In what could possibly be the best matchup of the entire playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs once again face off with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. The Thunder have not lost a playoff series when healthy since the 2012 NBA Finals and will be wanting to rectify their loss to the Spurs in 2014. The Spurs on the other hand, have won a franchise record 67 games this season and will be wanting to stamp their authority as legitimate title contenders. This leads us to a preview of this second round matchup, where five burning questions will be raised leading into the series.
Who Wins the Battle of the Big Men?
Two of the most dangerous frontcourts in the league will go head to head in this series, with the battle of the big men potentially being a deciding factor. The Spurs have added to their big man artillery this season by signing LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to join Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw. This group has been dominant throughout the regular season on both ends of the floor, but especially defensively, where their rotations and help defence has led to a historically good season. The Spurs have conceded the fourth least points in the paint of any team this season, and have the best defensive efficiency in the league by 2.2 point per 100 possessions, a margin that has bested all since the 2007-08 title winning Celtics. Offensively, the introduction of Aldridge has completely changed the complexion of the Spurs, with the previous ball-movement heavy style now just a distant memory. In replacing it, the Spurs rely heavily on isolation possessions from Aldridge and hitting the open mid-range shots that defences will often allow teams to take in this analytically driven era. However, despite their big names, this Spurs team is not dominant on the offensive glass, catching just eight a game against Memphis. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, caught 13.8 offensive boards a night, absolutely dominating the glass despite playing heavy minutes with Matt Barnes at Power Forward. Throughout the season, it is clear that Coach Pop has sacrificed offensive rebounding in an attempt to improve the ageing Spurs fastbreak defence, however against this Thunder team, the Spurs must improve their rebounding.
The value of offensive rebounding is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the NBA (I explain this further in an article here), and the Thunder are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league. Not only do they catch a league leading 13.1 O-Boards a game (0.6 more than Detroit), they also have caught the most contested offensive rebounds – a more poignant stat – and possess an offensive rebound rate that is 4.1 percent above second place. For comparison, the gap from second to 23rd is 4%, that’s how good they are. They also allow the least opponent defensive rebounds per game, per Team Rankings. If the Spurs allow the Thunder to have this much control of the glass, the extra possessions created could be extremely costly.
Offensively, the Spurs must utilise Aldridge’s game (and to a less extent Boris Diaw and David West) mid-range to pull Serge Ibaka from the rim. Ibaka is one of the most prolific shot blockers in the league, and by taking him away from the rim, you limit this threat. Along with this, it could potentially cause Steven Adams to be left one-out if the Spurs are able to use Aldridge as a facilitator to the weak-side. With Ibaka defending Aldridge in the post, he will either have to leave Aldridge to help, or run the risk of allowing the Spurs to cut through an OKC defence lacking help. Aldridge also has a large arsenal of post moves with which he can potentially torch Ibaka down low. If the Spurs can limit the effectiveness of Ibaka defensively, it will go a long way to winning the series.
The Thunder, on the other hand, must find a way to keep Enes Kanter on the floor. Despite his defensive limitations, Kanter is the only OKC big man that can create his own shot and dominate in the low post. If the Spurs manage to expose him defensively and he is forced to the bench, the Thunder will struggle to find enough scoring to win this series.
Can the Spurs stop Russ and KD?
It’s well documented that the Spurs have an all-time great defense, but unfortunately for them, Oklahoma City is one of the only teams in the league that can pose some serious issues. In the past, the athleticism of the Thunder has caused the Spurs issues over a seven game series, and with the Spurs only getting older, this presents as a problem once again. In 2012, it led to the Thunder winning four straight games as the pace picked up, whilst in 2014, the impeccability of the Spurs ball movement triumphed after a massive scare from the Thunder.
To add to this, the Thunder are the only team in the league that boasts two of the five best players in the world. In games four and five against Dallas, Westbrook showed once again that he is the most dominant playmaker in the world, whilst Durant continued to be possibly the best all-round scorer the game has seen. Against Dallas, Westbrook averaged 26 points, 11.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds and 1.6 steal per game whilst shooting 46.3% from the field and 37.9% from deep – a much improved mark from the regular season. According to 3PTx (which is explained here), Westbrook generated 0.4 points per game extra off 3s against Dallas. In the regular season he was costing Oklahoma City 0.75 points per game during the regular season. Along with this, if he makes his threes, Russ becomes the most dangerous offensive player in the series. The Spurs defence will be forced to respect his shot, which will allow him an easier path to the hoop and will potentially bring Adams, Kanter and Ibaka into the game if the Spurs choose to go over picks. The Spurs will be forced to have Danny Green defending Westbrook for large portions of the game – as Tony Parker is simply not capable of doing so – which could lead into some offensive issues for San Antonio. Green has shot just 37.6% from the Field and 33.6% from deep this season and if he cannot find his shot, the Thunder’s weakness at Shooting Guard will be neutralised, with Dion Waiters instantly becoming playable. However, last time these two teams met with full squads, Danny Green defended Russ, who had nine turnovers and shot just 31% from the field. If this sort of defence carries through to this series, one of Oklahoma’s big advantages will be null and void.
At the other wing spot, Kevin Durant will face off against Kawhi Leonard in what promises to be one of the best battles of the playoffs. The league’s best scorer (outside of Golden State) versus the league’s best defender (outside of Golden State). We only saw these two go head-to-head twice this season and one of these meetings was on opening night (in game three of the season series, the Spurs sat Kawhi, Aldridge, Parker, Ginobili and Duncan, whilst in game four, the Thunder sat Ibaka, KD and Russ). In their only meeting after the All-Star break, Kawhi put up 26 points and Kevin Durant scored 28. There wasn’t much to take from this game in terms of the head-to-head battle, but Leonard did step up late in the game to get the Spurs over the line. With Leonard and Green able to switch the 1-3 Pick and Roll of Russ and KD, one of the Thunder’s biggest offensive weapons is neutralized. The mystique and intrigue of having a vastly improved Kawhi Leonard go up against Kevin Durant for the first time since Leonard has become a superstar will be one of the most fascinating subplots the series has to offer.
Is Billy Donovan better than Scotty Brooks? Billy Donovan, prove yourself. Thunder Defence.
At the end of last season, the Thunder fired now Wizards Coach Scotty Brooks, amid concerns over his ability to draw up effective plays in the final minutes of games and his ability to create an offense around Durant and Westbrook. So far, neither of those things have happened and OKC’s defence has regressed. Whilst Donovan has worked out that sitting Westbrook and Durant at the same time is not a good idea (who knew?), OKC are still vulnerable when the two misfire. The role players in this team are somewhat one dimensional, especially at the Shooting Guard position, which leads to a repetitive offensive playstyle. Their offense is far from fluent. This is a team that passed the least in the NBA this year, average just 264 passes per game. In the first round against Dallas, this number sunk to just 227 passes per game – 27 less than the next worst team, the Detroit Pistons. If the Thunder are going to break through the Spurs defence, their offense simply cannot be this stagnant, the Spurs will force shots late into the shot clock and the Thunder will be forced to play at their pace.
Instead, OKC need to ensure that the majority of this game is played in the open court, and that they get enough half court scoring from their complementary players. How Donovan handles the Spurs post play will be a major factor in deciding this series. The Spurs post-up more frequently than any other team and are the second most efficient team at doing so in the league. If Aldridge, Leonard and Duncan are getting easy post points, the Thunder are no chance. In the regular season, Donovan tried Steven Adams as an aggressor of sorts in an attempt to get under Tim Duncan’s skin and it worked. In the first round, we saw the Thunder implement similar aggression and this needs to carry through to round two. 73% of the Spurs shots are jump shots, and this aggression could cause them to hesitate and misfire. But, more than anything, Donovan just needs to get this team playing hard on every defensive possession. Possessions off will kill you against San Antonio.
Will the Spurs bench prove too deep to handle?
In the regular season, the Spurs bench averaged 39.2 points per game (third best in the league), outscoring opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions. In the first round, the Spurs bench unit outscored Memphis by 12.3 points per game. Granted, the Grizz were depleted by injuries and there was plenty of junk time in this series, but the Spurs were phenomenal nonetheless. The Thunder’s bench also stood up in the first round, with a point differential of 4.1 versus the Mavericks – the second best mark of the 16 teams in the first round. Enes Kanter stood up despite playing just a tick over 20 minutes a game, and Dion Waiters shot 40% from deep. If these two don’t stand up, the Thunder are going to get torched by the best bench in the league.
Who wins the pace battle?
The answer to this question will potentially decide this series, because if San Antonio manage to slow these games to a crawl, the Thunder don’t stand a chance. During the regular season, Oklahoma played at the 8th fastest pace in the league, using almost four more possessions per game than San Antonio (ranked 25th). If the Thunder can get the Spurs playing at this faster pace, their athleticism and dominance in the open court will prevail. OKC gain the fourth most fastbreak points per game (per Team Rankings), whilst the Spurs gain the fourth least in the NBA. Averaging nearly seven points more off the fastbreak than San Antonio, the Thunder must find a way to get transition buckets if they are to win the series. Defensively, despite the Thunder prioritizing offensive rebounding and the Spurs prioritising fastbreak defence, the gap between the fastbreak points allowed is just one point in the Spurs favour. If Oklahoma City can dominate the offensive boards and the pace battle, the games will be on their terms and they can win the series.
Thunder in 7