Jun 2, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs guardTony Parker
(9) drives against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half in game four of the Western Conference finals of the 2012 NBA playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmonsj-USA TODAY Sports
The San Antonio Spurs are set to clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals starting tonight.
Unfortunately for both teams, each of their major players—Tony Parker for the Spurs and Serge Ibaka for the Thunder—are hampered due to injuries. Fortunately for the Spurs, Tony Parker’s injury is not as devastating as Ibaka’s. Parker has a Grade-1 hamstring strain and is hopeful to play in Game 1, while Ibaka is expected to miss the rest of the postseason due to a calf injury.
Although the Thunder will sorely, and I mean sorely, miss Ibaka offensively and defensively, don’t expect the Thunder to just concede the series to the Spurs. The Thunder still have two of the best basketball players on the planet at their disposal who have tormented the Spurs in the past.
However, in Ibaka’s absence, other Thunder players are going to have to immensely step their games up in an attempt to make up for Ibaka’s production.
Here are a few keys that will ultimately determine which team advances to the NBA Finals.
Who Will Represent the West in the 2014 NBA Finals?
**All stats courtesy of NBA.com
Tony Parker’s Health
May 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) passes the ball under the basket against Portland Trail Blazers centerRobin Lopez
(left) in game two of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 114-97. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
With Ibaka out, the Spurs are desperately going to need a healthy Tony Parker to fully take advantage of the paint.
As most know, Parker’s dribble penetration is the key to the Spurs’ offense. Without it, the Spurs rely on Manu Ginobili to fill that role as playmaker. Unforunately, Manu took a step back last series against Portland compared to his play against Dallas. With Manu being in a funk, the Spurs really do not have anyone to exploit the paint in Ibaka’s absence.
Manu Ginobili is no stranger to extreme slumps. He’s buried in his worst of the season, shooting 10 for 38 over… http://t.co/jcUqkTlXoN
— mySanAntonio (@Spurs_Nation) May 15, 2014
If Parker can even play 80 percent healthy and cause havoc in the paint as usual, then the Spurs have a very good chance of dominating the Thunder and diminishing the chance of an upset.
The biggest worry is if Parker aggravates that hammy even more.
Last year in the NBA Finals, Parker suffered a Grade-2 hamstring strain and was noticeably not himself through the rest of the series. The Spurs are going to need a healthy Tony Parker, but not one that overexerts himself and increases the likelihood of great injury.
May 10, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; San Antonio Spurs forwardKawhi Leonard
(2) and guardDanny Green
(4) react after making a basket during the fourth quarter in game three of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
In the Spurs four regular season games against the Thunder, the Spurs shot a terrific 39.9 percent from three.
However, they lost all four of those games. The Thunder are a middle-of-the-pack team in regards to opponent three-point percentage: OKC allows teams to shoot 35.8 percent from behind the arc. In the Clippers series, the Thunder allowed the Clips to hoist up 25.2 threes per game. While they only made 8.7 of these threes attempted at a 33.2 percent rate, the Clippers shot almost 1.5 more threes against the Thunder than they averaged in the regular season.
Although it seems like such a small number, it actually is a huge differential.
In the regular season, the Spurs only averaged 21.4 threes a game, but they made the most of their opportunities by shooting a league-leading 39.7 percent. Many expect that their three-point attempts should go down with Ibaka out, but I would argue the exact opposite; because with a hobbled Parker, the Spurs may rely on the three more than usual.
If San Antonio is able to carry over their three-point efforts from their series with the Portland Trail Blazers (with exception to Game 4), then the Spurs should be in good shape in this current series. They have to get Manu, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Danny Green the shots they want in order to play their brand of basketball.
For the Thunder, three-point shooting is one of their crutches, which you won’t necessarily see in the box scores. In the regular season, OKC finished 14th in the league in both three-point attempts and shooting percentage from beyond the arc at 22.4 attempts per game and 36.1 percent, respectively.
It is not the fact that they are an average team shooting the three, but it is how they get their attempts.
Since they primarily rely on isolations for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, it is when Oklahoma City breaks down a defense that they are able to kick it out to three-point shooters like Caron Butler, Derek Fisher and Reggie Jackson. Although the Spurs also rely on dribble penetration to kick out to open three-point shooters, it is remarkably different because of the explosiveness and ridiculous shot-making ability of Westbrook and Durant.
While Parker is a headache to guard, it’s safe to say he does not cause nearly as many problems as Westbrook and Durant together.
That being said, I think the Spurs can live with Westbrook and Durant getting theirs, but they won’t be able to put away the Thunder if their three-point gunners are getting the good looks and set shots they want.
Once again, I come back to Kawhi Leonard, just like in the Dallas Mavericks and Blazers series. If you don’t understand how instrumental of a player Kawhi is, then I would argue that you aren’t watching the San Antonio Spurs. As seen in Game 5 against the Blazers, Kawhi can take over a game on both ends of the floor in the blink of an eye.
Kawhi is so valuable defensively due to his versatility and defensive prowess. He doesn’t get shy when he is tasked with guarding guys like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. In addition, he is valuable offensively due to his ability to shoot threes, put the ball on the floor, finish at the rim (with authority, might I add) and his ability to post up.
Against the Thunder, Kawhi will be asked to guard Kevin Durant. While no one should expect Sugar K to shut KD down, Kawhi’s objective will be to make Durant uncomfortable and make every shot he takes a tough one. Durant will get his, but Kawhi must make KD earn every single point.
On offense, Kawhi has to be assertive.
When he scores early, more often than not, he is extremely aggressive the rest of the game. He also has to be aggressive on offense in order to force Durant to expend energy on defense. Durant and Westbrook already play a hefty amount of minutes, but with Ibaka out I expect that both of them will be playing 45 or more minutes per game.
If Kawhi is able to be a force on offense, then Durant will also be forced to exert a lot of energy on defense.
At the end of the day, Kawhi ‘Sugar K’ Leonard has to realize how big of an impact he can have on games. With that in mind, he must play accordingly to help lead the Spurs back to the NBA Finals.