Who knew going into these playoffs that of the three teams they played, Golden State won two more games than anyone else. Really? The Warriors were the Spurs' toughest test? I actually picked Golden State to lose the first round series to Denver in 6, thinking that Denver would defend home court easily and get one in Oakland. Ultimately, the David Lee injury defined that series and helped define the Warriors for their surprising reinvention against the Spurs.
When Lee went down, the Warriors were faced with the un-palatable front line of Carl Landry, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, and Andris Biedrins. Seeing an almost equally untrustworthy Denver front line across from him, a line that failed to hurt the Warriors at all in the paint, Mark Jackson decided, "screw it, let's play small." Playing Landry, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green at the 4 with Bogut protecting them on defense turned out to be a perfectly acceptable way to reproduce David Lee's numbers. On the other side, Denver replaced Danilo Gallinari's numbers with a combo of Evan Fournier and Wilson Chandler, but that left a gaping hole on their bench. Denver had been lauded for their depth, but their high-flying style of play demands excellent depth, and losing that was huge.
Anyway, that first round experiment turned into a useful tactic to use against San Antonio, where the Warriors' small lineups made valuable Spurs like Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw very irrelevant. Ultimately, the Warriors ran out of guys once Barnes was injured, and that, coupled with the terrible moves to play Ezeli and Biedrins at the expense of the more useful Landry and Green proved Golden State's demise.
In the other second round matchup, the Thunder were such a sad tale. Many words have been said/written about the Harden trade, but I agree with Bill Simmons: many more words are required! That was a completely atrocious, abominable, reprehensible trade. Think about what they got: a Kevin Martin rental (which they could have just kept Harden for the year before trading him), a shooter with potential that played the same minutes that I did in the playoffs, and a couple crappy picks. Let's say they keep Harden for a year: after a glimpse of how good he is, Cleveland ABSOLUTELY trades the #1 pick for him! You might even get the Cavs to take Perkins off your hands! Or, you trade Harden and Perkins for, say, the fourth pick, Byron Mullens, and Gerald Henderson, then take Ben McLemore fourth... I can't NOT think of better deals the Thunder could have gotten! Mullens gives them a big with range to potentially pair with Ibaka, and if McLemore starts, you could have FIVE shooters on the floor! Or you know, take Noel first and potentially become the first team with a Big Four.
But instead of contending this year and the next several, we saw Kevin Durant jack shot after shot after it was apparent that nobody cared about his teammates. Outside the random big Kevin Martin game, they had no horses. The one thing I liked was seeing Kevin semi-credibly guard Marc Gasol, which portends better defense from him in the future, but you could see that the grind wore on him and by the fourth quarter he was wasted from the responsibility to be his team's best offensive AND try to be the best defensive player. Basically, he's not LeBron, and that's ok.
On the Memphis side, Mike Conley has developed a lot. He knows where to go with the ball and who to get involved. He can run the show in crunch time and doesn't make stupid mistakes (one thing Steph Curry absolutely has to clean up). The best part: the Grizzlies aren't known for their offense, but given their limitations, they still didn't take any bad shots. Sure there were Jared Bayless pull-ups and Marc Gasol 20-footers, but for better or worse, those are part of Memphis' offensive identity. They're not bad shots if it's what you expect on a given possession. He's the guy that made the difference for Memphis this year, and their future development will largely rely on him become an All-Star caliber player.
Against the Spurs, though, Conley's inability to manage the game against the aggressive Spurs defense proved Memphis' undoing. San Antonio aggressively fronted Zach Randolph and with the length and ball pressure on the perimeter (often hiding Tony Parker on Tony Allen or Tayshaun Prince), Conley couldn't get entry or pocket passes into the bigs. I watched countless possessions where Mike dribbled around, searching for a passing angle, before passing it to Prince or Pondexter to find that angle over the top of the defense. By the time that happened, the clock was often low and Memphis had to manufacture the exact bad shots they avoided in the first two rounds.
And how about the Duncan/Splitter duo? They were fantastic on defense, with Duncan looking five years younger. Even Bonner and Diaw made themselves useful off the bench, largely because Memphis couldn't really target them defensively. Memphis' inability to win one-on-one matchups aside from Zach Randolph proved their undoing. When San Antonio diverts that much energy to stopping your inside game, guys like Conley and Bayless have to step up to create on the perimeter. I'm not sure Bayless is the right guy in that situation anyway-he doesn't seem to have the Jason Terry/Jarrett Jack playoff chops quite yet. And do you think Memphis could have used Jose Calderon instead of Prince? Jose is a plus three point shooter, can take the passing pressure off Conley, and no Prince means more Pondexter minutes. But credit the Spurs: they played smart, and combined with some shaky coaching from Lionel Hollins (really, eschewing the three until too late?) and you get a sweep that is somehow closer than a sweep suggests.
On to the Eastern Conference!