There have been injuries across the Eastern Conference and the usual drama in Miami and Los Angeles, but amid all that hoopla, this is the series we should have been looking toward all along. With the Heat’s Chris Bosh hurting, the Thunder and Spurs (16-1 combined in the playoffs) stand clearly as the two best teams in the NBA. They were the two best offensive teams all season and finished in a virtual tie for 10th in points allowed per possession, meaning they both improved defensively as the season progressed.
And in the playoffs, as scoring has dropped leaguewide, these two juggernauts have increased their scoring rates. Given the star power, the Spurs’ pleasing style and the myriad connections between these two franchises at the highest levels, this should be a ludicrously entertaining series. Getcha popcorn, people.
Know this going in: If you are picking the Thunder to win, you are relying on trends and developments that haven’t yet happened. And that’s fine! Things change, teams improve, coaches tweak rotations and the state of basketball at any given time is never identical to what it was a day or a week or a month ago. The Thunder are young and growing, and picking them based on the notion that they have another gear to unleash on San Antonio is perfectly rational.
But every bit of evidence suggests that the Spurs are going to win this series. They have been the best team in the league for most of the season, and it hasn’t really been close. They are 29-2 in their last 31 games, and one of those losses came when coach Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. They have outscored opponents by about 15 points per 100 possessions in the last 30 games. The 1995-96 Bulls, the winningest team in league history, outscored opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions, the largest recorded margin.
When you start talking about how a team is dominating on a 1996 Bulls level, it’s probably smart to make that team the de facto favorite in any playoff series. The Spurs have also handled this Thunder team without much of a problem, going 8-2 against Oklahoma City over the last three seasons, including a 2-1 mark this season without Ginobili for any of the games. This season’s loss came when Popovich pulled his stars early on the second end of a back-to-back in early January. (The Thunder, in fairness, were on the third game of a back-to-back-to-back.)
As I’ve written before, this has been a bad matchup for the Thunder. San Antonio’s pick-and-roll attack has sliced up Oklahoma City’s defense, producing piles of points for Parker and a scorching 28-of-54 mark (51.9 percent) from three-point range. The Thunder are athletic and improving, with great potential on the defensive end, but the Spurs have exploited all of the mistakes that young teams typically make in positioning, over-aggressive pursuit (especially from Russell Westbrook), botched rotations and poor angles.
The Thunder just haven’t been able to keep up with San Antonio’s offense. And the scary thing is, the Spurs didn’t really hit their next-level groove until after their final game against Oklahoma City, a 114-105 victory on March 16.
(As a side note: Keep an eye on the corners. Only four teams allowed more corner three-point attempts than Oklahoma City this season, and the Spurs feast on corner threes out of the pick-and-roll. Only the Hawks took more, and only three teams shot better from the corners than San Antonio’s 41.9 percent.)
The Thunder also don’t have the one weapon that has punished past Spurs teams, though not this one (yet): a beastly low-post scorer who is capable of bullying Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and now Boris Diaw, and forcing Popovich to play Duncan and center Tiago Splitter together — something Popovich has done more often in these playoffs, by the way. The Spurs aren’t an impenetrable defense anymore, but they have been very good, and they will overload off weaker scorers/shooters in order to contain more dangerous players. The Thunder offer several non-threatening offensive players, including all of their rotation big men, and the Lakers had some success forcing the Oklahoma City stars to pass the ball out of the paint during the second round. Is Serge Ibaka ready to take seven or eight mid-range shots per game?
Finally, San Antonio doesn’t yield free throws or offensive rebounds, two key sources of fuel for the Thunder offense.
All of this said, the Thunder have a chance to make this series very competitive and possibly win it. Here’s why:
• Sheer talent and athleticism, and the Durant matchup
Might as well start at the obvious place: Though the Spurs’ athleticism is underrated — you’ve seen Parker sprint-dribble, Ginobili’s changes of direction and Duncan’s flawless footwork, right? — the Thunder’s is overwhelming enough to swing an entire game with one explosive three- or four-minute stretch. The same frantic, over-aggressive defense that might compromise the Thunder in stretches can also produce turnovers in bunches, especially when Westbrook is flying around the perimeter, anticipating the next pass with his rotations. Ibaka will reject shots and ignite fast breaks. James Harden will get to the rim, because no one stops him from getting to the rim.
And then there is Kevin Durant, for whom there is never a good matchup. Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard is long-armed, tough and steely, and he did well chasing Durant around the perimeter in the regular season. But is he ready for this? And when Leonard sits, who takes Durant? Stephen Jackson is feisty, but the 34-year-old lacks athleticism at this point. The Spurs have been using Danny Green, Ginobili and Parker much more in the playoffs than in the regular season, when the three shared the court for only 73 minutes, and the 6-foot-6 Green works as the nominal small forward in those lineups. Green, like Leonard and Jackson, is shorter than the 6-9 Durant, and if he defends the league’s scoring champ for stretches, he obviously cannot guard Westbrook during those same stretches. It will be interesting to see how often Green, who was assigned to Clippers point guard Chris Paul for large chunks of the Western Conference semifinals, defends Westbrook — especially when Sefolosha, a limited offensive player, is on the floor.
In the simplest terms, while the Thunder might struggle to stop the Spurs, the Spurs might also struggle to stop the Thunder. Oklahoma City scored 105.9 points per 100 possessions against the Spurs in the regular season, the equivalent of a top-four overall mark. The Thunder also drew nearly as many free throws per shot attempt against San Antonio as they did for the full season — which is to say, they drew a lot.
• Rotation tweaks and small lineups
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks’ rotation choices might be the most important variable in the series. The Thunder need each of their non-productive offensive players for specific reasons. Center Kendrick Perkins is a stout defender and a big reason why Duncan shot only 36 percent in the three regular-season meetings, though Brooks went with Ibaka on Duncan down the stretch of the teams’ final game. Sefolosha is a defensive ace who will be useful against Ginobili, even if he won’t be quite as useful as he was against Kobe Bryant — and even if it’s unclear how much court time Sefolosha (a starter) and Ginobili (a sixth man) will actually share. Power forward Nick Collison is a good defender and has better chemistry with Harden on the pick-and-roll than John Travolta and Samuel Jackson had in Pulp Fiction.
Guards Daequan Cook and Derek Fisher and center Nazr Mohammed all bring valuable skills. But the Thunder are guardable when two or three of these players are on the floor at the same time. The Spurs are basically never guardable, so if the “guardability” equation tilts too far in the wrong direction for too long, the Thunder might lose a crucial stretch here and there.
To wit: The Thunder scored 101 points per 100 possessions with Durant at small forward this season and 113 points per 100 possessions with him at power forward — without sacrificing much on the defensive end. The reason is obvious: Going “small” allows the Thunder to play their three best offensive players — Durant, Westbrook and Harden — and remove an unproductive big man.
The Lakers effectively neutered this strategy — at least until a key stretch of Oklahoma City’s Game 5 clincher — mostly because the Thunder had no good matchup for small forward Metta World Peace in the post. Durant held his own against power forwards Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol, but the Thunder, without a backup small forward and weirdly hesitant to use Sefolosha in that role when playing small-ball, could not deal with World Peace’s muscle on the block.
The Spurs present no such problems. Leonard and Jackson are not back-to-the-basket threats capable of bullying Harden or Westbrook. Provided Durant can hold his own against the bulky Diaw, the Thunder should be safe playing these units for extended minutes, as they did to great effect against the Spurs in the regular season. The Thunder were plus-19 over 43 minutes against San Antonio when they used Durant at power forward, per these game flow charts; the Spurs, meanwhile, outscored the Thunder by about 12 points per 100 possessions when both Perkins and Ibaka were on the floor.
The Spurs, of course, aren’t just going to wilt in the face of Thunder small-ball. They might use Leonard or Jackson as a small-ball power forward, but no such lineup played more than 13 minutes combined in the entire regular-season. Popovich preferred to keep two “bigs” on the floor, which makes sense, considering how effectively San Antonio’s big men spread the floor. If Popovich mostly sticks to that route, the Spurs will almost certainly keep their small forward — Leonard, Jackson or Green — on Durant and have their second big man (Bonner, Diaw, etc.) “hide” on a stationary shooter such as Fisher, Cook or Sefolosha.
The Spurs should be fine in that alignment; none of those players really have the ability to hurt Bonner, Diaw or Blair off the dribble. This is where the Thunder feel Eric Maynor’s absence; the backup point guard, who is out with a knee injury, provided both three-point shooting and off-the-bounce creativity in one package.
Bottom line: Watch Brooks’ rotations closely.
• Waiting on Manu and Bonner
Ginobili is having a quiet playoffs by his standards, shooting just 40 percent overall and 26 percent from three-point range. Other than a key barrage of triples to help ice Game 4 against Utah, he has not really found his stroke. That said, Ginobili’s passing has been as splendid and tricky as ever, and he has looked productive running the pick-and-roll with San Antonio’s second unit.
He also hasn’t cracked 30 minutes in a playoff game, mostly because the Spurs haven’t needed him to do so. But as the competition gets better, the Spurs will at some point need All-Star Ginobili instead of just Good Ginobili, and they might need him for extended minutes. That player is ready and primed, right?
As for Bonner, his minutes are down in the playoffs again, even though he’s a solid 7-of-16 form three-point range and hasn’t yet run into a bulldozer on the level of Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol. The play of Diaw and Splitter probably has a lot to do with that, but Bonner’s ability to space the floor was huge for San Antonio this season. Its offense basically broke the NBA when Bonner and Splitter played alongside Ginobili and two shooters. Will Bonner respond in this series, or will his past postseason shakiness haunt him?
Bottom line: While San Antonio has been unbelievably dominant for two-plus months, Oklahoma City is a very good team that brings unique advantages into this series. The Thunder can absolutely push the Spurs. But can they win four times in seven games against a team that is 29-1 in the last 30 games it actually tried to win?
I don’t think so. Spurs in six, with a clincher on the road.