the outcome.
The Spurs, owners of the NBA's best record in the regular season, now face the Miami Heat in a rematch of 2013's fabulous NBA Finals, in which San Antonio was within a few seconds of winning Game 6 and earning the franchise's first title since 2007. While Miami's improbable comeback in Game 6 and eventual series win would seem to point to some bad blood, the Spurs are not a team to depend on grudges for motivation. This upcoming series might not feature the most dramatic matchup the league has ever seen, but it should have some truly terrific basketball.
We'll have much more coverage this week in preparation for Thursday night's Game 1. For now, it's best to appreciate the quality of this Game 6, the Thunder's passion and talent, and everything the Spurs have done to get back to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.
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