It’s getting serious now
San Antonio and Oklahoma City are squaring off in one of the most interesting match ups in the Western Conf. Semifinals.
Spurs? Oklahoma City? Can you hear me?
Time to REALLY start the playoffs.
Warm up is over.
San Antonio and the Thunder used their respective first rounds as mere warm-ups to what would’ve come after.
Their much-heralded square off in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Now things are getting serious, and we can definitely affirm that playoffs start right now for both of them
The Spurs annihilated the Memphis Grizzlies. Or better, what was left of the depleted by an incredible amount of injuries during the whole season version of them.
On their side, Thunder took care of the Dallas Mavericks. They left one game on their road to the semis, but we can peacefully define it as a “bad shooting night” by Durant, Westbrook, and company.
Hence, let’s quickly move on to what’s next.
Which is a great playoff classic between two real powerhouses of the West.
San Antonio and Oklahoma met twice in the playoff. The first one in 2012, OKC had the better hand against a low-key version of the Spurs. It was the “I want some nasty” version, to be clear.
In 2014, the re-match was served. OKC was highly competitive, but the Spurs were on a mission: regain the NBA title that Ray Allen, sorry, the Heat stole from their hands the year before.
It’s always interesting when these two franchises go at each others.
There’s a team, the Thunder, who somehow molded its culture and the way of doing business in basketball on the San Antonio Spurs model. Just to remind to the very few who don’t know already that Sam Presti, the Oklahoma GM, directly comes from the RC Buford managerial tree (a tree which is getting bigger and bigger in the NBA). The culture established through the years at the Thunder resembles, somewhat somehow, the one that is the cornerstone in San Antonio, Texas.
With one slight difference: 5 rings to none.
OKC had its chance in 2012. LeBron, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh weren’t ready to listen.
So the odds passed without being fully grabbed by the Thunder, who, from then, entered into an identity turmoil. Kevin Durant foot injury complicated things last year. Scott Brooks (Newly hired in Washington) was fired and then Billy Donovan — who was an elite NCAA coach and an offensive mastermind — came in. Durant is healthy now. He and Russell Westbrook are one of the deadliest duos in the NBA. Still, OKC doesn’t finish pundits and experts.
Obviously, there’s the fact that when the game is on the line, Westbrook and KD are polarizing the offense making it predictable. Balance is essential in basketball. You need offense. But you also need defense. The way OKC’s roster is built right now, balance is not completely there. If the situation needs offense, defense is lacking. If coach opts to go “defense”, offense is almost non-existent. I feel that the supporting cast is weak in quality beyond Westbrook and KD. Enes Kanter is a huge offensive big man but lacks the defensive punch required against highly talented bigs. Steven Adams and Andre Roberson — for instance — are two defensive specialists, but they are not serious threats when OKC attacks. Also, the likes of Dion Waiters or Kyle Singler could provide sufficient support to the dynamic duo indeed, but they are too inconsistent to trust entirely in their talent in this critical period of the season.
Nevertheless, Westbrook has been a dominant force in the round against Dallas. The good news is: he hasn’t made the difference only in scoring, but in setting things up for his teammates too: 11.2 assists per game against the Mavs, top of the NBA in playoffs (in addition to 5 double-doubles).
Talking about supporting cast, effectiveness, strong team identity, San Antonio is the ultimate expression in the NBA.
LaMarcus Aldridge summer acquisition convinced me that, after the premature playoff exit last year, teams that wanted to compete for the title had to pay a visit to the Alamo. The way the regular season unfolded (San Antonio has been second only to the Warriors… ‘nuff said) provided enough elements to support my thesis. The first playoff round gave me the confidence that everyone has to deal with the Spurs on its trip to the Glory land (and the ring).
The 4–0 against the Grizzlies confirmed that the pass of the torch in San Antonio is a done deal. It’s Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge gig now. The big three are still instrumental to Spurs continuous success. But the trio is aging, and it couldn’t be otherwise given the identity card they bring along. Coach Popovich had the luxury of keeping the minutes of the now 40 years old Tim Duncan at 19 per game against Memphis. Pop will definitely need the Big Fundamental impeccable defense, smartness, and ability to work the offense alongside Aldridge and Leonard making the spacing perfect, against a much higher hurdle like the Thunder. Ginobili, opposite to last year, is healthy and rearing to go. El Contusion is not done yet. There’s a final run to the 5th title to live to the fullest, and there’s one last farewell to the Argentinian National Team in the ultimate sporting stage: the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. So, don’t discount Manu’s contribution to the cause in this round and the ones after this. Then there’s the third big three: Tony Parker. The one who paid the bigger price in the new offensive style of play installed by the Spurs (more post ups for Aldridge, a little less motion, different looks to exploit the explosive power of Kawhi Leonard). He had to find his comfort zone and his looks. He’s getting better. He only needs to stay healthy as the playoffs go on.
All in all, it will be about two elements for the Spurs. LaMarcus Aldridge offensive production and presence in the paint. Kawhi Leonard dominance on both sides of the ball.
LaMarcus had a relatively rough start to his new adventure with the Spurs. It was highly predictable this. It was up to him to adapt to a new basketball environment. Being LaMarcus, a high-quality player, he embraced the process (sorry, Sam Hinkie) and succeeded as his points production through the season increased. As it increased his overall presence defensively and offensively. During the playoffs, he was one of only three players to shoot more than 50.0% in shots from 20 feet or more.
Kawhi Leonard is the “new” face of the franchise. His defensive skills are well documented and well praised (two Defensive Players of Season awards are there to reminds us of this). Skills confirmed in the series against the Grizzlies as Memphis shot only 30.0% from the field when The Claw was on the floor. This season Kawhi took over the offense too. He drastically improved his outside shooting (He shot 62% in the four games against the Grizzlies in the first round). His intangibles are surprisingly better. He’s still a quite guy in his normal life, but on the court, he looks a lot more vocal. Becoming a leader is a daily challenge, especially for the quieter personalities. Kawhi will have the special assignment to limit Durant. Limiting Westbrook? It will be a collective effort.
Other elements of analysis? The great guys at Hardwood Paroxysm help us out with some interesting tweets.
Then there are pure statistical elements to be thrown into the discussion.
Spurs are leaders in three points percentage in these playoffs:47.1%. They outscored Grizzlies by 32.6 points over 100 possessions in second halves.
Spurs led the NBA in deflections in these playoffs: 17 per game.
Spurs aren’t letting the offense become stagnant: only 4.1 isolations per game during the playoffs.
The bench is productive: 25.2 plus in net rating during the playoff.
Oklahoma City statistical themes to look at now:
Thunder was the best team in the playoffs in rebounding: they got more than 57% of the rebounds available in the round against the Mavs.
OKC improved its three points shooting percentage jumping to 34% from the 27% of the regular season.
Serge Ibaka care for the ball: 162 minutes without a turnover.
Serge Ibaka clinical shooting: 62% (18–29) outside the paint.
The athletic power forward and Westbrook provide an astonishing 66% from midrange during these playoffs.
To sum it up: San Antonio and OKC split their meetings in the regular season (two both). San Antonio has chemistry, identity and a precise style of play. Spurs are deep and coached by an elite staff. OKC is an athletic bunch. OKC is a physical team. They do play with fire. The Chesapeake Arena can be utterly loud.
In the end: San Antonio will prevail in six games.