Semifinal Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder
By Ian Smith
Not many teams can claim that they have two of the top ten players in the entire league. With the type of star power Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook provide, the Oklahoma City Thunder have a strong chance to win any series they play, and a meeting with the San Antonio Spurs should be an exciting semifinal for basketball fans.
In perhaps an example of competent coaches being a dime a dozen when inheriting a good situation, the Thunder haven’t seemed to miss a beat with Billy Donovan taking over for Scott Brooks. Only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs had a higher point differential this season.
With Russell Westbrook leading the charge, the Thunder played at a pace that ranked in the top third of the NBA in terms of possessions per game, and ended up finishing tied for 4th in fast-break points per game.
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This is a team that likes to run and make things happen in transition, but playing at a frenetic speed like this often presents problems taking care of the ball, and one of the weaknesses they have is their propensity to turn the ball over. They ranked 7th in the NBA in the percentage of their possessions that ended in a turnover.
The Thunder have the highest turnover differential in the league, meaning they commit way more turnovers than forcing turnovers. The Spurs have the 4th lowest differential, and although they play at a much more methodical rate, the Spurs trade a grueling pace for ball security, leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Oklahoma City ranks in the bottom third of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, and can’t match the Spurs’ ability to pass the ball around and create offense through that type of facilitation.
What will be interesting to observe is which team will win the rebounding battle. Both these teams rank in the top 3 in the league in field goal percentage, but second chance points could make the difference in any close games.
The Thunder are below average shooting beyond the arc, with Durant and Anthony Morrow being the only players they can rely upon to consistently make perimeter shots. In fact, Westbrook was 1 of only 2 players in the league to attempt over 300 shots from 3 point range and make less than 30% of them (the other was Kobe Bryant).
Compared to league averages, however, they’re a good midrange shooting team. Their glaring shortcoming is that they particularly struggle with corner 3s, shooting below a 36% threshold that ranks low among the rest of the league.
The Thunder have the highest rebounding rate in the NBA, and 5 of their players average over 6 rebounds per game, including an incredible 7.8 from 6’3 point guard Westbrook. Durant leads the team with 8.2, and Enes Kanter provides 8.1 per game in just 21 minutes off the bench.
The Spurs are tied for 4th in the league in rebounding rate, and the battles for boards will be epic in this series. These two teams are also upper-tier in terms of rim protection, and the clashes in the trenches will make for a distinctly gritty series.
The Thunder are a fantastic offensive rebounding team, ranking first in the league in offensive rebounding rate. The Spurs, however, rank 3rd in defensive rebounding rate, so it’ll be a major statistic to keep an eye on in the series.
Westbrook will probably be the toughest defensive assignment for the Spurs. With Tony Parker the weak link of the Spurs’ defense, they’ll likely shift him over to Andre Roberson to start off the game to try to hide him against the Thunder’s least dynamic offensive player. On defense for the Thunder, the long-armed Roberson will likely get the first crack at guarding Kawhi Leonard.
Durant is one of the best offensive players in the league, and Leonard is going to have to show once again why he’s the back-to-back winner of the DPOY by containing Durant’s output.
Danny Green will likely get put on Westbrook to save Parker the embarrassment of what a much youthful Westbrook would do to a not defensively capable (and aging) Parker. Green has showcased his defensive skills all season, and this series could be a chance for him to cement a case for an NBA All-Defensive spot if he manages to slow down arguably the most athletic player in the league.
The rotations Donovan uses will be revealing, because he has the personnel to adapt to the type of game being played. Roberson is their normal starter at shooting guard, and he’s a purely defensive weapon for them. Their depth at shooting guard behind him, however, consists of players who’re almost polar opposites of him.
Dion Waiters is instant offense off the bench, Morrow is one of the best perimeter shooters in the league, and Randy Foye can provide spurts off offensive productivity. None of them play any defense whatsoever, though.
How they divide those minutes amongst those 4 guys will be fascinating. In the Thunder’s first round matchup, Morrow appeared to be squeezed out of the rotation. Roberson and Waiters pretty much split the minutes at shooting guard.
Roberson is their best perimeter defender, and they might not want to sacrifice his presence too much in a series where they’ll desperately need help stopping guys like Leonard. Waiters provides an offensive punch, but the Thunder have proven to be able to get scoring from other sources. Roberson provides perimeter defense that they don’t have an abundance of.
These are two of the top 3 teams in points scored per 100 possessions. The difference is that the Spurs are the best defensive team per 100 possessions, while the Thunder are closer to mediocre in that regard.
Per 100 possessions, this is the most offensively potent Thunder team in franchise history. Considering the heights that Durant and Westbrook have lead this team to previously, that’s an impressive feat.
Durant and Westbrook alone can be relied upon to combine for over 50 points, and when complimentary guys like Kanter, Waiters, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams can all combine for around 45, this team isn’t going to have trouble putting up points.
The Spurs better hope they’ve enjoyed playing against a depleted Grizzlies lineup, because their top ranked defense is going to be tested against the Thunder in a very serious way.
The Thunder are an elite offensive team, but closer to average on defense. The Spurs are elite in both categories, so while it isn’t hard to envision this being a long series between two of the most impressive franchises in the NBA, the Spurs hold the upper hand with supreme capabilities on both ends of the court.
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The Thunder need to rely on being able to outscore an efficient offense while going toe-to-toe with the league’s best defense. That’s a tall order, as the Spurs are the more balanced team in regards to offense and defense. They deserve to be favorites in this matchup.