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The same overarching theme applied to each of the two previous occasions the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder met in the playoffs. It’s one marked by traits that have defined these organizations over the past half decade, and one it’s easy to assume pertains to their clash in the Western Conference Semifinals that finally tips off on Saturday from the Alamo City.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the ultra-talented Thunder against Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and the impossibly-timeless Spurs is a movie we’ve seen before. The young Thunder came roaring back from an 0-2 deficit in the 2012 Conference Finals to beat the Spurs, while San Antonio won the West after a hotly-contested six-game series two years later – which happens to be the last time Oklahoma City’s roster was anywhere near full health at this time of year.
Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of the 2014 Conference Finals with a calf injury that was supposed to sideline him for the remainder of the postseason. But the Thunder’s sweet-shooting, shot-blocking big man made a surprise return to the court for Game 3, propelling his team to a pair of victories that evened the series at 2-2. Oklahoma City nearly forced Game 7 after getting trounced in San Antonio a couple of days earlier, too, but Kawhi Leonard made the play that sealed a series-ending win for the Spurs and seemed destined to be the highlight of his burgeoning career.
And that’s what could be the biggest problem for the Thunder as their full-strength team faces a new reality as decided playoff underdogs: Leonard has become so good that hindsight makes his unfathomable crunch-time block on Westbrook seems somewhat routine.
In previous years, Oklahoma City could count on the individual brilliance of Durant, Westbrook, and even Ibaka to mitigate its penchant for stagnant offense and lack of discipline defensively – especially against San Antonio. Duncan and Manu Ginobili were past their athletic primes; Tony Parker could be overwhelmed by the physicality of Westbrook; and the Spurs’ supporting cast was either too old or too green.
The Big Three didn’t get any younger. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker are more marginalized than ever before, but that just doesn’t matter to the extent it has in years past. Leonard is a full-fledged superstar, LaMarcus Aldridge remade his game throughout the regular season to become one of the most efficient interior scorers in basketball, and San Antonio’s depth is the envy of every team in the league.
The Spurs have never been better.
The Thunder, meanwhile, made a change on the sidelines and overhauled their roster only to emerge as basically the same outfit that’s been a lucky break or two away from hoisting a Larry O’Brien Trophy for several years. Oklahoma City remains overly reliant on Durant and Westbrook; hasn’t found a peripheral wing a championship contender should be comfortable playing major minutes when the stakes are highest; and still falls victim to the two-way pitfalls it was supposed to have outgrown by now.
Make no mistake: None of that will matter at certain points in this series. The Thunder have the same legitimate chance to beat a superior all-around opponent they have for what seems like forever. There are only so many players in the world capable of plays like these on a consistent basis, and Oklahoma City happens to have two of them.
Durant and Westbrook alone are enough to keep this series close. Ibaka remains an über-impactful big man on both sides of the ball despite stagnation at best and regression at worst. Steven Adams quietly enjoyed a breakout season, Enes Kanter is one of the game’s top bucket-getters, and even Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters are capable of moments that make you believe they’re ready for stages like this one.
But what’s always plagued this team still does, and San Antonio has the necessary combination of talent, execution, and experience to magnify the Thunder’s weaknesses and mitigate their strengths.
It’s no secret Oklahoma City’s offense didn’t evolve the way it was supposed to this season. During training camp, Donovan and his players said all the right things about sharing the ball and moving the floor, but they never quite came to pass once the regular season tipped off. No playoff team is moving the ball less frequently than the Thunder; they average fewer passes and touches per game than any competitor who qualified for the postseason field.
That’s no death-knell in a vacuum. Not every team can be the Atlanta Hawks or Boston Celtics, let alone Spurs or Golden State Warriors. It takes a specific type of personnel to ping the ball across the floor over and over until the defense finally breaks, and Oklahoma City doesn’t have it – something not lost on Durant.
“Look, we’re not the San Antonio Spurs,” he told ESPN’s Royce Young in January. “We’re not going to make 30 passes in a possession. We’re not that.”
True. What the Thunder are is a team that possesses two of the league’s most devastating offensive players, who’s continued growth as playmakers helped leverage a flawed supporting cast and outdated approach to scoring into the league’s second-most efficient offense. Durant and Westbrook are monsters.
But the regular season isn’t the playoffs and San Antonio isn’t some run-of-the-mill opponent. Its 96.6 defensive rating led the NBA by 2.2 points per 100 possessions, the biggest discrepancy between first and second place since 2007-08. There’s no other defender in basketball like Leonard. Duncan remains a wildly effective backline signal-caller. Danny Green is perpetually underrated on the perimeter, and Aldridge used his physical gifts to become a cog of the Spurs’ relentlessly consistent defensive machine.
Leonard and Green readily switched assignments between Durant and Westbrook in the two meaningful games San Antonio and Oklahoma City played this season. The Spurs hid Parker and Patty Mills on Roberson, Waiters, or Kyle Singler – the latter of whom hasn’t appeared in the postseason – and overloaded the strong side of the floor to shrink space and dare the Thunder’s third small to beat them.
In the clip below, watch Boris Diaw sprint to the other side of the paint and Kyle Anderson crash down to his man when Durant catches on the left wing.
Just where is the former MVP supposed to go with the ball here? San Antonio will certainly live with Durant settling for a contested pull-up jumper, and neither Kanter nor Singler is scaring defenses from beyond the arc – and that’s assuming Oklahoma City has the foresight to find them before the Spurs could recover.
Look at Green, at the left elbow, flat-out abandoning Roberson on this side pick-and-roll to bother Ibaka as he prepares to shoot.
In an ideal world, Ibaka notices extra color in his immediate line of sight and gets the ball to a cutting Roberson where he and Adams can take on Duncan. But Ibaka, it’s clear at this point in his career, just doesn’t have the natural feel and vision to make plays like this one while catching in space after setting a ball screen. Not every power forward can be Draymond Green.
The same overarching problem for the Thunder persists from the top of the floor. They need to run ball screens with Durant to utilize his vast array of skills and keep San Antonio off balance, but doing so allows the defense to cheat off two perimeter players as opposed to one.
See how far Parker digs down from the weak-side wing to contest Durant’s drive?
The Spurs just aren’t scared of Westbrook as a catch-and-shoot safety valve. Though Oklahoma City optimists point to his horrid 29.6 percent three-point shooting as the result of off-dribble jumpers taken late in the shot clock, Westbrook also made just 37.1 percent of his spot-up tries during the regular season – a mark well below league average.
Ibaka’s importance on offense in this matchup deserves much more than a passing mention. We’ve already seen him swing a series between these teams before, and regular season data (as first pointed out by Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript) suggests he just might be the player to do it again. The Thunder’s offensive rating was a team-high 114.1 with Ibaka on the floor against San Antonio during the regular season, and dipped all the way down to a team-worst 89.6 when was on the bench.
Caveats: Sample size and how much of that admittedly small data set actually says anything about the Conference Semifinals. Ibaka played 103 minutes versus the Spurs in 2015-16, and more than a third of them came in a game Popovich rested Ginobili and every starter except Green. He’s not quite the all-encompassing bellwether those numbers suggest, basically.
Regardless, Ibaka looms extremely large to Oklahoma City’s chances of beating basketball’s best defense with any regularity. The nature of San Antonio’s conservative ball-screen defense combined with the likelihood it clogs immediate actions with extra defenders means Ibaka will have ample opportunity to make hay as a standstill shooter – whether popping after picks or spotting up in space away from the ball.
Late last month, the eight-year veteran told The Oklahoman’s Anthony Slater his substandard play this season was the inevitable byproduct of a reduced role on offense.
“You play so hard on defense, then you come to offense and you’re going to be out there in the corner for 4, 5, 6, sometimes 8 minutes and you don’t touch the ball,” he said. “We human, man. It’s hard.”
Ibaka won’t suddenly morph into a force of offensive dynamism for the Thunder. He’s just not that kind of player. Yet his opportunities to make the Spurs pay for focusing so much attention on Durant and Westbrook will come time and again in this series, and his effectiveness in that regard will go a long way toward deciding its outcome.
The indecision and apparent apathy that sometimes plagued Ibaka during the regular season won’t do anymore. He needs to catch the ball and let fly confidently, just as he did in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks by connecting on 16-of-28 catch-and-shoot tries.
A defense like San Antonio’s only bends so often, and re-straightens more quickly than seems possible when it finally does. Ibaka’s influence as a jump-shooting scorer is chief to Oklahoma City taking advantage of those rare occasions. Turning down even semi-contested shots, like he does in the play below, plays right into the Spurs’ hands.
Look, the Thunder will probably light up the scoreboard for a game or two in this series. Durant and Westbrook are just too good for anything less, and Donovan, despite what most numbers and the eye test will tell you, indeed runs a more innovative offensive scheme than his predecessor.
Not even San Antonio’s defensive integrity can hold up to the blend of speed, ability, and general quick thinking Oklahoma City exhibits on this possession from the season opener.
Subtle wrinkles like screening the screener’s man will give Westbrook and Durant clearer paths to the paint on possessions when the Thunder need a bucket.
Westbrook will guard Parker and Mills, but Oklahoma City’s live-wire floor general will mostly be checked by Leonard and Green. If he can push the ball in semi transition, though, Westbrook should be able to create non cross-matches that will allow him to feast in the post against the Spurs’ overmatched point guards.
There will surely be times when Oklahoma City looks unstoppable, but don’t be fooled by short-term results winning out over long-term process. The only trump card Donovan has in this series are his future Hall of Famers, and even the impact of Durant and Westbrook will be softened by the immediate presence of Leonard and Green and the looming arms of Duncan and Aldridge behind them.
The Thunder can’t count on cleaning the offensive glass against San Antonio; the Spurs ranked third in defensive rebounding percentage this season. They can’t rely on referees blowing the whistle when Durant and Westbrook force the issue; San Antonio committed shooting fouls less frequently than every team but the Brooklyn Nets. And if the offensive going gets tough enough for Donovan to dust off Anthony Morrow in place of Roberson, play Kanter extended minutes, or even downsize with Durant at small-ball power forward, Oklahoma City just won’t be stingy enough defensively to make those strategies winning ones.
This series will be competitive. In any year before this one, the Thunder might even be favored – such is the effect of singular players like Durant and Westbrook. But the Spurs are a different beast this season. Popovich’s team has somehow maintained the offensive ethos that made it great while integrating concepts to account for the remarkable improvement of Leonard and surprising addition of Aldridge.
When Durant and Westbrook do things like this, it’s almost impossible to imagine Oklahoma City losing.
But now that same irrational line of thinking applies to San Antonio when Leonard and Aldridge embrace their inner alpha dogs.
Bottom line: There’s no longer something the Thunder have that the Spurs don’t. And after a wildly enjoyable and hopefully long Western Conference Semifinals, that reality will ensure San Antonio is the team left standing – and perhaps the team most likely to win a championship, too.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.