With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili clearly on the downside of their brilliant careers, the San Antonio Spurs’ immediate fortunes will mainly depend on two other players: The continuing evolution of Kahwi Leonard as a two-way player, as well as the necessary adjustments that both LaMarcus Aldridge and Gregg Popovich must make to incorporate the sticky-fingered, pivot-bound, mega-scorer into San Antonio’s unselfish, free-wheeling, perpetual motion offense.
Indeed, can the championship aspirations of the Spurs be truly revived, or are their glory days only a memory?
In contrast, with Kevin Durant healthy, the young and still sprightly Oklahoma City Thunder are being hailed by many NBA-watchers as having the best chance to usurp the defending-champion Warriors.
However, there are several questions that must be addressed if OKC does become a totally legitimate contender: Will Russell Westbrook ever forsake forcing too many shots, and at least partially embrace his necessary role as OKC’s primary playmaker? Does the team have sufficient defense and bench power? How will rookie coach Billy Donovan manage to motivate his players and instill a culture of sacrifice and unselfishness through the long, grinding season?
Some of these concerns can’t be definitively addressed for several months. But the opening game, in which the Thunder took home a 112-106 victory, does provide a few tantalizing clues.
WHAT’S OLD IN SAN ANTONIO?
As he has in the last few seasons, 39-year-old Tim Duncan was mostly employed as a screener and passer near the top of the key. He ventured into the low post only four times, shooting 1-3 (including an airball) and converting a pair of free throws for eight total points. At the other end of the court — and when he was quick enough to provide help on ball penetration — TD was still the backbone of the Spurs’ interior defense. In other words, it was business as usual for Duncan.
Coming off the bench for 19 sterling minutes, 38-year-old Manu Ginobili was as spry as he’s ever been — 5-8, seven assists, for 11 points. The only question with his performance has to do with his brief playing time. And why wasn’t he on the court in crunch time?
Boris Diaw is a young veteran at age 33 and, like Ginobili, played with the energy of a rookie on both sides of the time line — 4-5, six assists, two steals, three blocks for nine points in 20 minutes. If Diaw began last season in Pop’s doghouse, he’s now one of the team’s top dogs off the bench.
As ever, Tony Parker spun-and-zipped his way to the rim early in the game — 5-11 for 10 points. However, except for another drive-and-score late in the fourth quarter, TP failed to penetrate the Thunder’s defense. This is a trend that’s been noticeable in recent seasons, a sign that the 32-year-old Parker is aging much quicker than the other geriatric Spurs. Another blast-from-the-past was Parker’s being routinely targeted and chumped on defense.
The Spurs continued to take fullest advantage of an opponent’s switching in screen/roll situations. Also, whenever a defender (Russell Westbrook, twice) turned his head, a back-cut and a lob pass produced a bucket.
No surprise, too, that the Spurs always looked to make the extra pass.
As usual, they showed busy hands on defense.
WHAT’S NEW IN SAN ANTONIO?
The quantum leap in the play of Kahwi Leonard — 13-22, nine rebounds, three steals, two blocks and a career-high 32 points. He shot the lights out while curling around down-screens, drove the lane for profit, as well as running and finishing on the break. He hounded Durant into 6-19 from the field and even blocked two of his shots. More than playing like an All-Star, if he can sustain this degree of excellence, Leonard would be a shoo-in for the All-NBA First Team. Indeed, he represents the future of the franchise.
It’s an understatement to say that LaMarcus Aldridge struggled — 4-12, eight rebounds, 11 points. Early in the game, he mostly hung out on the weakside and was quick to pass when the ball came to him. Primarily because of his presence, the Spurs deemphasized their three-point shooting (5-15) and focused on getting the ball into Aldridge on the left box. He posted-up there a total of nine times and generated only seven points. Moreover, with the game on the line in the closing seconds, the ball was delivered to Aldridge in his favorite spot — after he huffed, puffed and banged his defender (Steven Adams), he shot an airball.
Just as detrimental to the Spurs’ chances of opening the season with a win on the road, Aldridge’s defense was lackluster. Even worse was his utter failure to box Enes Kanter off both the offensive and defensive glass.
In order for San Antonio to seriously challenge the Warriors, Aldridge has to expand his game.
David West was 4-7 overall but only 1-3 in his post-up attempts. He was overpowered defensively when moved into the center slot, but did look to move the ball.
Danny Green was 0-5 from beyond the arc.
The Spurs also demonstrated several team-wide shortcomings that were totally uncharacteristic: Missing nine fairly unimpeded layups. Were late on numerous baseline rotations. Faded in the 4th quarter. And, except for a scintillating drive for a bucket-plus-one by Leonard, failed to execute their offense in the clutch.
For sure, one game doesn’t make a season. And the Spurs have plenty of time to regain their championship form. But there are many more trouble spots than there have been since the TD-TP-MG trio has been together.
WHAT’S OLD IN OKLAHOMA CITY?
As the game unfolded, Westbrook either got to the rim for a layup, or to an open spot for a jumper until SA’s defense keyed on him — 12-23, 10 assists, 33 points (19 in the first half). He dropped a critical trey after the rock chanced to come to him after the bigs scrambled for a loose ball in the lane. He forced his usual quota of shots — hitting 1-3 and committing one of his five turnovers. Living down to expectations, his defense was sorely deficient.
Nick Collison’s hustle and physicality tightened OKC’s low post defense.
Durant moved well without the ball and got most of his good looks after coming off weakside down-screens.
Adams played top-notch defense.
After missing early, Serge Ibaka found the range and hurt the Spurs by hitting several mid-range jumpers — 4-9 for 10 points.
Turnovers continued to plague their offense — 19 in all, many of which led to breakaway scores by the Spurs.
WHAT’S NEW IN OKLAHOMA CITY?
Westbrook made many more good decisions with the ball than bad ones.
They played terrific team defense and executed their offense in the endgame.
In 24 minutes, Kanter snatched 16 rebounds and tallied 15 points — which more than compensated for his inept defense. Thanks mostly to Kanter, they outrebounded the Spurs 45-36.
D.J. Augustin, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow contributed 32 points off the bench — second-line firepower that OKC has usually lacked.
Their spirit, hustle and focus likewise showed significant improvement.
Donovan made astute substitutions — however, he looks to have aged about 10 years over the summer.
It’s a given that Durant will get his mojo working sooner rather than later. When that happens, the Thunder will have at least as good a chance of reaching the championship series as any of their Western Conference rivals.