The conventional narrative about sports is that the player or team that wants it more usually wins. The truth is that while desire plays a part, usually both teams or players want it with roughly equal zeal and that the difference in most contests in the strategic deployment of the talent.
During the quarter break between the third and fourth quarters of Sunday’s Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was captured on camera exhorting his team to dig deeper and play harder “get nasty” is one of the terms I recall. The Spurs then went out and outscored the Oklahoma City Thunder 39-27 in the final frame to turn a 71-62 deficit into a 101-98 win. Much credit was given to Pop’s words, but it was Pop’s coaching skill not his motivational ones that turned the game in the Spurs favor.
San Antonio is the deeper team and Pop’s deployment of that depth turned the game. The Spurs not only went to a smallball lineup but an unusual one with wings Stephen Jackson and Gary Neal playing in place of starters Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The impact on the OKC defense was well, nasty, the Spurs spread the floor allowing Manu Ginobili substantial driving room en route to 11 points in the period. When the defense collapsed on Ginobili, Neal punished them with three perimeter jumpers. In addition this lineup was stellar defensively. Jackson kept OKC All Star forward Kevin Durant from getting to his spots. Durant had 27 points for the game but only six in the fourth quarter, all on free throws. In other words OKC’s premiere sharpshooter wasn’t allowed to breakdown the Spurs defense.
Now the onus is on the OKC coaching staff, not presumably to exhort their troops with greater emotion but to remake their alignments. Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, the NBA’s premier shot blocker, played only 22 minutes while the Spurs scored half of their 101 points at the rim. The Thunder are as advertised the younger faster team. They are also a team reliant on outside shooting so going big isn’t a tenable option. Instead they will have to find a way to make their smallball better than the San Antonio smallball. OKC’s coach Scott Brooks is a superb tactician, but his opponent is well, nasty.
Martin Johnson wrote a weekly NBA column for the New York Sun from 2003-’08, and for http://www.theroot.com from 2008-’10. His sportswriting has also appeared in the NY Times, Wall St. Journal and the Atlantic Monthly.