By Joe Manganiello
Somehow I lack proof of this, but I selected the Spurs to win the Finals this season. Back in October. On The Shoot Around with Dave Holcomb, I picked the Spurs to defeat the Heat. The original podcast has simply disappeared from the world wide web.
And that’s O.K., because I shamelessly turned my back on my Spurs pick in a playoff preview podcast with Dave in April, anyway.
(Note: I picked Denver, which of course seems silly now. However, I did reiterate on the show that I thought San Antonio would win the finals IF they got there. I just fell in love with the prospect of George Karl taking a team to the finals. Now that San Antonio is in the finals, I’m back on their side and got them winning! I’m back on my original pick! I even ridiculed myself for picking Denver with New York’s only Warriors fan, Blaise Hill. I get some credit, right? No.)
Look, I’m not the only person in the world whose faith in San Antonio has wavered this season. Remember how old they looked closing out the regular season? Remember Manu’s health concerns? And once in the playoffs, things looked even bleaker. Sure, they rolled over the Lakers (aside from the Milwaukee Bucks, I think every other team in the playoffs, in either conference, would have swept L.A.) but the Spurs were going to lose the series against the Warriors: the whole basketball universe was rooting against them; America had fallen in love with the short, skinny, tattoo-less jump shooter that made the Oracle Arena feel like the Final Four; and if it weren’t for an epic collapse by Golden State in game one, the series could have been over in five. It was the Warriors that had embarrassed the Nuggets (and me) in a shockingly easy first-round victory, and it appeared they were serving up the same dish to the Spurs.
But the Spurs won three of the final four games and took the series.
(I OFFICIALLY began wishing I had my October pick back.)
Even still, in their way remained Memphis, which did not appear to bode well for San Antonio. Despite playing in their eighth conference finals under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs were practically underdogs, as the trendy pick in the series was, in fact, the Grizzles. And why would’t they be? Memphis had the Association’s stingiest defense and largest frontcourt; they had made quick work of the No. 1 seed Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round, frustrating the game’s best scorer; and while the Grizzles lacked collective playoff experience, most of their nucleus was on the 2011 team that defeated the Spurs in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup in the first round.
Of course, the Spurs barely blinked, blew out the Grizz in game one and won game two in overtime.
(It was at this point that I thought back to my October pick and how likely it was that the Spurs were going to make a fifth run at a title. Coupling that with the failure of the Denver pick, I could do nothing else but shake my head.)
And yet, even with all the stats in favor of the team with the 2-0 advantage, I came up with the INGENIOUS suggestion that if there is a team that can defend their home court and bring the series back to 2-2, it’s Memphis.
As a basketball universe, I think we can officially state that Memphis tricked all of us. (They most certainly we’re not “Who We Thought They Were.”) We all believed in their impenetrable defense, hustle, post-play, up-and-coming point guard, defensive player of the year center and double-double machine power forward. But here’s the truth about Memphis:
1. Their defense is not perfect. They had no clue how to guard an offense with more than one option (more on the Clippers and Thunder later).
Also, see this:
2. People wanted to turn Memphis into the “Hustle Team That Could.” After watching games three and four, it was clear all the hustle and intangibles had been stripped from them; if I had a dollar for every time Jeff Van Gundy lectured Memphis defenders about getting back on defense, I’d have enough money to buy myself an entrée at Red Lobster.
3. As far as post-play is concerned, Marc Gasol cannot create his own shot, and at times looked scared to even try.
4. Randolph only shoots with his left hand, so while he can gobble up double-doubles and quality inside looks against even above-average defenders, the moment you ask him to score on a smart/skilled defender like Duncan, he’s ineffective. Multiply that over four games, and that was Randolph’s Western Finals experience.
5. I was on the “Marc Gasol for Defensive Player of the Year” bandwagon, and it is totally a regular season award, but with that said, his defense was inconsistent at best in the post-season, namely against the Spurs. Seriously, what was THIS all about:
6. The Grizzlies took advantage of a deeper, more talented Clippers team in the first round that was plagued simultaneously by (1) the worst coach in the game; (2) an internal conflict between the team’s best players; and (3) Jamal Crawford‘s incomprehensibly atrocious defense. If two of these things were fixable, the Clippers win that series. Seriously, any two. If they ran an actual offense and had some semblance of a defensive plan, they’d be twice the team, but their “offense” too often becomes 1 on 1 sets for Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, who we already established is the Webster definition for “Defensive Liability.” It also doesn’t help that Blake Griffin hates playing with CP3 and their philosophical disagreement puts a limitation on the effectiveness of the team. The Clippers had no shot at coming back once the Grizz knotted the series up at 2-2 and ripped the Clippers beating heart their chest.
7. Finally, Memphis only advanced to the Western Finals because Russell Westbrook got hurt. I’m sorry (not sorry) but Memphis would have had no clue how to contain Westbrook for 4 out of 7 games. None. Oh, and by the way, Westbrook would have pulled the entire focus of the defense to him, leaving Durant (the latest member of the 50-40-90 club) open on the perimeter like an assassin. OKC would have won in 5, maybe 6, games.
So Memphis fooled us. I don’t see this nucleus competing for a championship in a typical season (typical = Westbrook stays healthy, Oklahoma City coasts to the Western Finals) without several offensive improvements on the bench, a more consistent Gasol, more maturation from Conley and Randolph fighting off father-time with everything he’s got. Which is asking a lot.
The Spurs ended up sweeping the Grizzlies, while the Heat struggled to take care of the Pacers, causing me to truly reflect on my October pick. Was I right all along? Is San Antonio in line for a fifth championship?
Well despite Miami’s domineering performance in game seven against Indiana, and a very fair “Rest vs. Rust” argument after San Antonio’s nine days off waiting for the Finals, I’m sticking with my pick. (No, not the Grizzlies in the Western Finals… or Denver in April… I know, I totally deserve it.)
San Antonio in 6. Why? At this point, why not?