The San Antonio Spurs face their first legitimate threat of the playoffs as they prepare for a meeting with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With all due respect to the Memphis Grizzlies, it would have been an accomplishment for them to take even one game from the Spurs without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The Thunder, on the other hand, are healthy and one of the elite teams in the NBA. The Spurs should brace themselves for a difficult series.
This is the 2nd time in the last 5 seasons that these two franchises have met in the playoffs, with each side besting the other on one of the occasions. In the lockout-shortened season of 2011-2012, the Thunder beat the Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
That season, the Thunder were lead by a core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins, while the Spurs relied most heavily upon Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green.
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The next playoff meeting between the two squads came in the 2014 playoffs in the Western Conference Finals again. This time, however, the Spurs returned the favor, defeating the Thunder 4-2 before eventually beating the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Harden was gone from the Thunder by that point, and they were guided by a nucleus of Durant, Ibaka, Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, and Thabo Sefolosha. The Spurs had a similar team, with a few tweaks to the rotation. The players who would usually log the most minutes were Parker, Duncan, Leonard, Marco Belinelli, and Boris Diaw.
Typical for their brand of consistency, the core group of Spurs’ players on this year’s roster is pretty similar dating back to their team from 2012. LaMarcus Aldridge is a huge addition, and a few role players have come and gone, but the team never went through any drastic make-overs.
The Thunder are still guided by the trio of Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka, but key components like Harden, Jackson, Perkins, and Sefolosha are gone. The Thunder have re-tooled around their core, adding complimentary cogs like Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters to the roster while steadily increasing the roles of guys like Steven Adams and Andre Roberson.
History hints at another 6 game series between these two clubs, but this one has the feeling of an even more prolonged meeting this go around. This series has 7 games written all over it.
Series predictions are always a careful combination of emotional subjectivity, intangible psychological factors, and hard objectivity. All ingredients are steering the forecast towards a grueling slate of 7 hard-fought games.
This is a different type of Thunder team than in years past. It’s probably the most potent offensive team mainly due to the different cast of characters they’ve put around Durant and Westbrook. The scoring output is no longer top-heavy from Durant and Westbrook, as double-figure point totals can be relied upon by guys like Ibaka, Kanter, and Waiters.
Ibaka’s offensive game has evolved since the Thunder first met the Spurs in the playoffs in 2012. He has seemingly traded in some of his interior defense for the ability to shoot 3s and serve as a stretch-4. Instead of averaging 3-4 blocks with 9 points, his averages are closer now to 1-2 blocks with 13-15 points.
The 2011-2012 team put so much of the scoring onus on so few. Durant, Westbrook, and Harden combined for about 69 points per game. Ibaka averaged about 9 points per game, but nobody else on the roster averaged over 6. The 2016 Thunder can get offense from so many more sources, but in the process of acquiring offensive talent, they’ve lost defensive skill.
Sefolosha and Perkins are gone. Roberson has taken Sefolosha’s role as a long-armed defender who can guard the perimeter. Ibaka is still formidable on defense, but has declined. Steven Adams has filled Perkins’ role inside admirably. The only truly committed defenders on this current Thunder team are Adams, Roberson, Ibaka, and Nick Collison, whose playing time has decreased in recent years.
Westbrook and Durant have their moments on defense, but neither should be considered as shining examples for how to play defense. Westbrook gambles far too often to even approach being considered a disciplined defensive presence, and Durant underachieves too often for how naturally lengthy and quick he is.
Many Thunder players like Kanter, Waiters, and Anthony Morrow are laughably bad on defense. However, those 3 players just mentioned provide scoring punch off the bench, and it seems like the Thunder have transitioned in recent years to putting more emphasis on getting role players who can provide offensive sparks at the expense of defense.
The individual examination illustrates what the collective data concludes. This Thunder team has the lowest Defensive Rating of any previous Thunder team that has faced the Spurs in the playoffs, but the highest Offensive Rating. These rating systems are based on points scored and allowed per 100 possessions.
The Thunder have sacrificed defensive capability for scoring options. They picked the wrong year to run into the Spurs in the postseason, because not only does San Antonio have the highest rated defense in the league, but per 100 possessions, this is the best defensive Spurs team in over a decade.
These teams went 2-2 against each other in the regular season, with the home team winning each game. The Spurs’ loss on March 26 deserves a bit of an asterisk, though, considering that Aldridge, Leonard, and Parker didn’t play.
Oklahoma City is extra motivated to extent their playoff run as long as they can, not only because of the obvious desire to win a championship, but because they find themselves in a quasi-audition to prove themselves worthy of retaining Durant’s services into the foreseeable future.
Durant becomes a free agent this offseason, and if he feels as though this Thunder roster can’t realistically compete for championships going forward presently constructed, he might be tempted to jump ship. Any Thunder players who want to keep playing with a top 5 talent best bring maximum effort to prove that they can topple an elite team like the Spurs.
San Antonio has cruised into this series as rested as they realistically could be at this point in the season. Not only was the matchup between the Grizzlies last round a relatively easy sweep, but Gregg Popovich has taken a judicious approach to making sure his veteran players have had opportunities to rest during the season.
Fans might groan at Popovich’s cautious tendencies to limit the wear and tear that guys like Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili endure over a taxing regular season, but come playoff games in April, May, and June, the Spurs are always at optimum freshness and look more invigorated compared to other teams that have used up so much energy to advance to this stage. All indications are that they’ll have minimum fatigue levels, ready to fire on all cylinders against their opponent.
The Spurs are a top 3 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency per 100 possessions. They have a deep roster full of contributors who can serve as scorers, defenders, and playmakers. They’re the more versatile team in this matchup.
Durant and Westbrook lead a powerful offense, and their immense talents combined can earn the Thunder a couple wins. Added with the play of key role players like Ibaka, Adams, Kanter, and Waiters, the Thunder can win a few games this series. The difficulty arises in making a case for them to win 4 out of 7 against this solidly constructed Spurs roster.
If the Thunder’s elite offense and the Spurs’ elite defense theoretically cancel each other out in terms of advantage over the course of a series, then it comes down to the Spurs’ offense against the Thunder’s defense.
This is where the scales tip in favor of the Spurs, who have a methodical half-court offense rooted in creating scoring opportunities through selfless ball movement and impeccable shooting. The Thunder’s defense doesn’t look competent enough to be able to contain the Spurs’ offense.
If the Spurs are able to control the pace of the series and limit the amount of possessions, they’ll have the upper hand. The Spurs are the better shooting team, so if they’re able to curb their turnovers and have effective offensive possessions, they’ll succeed. Their turnover rate was in the top third of the league during the regular season, while the Thunder’s was in the bottom third.
These trends point to the Spurs getting more quality possessions in the series, and being able to capitalize on them with better shooting. The Spurs don’t shoot a lot of 3 pointers relative to other teams, but they make them at high percentages, boding well for games that turn into frenetic shootouts. It isn’t the Spurs’ style to bomb from long distance at will, but they have the ability to shoot the lights out.
My prediction for this series is Spurs in 7. The Thunder are an explosive offensive team, but it’s the only way they can win games. The Spurs are the more well-rounded squad that can win in a variety of ways, whether it’s a slowed-down defensive struggle or a high-scoring shootout.
In the regular season, the Spurs ranked in the top third of the league in points per game despite ranking in the bottom 6 teams in possessions per game. That statistic alone is frightening for any team facing the Spurs, and when coupled with the Spurs’ top ranked defense, it makes it nearly impossible to conclude that they’d lose this series. Durant and Westbrook are fantastic players, but this Spurs team is truly special.