The Insanity That is Oklahoma City and San Antonio

Posted: 05/06/2016 by levcohen in Basketball

Going into the Oklahoma City Thunder-San Antonio Spurs series, I expected it to be the best and most intriguing second round matchup of the four. That was before a wild first two games which have sent the series to Oklahoma City tied 1-1. There couldn’t have been a bigger difference in the level of competition between games one and two than there was. In game one, the Thunder were downright horrific, going down 73-40 at halftime and allowing the Spurs to shoot 61% from the field and 60% from three. Russell Westbrook shot 5-of-19, and the stud point guard and Kevin Durant only combined for 30 points. The Spurs, who had been the sizable favorites heading into the series, seemed en route to an easy series victory and some rest before a looming clash with the Warriors. And then… game two happened. Westbrook and Durant combined for 57, the Spurs shot just 43% from the field and 26% from three, and the Thunder won by a point on a game-ending sequence so crazy and unbelievable that I really don’t know what words to use to describe it (instead, just watch this video, which is a good summation of how many things went wrong in the last possession). After an inexplicably long break, the series returns in OKC tonight. After such a crazy series, what should we expect going forward? I’m just going to talk about some things I’ll be interested in.

LaMarcus Aldridge is unstoppable: Nobody doubts LaMarcus Aldridge’s ability to score the basketball. Nobody doubts LaMarcus Aldridge’s efficiency. But some people have been saying that the Spurs should stop giving the ball to Aldridge in the post, because that disrupts the classic “Spurs way” of playing, which includes moving the ball around a lot with beautiful passing and eventually finding an easy bucket somewhere. Those people theorize that an Aldridge-centric offense cools other players down and that the Thunder are just letting Aldridge get his in order to disrupt the movement in San Antonio’s offense. I think those people are flat-out wrong. First of all, there’s no proof that more Aldridge shots means worse play around him. This is a small sample size, but in game one, Aldridge took 23 shots as the Spurs scored 124 points. In game two, Aldridge took 21 shots and the Spurs scored 97. More importantly, though, there comes a time when a player is so efficient that it’s foolhardy to even try to overthink things. LaMarcus is at that point and then some. Serge Ibaka is a good defender, but he’s way too small to stop Aldridge in the post. The result? 33-44 (75%!) shooting from the floor, 11-11 from the line, and 2-2 from three point range after going 0-16 from beyond the arc this year. This is why the Spurs shelled out a ton of money to sign Aldridge away from the Blazers. He had a slow start to the season, but he’s on fire now. If I were Gregg Popovich, I’d tell my guards to get Aldridge a touch on every single possession. If that means he takes 35 shots, so be it. In fact, I think the more shots he gets off, the better chance the Spurs have of winning, simply because the Thunder just don’t have an answer for him.

The Spurs are vulnerable if Kawhi’s off: Throughout the year, I’ve thought of the Spurs as the least erratic (and therefore least vulnerable to bad games) team in the NBA. Sure, the Warriors were a better team all season, but they have some variance just baked into the fact that they rely so heavily upon the three pointer and specifically their two starting guards, so when both of those guys were cold, they had a problem (not that that happened much at all). Sure enough, Golden State’s nine losses were by an average of nearly 14 points. The Spurs, I figured, were much less vulnerable to the huge stinkers, simply because they are a defense-oriented team with a huge amount of depth. And the regular season stats bear that out, as the Spurs lost their 15 games by an average of just 9.8 points (a number that is inflated by their 30 point loss to the Warriors). But as I’ve watched the Spurs’ playoff games, I’ve realized that the offense can be much shakier than I thought. When both Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard are humming, the offense is incredible, as we saw in game one. But when Kawhi struggles, as he did in game two, the Spurs don’t always have enough secondary scorers to outscore an explosive opponent even when Aldridge is still going off. The defense is always great, and that element of their game will generally win them games even when their offense is off. But because guys like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili are noticeably worse than they were even last year at this time, and because the bench doesn’t have any Jamal Crawford (or Enes Kanter, for that matter) types, it’s imperative that both Leonard and Aldridge are on their offensive games, because if that happens, the Spurs are practically unbeatable.

Can the Thunder bring their defensive intensity again? The Thunder might have one offensive explosion this round, a game in which they put up 120 points on 55% shooting and their defensive effort doesn’t matter. But I don’t think they’ll have more than one of those games, which leaves two more games they have to find a way to win even after they stole game two. The Spurs didn’t change anything offensively between the first two games (why would they have?), but the Thunder were more successful defensively for a few simple reasons. First of all, they just tried harder, forcing Danny Green into contested threes (Green hit 5-6 from three in game one, 3-8 in game two) and out-rebounding the Spurs 48-37. Second of all, they defended the pick and roll much much much much better, which is why Tony Parker’s assist number was halved (12 to 6) and the Spurs’ number overall reduced from 39 to 19. They need to focus on their defense, which means they might have to bite the bullet and keep offensive non-factor Andre Roberson in the lineup over defensive non-factor Dion Waiters.

Does OKC go big or small? There should be and, bizarre game two Westbrook benching aside, are four players who should always be in the game for the Thunder down the stretch. Those guys are Westbrook, Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Steven Adams. The first three are obvious ones, while Adams is a good defender, a great rebounder, and a great pick and roll center who can finish at the rim. The question then becomes: should the fifth guy be another perimeter guy (Roberson or Waiters) who spreads the floor for Russ and KD drives, or should he be Enes Kanter, a big man who has a great offensive game and is active on the boards? So far, the answer has been the former, and I understand why. The Westbrook-Adams pick and rolls, OKC’s go-to play right now, work best when there are three shooters surrounding the two, which makes an open three or layup much more likely. But Kanter’s only played 38 minutes so far this series, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him on the floor a little bit more. In seven playoff games, the Thunder have scored 114.8 points per 100 possessions with Kanter on the court and 112.6 total. Additionally, going with a three big lineup of Adams, Kanter, and Ibaka might not be too bad against the Spurs (it’d be a disaster against the Warriors). In the end, I think they would burn that lineup, but I think it would be good in small doses simply because Durant and Ibaka, while both very large, are quick, long, and athletic enough to keep up with more perimeter-oriented players. I think the Thunder should stick with Roberson down the stretch, because they’ve been much better with him on the court than they have been with Waiters (his net rating this playoffs is actually best on the team). Roberson has no offensive game, but his defense can more than offset that, especially since Durant and Westbrook generally find a way to generate offensive for themselves anyway.

Russ is key for OKC: I still think Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder. I also think Durant should be good for 22-34 ish points going forward in this series. But Westbrook is this team’s engine, and they have no chance if he doesn’t play lights-out basketball. Russ, who’s 1-9 from three point range in the series and shot 30% this season, needs to realize that he needs to keep his long distance shots to a minimum. He needs to get out in transition, show off his tremendous finishing ability, and get to the line as much as possible. I’m only calling Westbrook the key because I expect Durant to show up night in and night out and because I don’t think the Thunder can win with just Durant playing well. Even in game two, a game in which Westbrook finished with 29 points, seven rebounds, and 10 assists, coach Billy Donovan benched him for a few minutes, presumably for missing outside shot after outside shot without even thinking of facilitating his teammates. That can’t happen again. I also don’t think Donovan is playing his stars enough. Durant played 42 minutes in game two, Westbrook played 37, and Ibaka played 33. But it’s the playoffs, and for a team without much quality depth, those three need to be on the floor as much as possible. 43 minutes apiece sounds about right, with a few minutes off sprinkled throughout the first three quarters but at least two of them always on the court and all three in the fourth quarter.

So… superstars or stars + depth + defense + coaching? That’s really what it comes down to. Usually, the team with the star power wins playoff series’. The Thunder arguably have the two best players in the series, although Leonard is also in that conversation (I think Kawhi, Russ, and KD are three of the seven best players in the NBA). But the Spurs have the much better coach, the all-time great defense, the deeper bench, and two pretty darn good players. The smart money is still on San Antonio, but if anyone can defy the odds, it’s these two guys, who are both so amazing and so hungry to advance.

Prediction: I’m rooting for the Thunder because I want Durant and Westbrook to succeed, but my eyes and brain tell me that San Antonio is the much better team. The Thunder will get at least another win, but the Spurs should pull it out in six or seven.

  1. Interesting points on Aldridge and after tonight’s game I think you are spot on with the prediction for the series. I like the post. Looking forward to following your blog…

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