OKLAHOMA CITY — Two people represented the Spurs at the podium on Friday after Game 3’s 100-96 victory — Gregg Popovich, as always, and Tony Parker, whose throwback 19-point performance was essential to San Antonio’s victory.
Absent were Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, who each spoke quickly to smaller audiences and fewer television cameras in the Chesapeake Energy Arena’s visiting locker room. It was a classic Spurs approach, celebrating the unexpected performance of the little guy (a role the 33-year-old Parker has filled this year) rather than sending their two stars to the podium together. And as San Antonio look less and less like the Spurs, it’s nice to know some things never change.
The classic Spurs offense is something everyone can envision: ball movement whipping around the perimeter, a dozen different touches of the ball before a weakness is discovered, a feeling like the Spurs have seven players (or 700) on the court and the referees just haven’t caught them. That’s still a great strategy against some teams, Manu Ginobili said, but not the Thunder. Against them, you have to rely on the individual greatness of Leonard and Aldridge.
“It wouldn’t be smart to not use those two,” Manu Ginobili said. “They are both maybe top-10, top-12 in the league, and they are having a remarkable season, an incredible playoff series.”
San Antonio did that. After 38- and 41-point games to open the series, Aldridge was slowed slightly, scoring 24 points on 8-of-21 shooting with eight rebounds. Leonard came through with his series-high, dropping 31 points on 9-of-17 shooting with 11 rebounds and three assists. The ball constantly rotated through their hands: Aldridge touched the ball 78 times, Leonard 68, per the NBA’s player tracking data. Besides Parker, the point guard who begins every play, no other Spur recorded more than 50 touches.
“Moving the ball is great and we all have fun, but you gotta go to where it gives you the best chance of scoring,” Ginobili said. “Today, giving (Leonard and Aldridge) the ball, especially down the stretch, gave us opportunity. In this situation, with their physicality, their length and strength, it’s almost a no-brainer that we gotta go to them.”
It’s the changing of the guard in San Antonio, and with it comes a new style, one only heightened by the Spurs’ arrival to the postseason. In seven playoff games, Aldridge has scored 161 points and Leonard, 156. The Big 3 — Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan — have only combined for 152 points. Those Spurs won the classic way we remembered. These Spurs are finding their own way, even while those legends from the old days stick around at least a little while longer.
Still, a few more post-ups and isolations than in the past doesn’t mean the Spurs have abandoned their core tenets that caused them ascend dynastically last decade.
“That doesn’t change anything,” Patty Mills told SB Nation. “The values and the groundwork and the base of what this organization is always going to be is what we hang our hat on. Everyone understands that. As we transition, it’s just about blending both together to get the most out of everyone. They’re the type of players who can do that.”
Oklahoma City’s version of the two-star system wouldn’t work in San Antonio. The bold, brash superstardom that occupies the public spotlight is something Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook enjoy. The Thunder have consistently lacked the structure around those two to do anything but rely on them outright, too, so it’s no wonder when they combine for 49 shots like Game 3, and when they always take the podium together, win or lose.
Leonard is a superstar in exactly the opposite way. He’s the player that fits every cliche that San Antonio embodies: the hard worker, the quiet learner, the player who leads by example, the star who just wants to be a regular dude. As his climb towards becoming an All-Star began, there was never any doubt he would fit into the culture of the Spurs.
Aldridge was a different case, coming from Portland, where he was the main man for several years. That he chose San Antonio over other destinations said a lot, but he still had to prove the team-first mantra that the Spurs require, even while frequently being responsible for so much more. And by deflecting a question asked about exactly that, there’s no doubt Aldridge has passed his tests.
“I just do what we need,” Aldridge answered. “It’s not about me, it’s about the team. If it ends up being like that, it’s fine.”
With two dominant stars that are treated as such, these Spurs have clearly turned into a different iteration of themselves. But in another way, they’re exactly the same. All the Spurs have ever wanted was to win, no matter what shape or form it took, no matter which players helped them do it.
They’re still doing that.