A small-market city celebrates an NBA championship, delighting in its Big Three, cheering its youthful MVP and planning a victory parade on its downtown canal.
Hits a little too close to the quick, doesn’t it, Thunder fans?
The Spurs, of course, are the NBA champs. They beat the Heat in five games, playing exquisite basketball throughout the series. Beautiful and flowing on the offensive end. Stout and unrelenting on the defensive end. The last couple games were largely uninteresting blowouts by the fourth quarter, but you almost wanted the series to go a couple more games so you could marvel in the San Antonio basketball machine just a little longer.
If you’re a Thunder fan, you have to hope the boys in blue were watching and taking notes.
But here’s the thing, the Spurs’ greatness was born well before the playoffs. Success came in April, May and June because of what the Spurs did in November, December and January. They were preparing to play great basketball in the playoffs by playing great basketball throughout the entire regular season.
That is evident by one very telling stat: the Spurs lost only five games to non-playoff teams.
Granted, they lost just 20 games total, so they didn’t lose many games to teams of any ilk. But against teams that they were clearly better than, they didn’t mess around. They focused. They locked in. And the results bore that out.
The Spurs didn’t lose to a non-playoff team until Jan. 2, and they didn’t lose to another one again until Feb. 10.
By that point, the Thunder had already lost to four non-playoff teams on its way to nine regular-season losses against teams that didn’t make the postseason.
Now, Thunder faithful know well that Oklahoma City played much of the regular season without Russell Westbrook, who was trying to get that knee right. But the Spurs had their own injury problems. Manu Ginobili missed eight games after the first of the year with a hamstring injury. Tony Parker missed 14 games during the season with a variety of issues, most notably his back. Kawhi Leonard was sidelined with a hand injury for 14 games.
Then, of course, there are those random nights when Gregg Popovich decides to sit his stars.
And still, the Spurs had just five losses to non-playoff teams. It shows a great attention to detail. A dedication to seeing every game as a chance to improve. A commitment to playing during the regular season like you want to play in the playoffs.
At least one guy in the Oklahoma City locker room believes that’s the type of mental approach that separates the Thunder from the Spurs and the Heat, the teams that won the past three titles.
Kendrick Perkins is the only player expected to return to the Thunder who has won an NBA championship, so he knows what it takes to get to that elitist of elite levels. And he believes the answer for the Thunder boils down to its mental approach throughout the season.
“Learning how to play the right way for 82 games and not try to turn on the on switch in the playoffs,” he said after the Thunder lost to the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. “What you do in January (has an impact) on how you play in April, May and June. You gotta develop that trust early.”
Don’t want Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook going into panic mode and hero ball late in playoff games? You have to build trust among the entire team with continuity and flow during the regular season. It won’t magically appear during crunch time.
Perk referenced the final moments of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals when LeBron James passed up a potential game-winning shot, throwing the ball instead to Chris Bosh in the corner. Bosh missed, and Indiana survived to play another day.
“LeBron took a lot of heat from certain people that he didn’t take the last shot,” Perk said. “But he made the right basketball play.
“That’s a trust he had been developing through the whole regular season. He passed up game-winners before, and I seen him kick it to Udonis Haslem for the game-winning jump shot. It’s the right basketball play. Not only that, it helps the other guy, like the role player, to know that this ball’s coming to me every single time.”
Habits developed in November and December, then engrained in January, February and March become routine in the playoffs.
That means a random Wednesday night game against Cleveland is every bit as important as a Friday prime-time game against Miami.
“If you’re trying to take it to the next level,” Perk said. “If you’re playing all in. That’s the key.”
That was one of the keys for the Spurs. They didn’t have more individual talent than the Thunder or the Heat. They weren’t more athletic. They weren’t faster or quicker or stronger, at least not physically. But they were better in the playoffs because they spent all season getting ready for them.
It’s a small difference, a slight mental shift, but it’s could be the difference between your downtown canal having a victory parade and having a quiet Wednesday night.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.