The eternally ancient San Antonio Spurs, still led by the Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili triumvirate that led San Antonio to the 2005 NBA title, are like the picture of Dorian Gray. They don’t age. They just look like it.
The Spurs replenish their Dorian Grays with periodic infusion of youth. Tiago Splitter, for instance, the solid center from Brazil who is in his fourth San Antonio season. Splitter is 29 years old. Same as age as Kendrick Perkins.
To be fair, Splitter is 51 days younger than Perk, but still. What passes for an old man on the Thunder is barely legal on the Spurs. Gregg Popovich trots out four thirtysomethings in his nine-man rotation, plus Splitter, Marco Belinelli (28) and Danny Green (26). Even 25-year-old Patty Mills is older than both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Among Spur mainstays, only Kawhi Leonard (22) is younger than Durant and Westbrook, who both turned 25 last autumn.
So while the injury to Serge Ibaka has clouded the plot, the Thunder-Spurs showdown in the Western Conference Finals isn’t overly complicated. San Antonio precision and experience against Oklahoma City youth and pogo-stick legs.
The Thunder, in a Dorian Gray twist, seems to get younger by the day. The latest novelty is 7-foot rookie Steven Adams, who suddenly is playing 40 minutes in a closeout game against the Clippers, and is still two months shy of his 21st birthday. Even with the 24-year-old Ibaka sidelined, the Thunder unleashes a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed roster, even if it seems like Durant and Westbrook have been OKC comrades forever.
Reggie Jackson is 24. Perry Jones, who figures to play some of Ibaka’s minutes, is 22. Jeremy Lamb, who has been banished to the bench, is 21 and scored 665 NBA points this season.
This series is like that classic scene in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” where the slick schoolgirl swipes a parking space from Kathy Bates and says, “Face it, lady. We’re younger and faster.”
Kathy Bates’ character rams their car and says, “Face it, girls. I’m older and I have more insurance.”
The Spurs have more insurance in this series. They are savvy and well-drilled and won’t wilt when things go wrong. They have a belief in a system that has stayed faithful for over 15 years, a millennial in the NBA.
But the Thunder is younger and faster. And for two straight series, the Thunder’s young legs have worn down worthy foes. Memphis and the Clippers both had the jump on OKC. But by series end, the Thunder jumping jacks, led by Durant and Westbrook and Jackson and joined by Adams, still was leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
Ibaka’s loss will cut into that Thunder advantage. But it won’t eliminate it. Not by a longshot.
Perkins, who didn’t have young legs when he was young, knows how valuable that asset is. He knows what young legs can do to him, trying to anchor the middle of a defense.
“I think we just gotta make them move,” Gran Torino said. “We watched the Dallas(-Spurs) series. Any time Dallas made them move, ran their stuff with speed, they struggled. So I think that’s the key.”
We’ve seen that in the Thunder-Spur series this season. The Thunder swept four games from San Antone, and none of the four games had last-minute drama.
The Thunder won once without Westbrook; the Spurs couldn’t guard Jackson, who scored 27 points and missed but five shots. In another Spur game, Jackson had 23 points and just four missed shots. Westbrook went off for monster games twice against San Antonio.
Plus there’s Mr. MVP over there, a nightmare for any team to guard.
Another Thunder old pro, Nick Collison, said the young legs advantage doesn’t come automatically. The Thunder must make it possible for those young legs to operate.
“A big thing for us is putting guys in spots that they can take advantage of that,” Collison said. “And that’s by executing and spacing the floor. If those guys don’t have any room to operate, it’s easier for a lesser defender to be able to stay in front of them because the help is so much closer and things like that.
“It all goes back to our fundamentals, our execution and trying to play in transition to give those guys space to use their ability.”
So the Thunder has to in part play the Spurs’ game of knowing what you’re doing. The Spurs have to in part play the Thunder game of matching up in the open court.
But in truth, this series comes down to one thing. Do the Spurs have enough insurance to knock the Thunder from its parking space?
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.