Last night in San Antonio, the Oklahoma City Thunder were the sum of their parts. It was a pretty good sum, even. The Thunder were solid on the glass against the Spurs; they lit it up from three-point range; they earned plenty of points at the free-throw line. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden went a combined, balanced 30-for-54 from the field and 22-for-26 from the line. Oklahoma City showed steel and persistence and tactical shamelessness, going to the Hack-a-Tiago Splitter gambit to break San Antonio's momentum and ruin Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's late-third-quarter rotation plans.
And nevertheless, the Thunder got slaughtered.
What does that make these San Antonio Spurs? For a while, in the third quarter, the Spurs were playing basketball as some sort of unified, all-devouring superorganism, a collective consciousness stretching all the way from baseline to baseline. The Thunder would make a perfectly sound-looking foray into the paint, for what ought to have been a high-percentage shot, and suddenly big bodies and long arms would come together in a palisade around the rim. The Spurs would bat a rebound in the air, and bat it again, the white uniforms spreading out and moving on the attack without hesitating to see whether the ball was under control yet. The ball would be under control.
It was like seeing the second-term Chicago Bulls: a few defensive stops, Scottie Pippen nonchalantly spotting up at the top of the key for a three-pointer or two, and there would be a 12-0 run.
You see the ineffable, and the urge is to talk about the abstract and the inhuman. So: yes, teamwork. Yes, spacing. Yes, ball movement. What a system the Spurs are playing!
But then there's Manu Ginobili. San Antonio's player of the game yesterday was Tony Parker, unquestionably—a game-high 34 points, from all over the floor, with eight assists. Even so, the two plays above, the plays that defined the game, were Ginobili's.
The first one comes with the Spurs in excelsis, leading by 17 in the third, running out four-on-three after a defensive stop. Ginobili catches a pass from Parker, in perfect position for a three-point attempt from the right wing. Instead of shooting, he pump-fakes, draws Harden over to defend him, starts driving toward the lane—and then whips a behind-the-back pass to Parker, who is alone in the right corner. All alone, as alone as a player can be without being on a breakaway. Ginobili's move has cleared out the entire right-hand half of the court. As Parker squares up, the other nine players are spectators. The lead goes to 20.
Sure, that's unselfish ball movement. It's also playground filigree. Now the other play: fourth quarter, the Thunder within 8. Oklahoma City has dug in and made it a bit of a game, thwarting the Spurs' hopes of simply annihilating them in a blast of white light and white noise. San Antonio looks grumpy and a little out of sorts.
So Ginobili launches a one-man assault on the lane, slipping by Harden, heading straight at Durant, and then jumping sideways, holding the ball through the top of his jump, still holding it on his way down, and finally launching a push shot from somewhere near his ear. The ball hits the back rim like a beanbag and plops through the hoop.
Technically, Ginobili's foot comes down before the ball leaves his hand. Kobe does that too, sometimes. Occasionally the game's greatest athletes maneuver themselves around the letter of the rulebook. Feel free to disapprove. Also feel free to try to hit that shot yourself, legally or illegally, over Kevin Durant.
And the unlawful landing only affirms what a breathtaking garbage shot it is. It's a garbage shot the way Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" was a piece of plumbing equipment. Sure, you have to be disciplined and focused to win 31 out of 33 games, and
20 10 in a row in the playoffs. You also have to be ridiculously good at playing basketball.