In the last 50 or so games, the Spurs are 43-4 when they play their starters, according to ESPN’s John Holinger. They swept through rounds 1 and 2 with ease. Al Jefferson, when his Jazz team was down 3-0, proclaimed “I don’t see nobody beating them.” Suffice to say, the Spurs look unstoppable right now and are the current title favorites.
The Spurs still have one not-so-tiny thing standing between them and the NBA finals—the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder fought the Spurs all season for top spot in the West and it has been clear all season long that these two teams are the class of the conference. Still though, the Spurs handled the Thunder in the regular season and have been flawless in a way that the younger Thunder cannot claim. What are the reasons to believe the Thunder could take down the Spurs?
1) Adversity and Emotional Preparedness
The Thunder and the Spurs faced equal competition en route to the conference finals, but the Spurs had an easier time dismantling the opposition. This speaks to their dominance, but leaves me wondering whether they are as mentally prepared for a close series as the Thunder. No doubt the Spurs are mentally tough and have been here before, but both Duncan and Parker said after their lone close game against the Clippers that it helps to play close games; I would expect the same idea to apply to close series. The battles against Shaq and the Lakers do not necessarily translate to what they are about to face in a hungry and recently tested Thunder. Don’t be surprised if the Thunder’s firepower takes the Spurs by surprise.
OKC’s biggest weakness, without question, is their ability to take care of the ball (or lack thereof). The Thunder ranked dead-last in turnovers this season. That said, turnovers have proved less crucial to win-loss outcomes so far this postseason than they did in the regular season according to the legendary Neil Paine. If this trend is more reality than random, then the Thunder’s greatest weakness might not be as costly as it seems.
3) Athleticism and the battle of the free throw line: The foremost factor for when the Thunder have he ball
With the big 3 of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, the Thunder do not lack in star power or explosiveness, and both these facts contribute to why the Thunder were the best team at getting to the free throw line during the regular season. Better yet, they also shot a league best 80.6% from the stripe. The Spurs, though, were the #1 team in limiting opponent free throw attempts. This dynamic will determine whether the Thunder succeed when they have ball this series. Will the Thunder be able to draw contact or will the Spurs’ savvy allow them to play foul-free defense? Will refs make “superstar calls” for the Thunder or instead allow “playoff fouls?” Who will be getting the benefit of the doubt, the Thunder’s amazing athletes who always get hacked or the veteran Spurs who command our eternal respect? Ultimately, I’m not sure it’s possible to game plan for the athleticism the Thunder have. They should be able to penetrate the Spurs’ D, and as long as they keep their foot on the gas, I expect the Thunder to win this battle.
4) Defending the pick-and-roll and Ibaka and Collison as rim protectors: The foremost factor for when the Spurs have the ball
The Spurs’ offense is a deadly pick-and-roll attack, which is predicated somewhat on the penetration of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Because of their unselfishness, finishing ability, versatility, depth, and shooting, Parker/Ginobili and the Spurs make defenders pay for going under screens, a mistiming hedges/rotations, and over- or under-collapsing in the paint. Furthermore, the Thunder’s defensive weaknesses lie in the positioning, discipline, and timing that is required to defend this style of offense. But the Thunder do have two game-changing defensive presences that could come in handy—Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison. Ibaka might lack some the nuances on defense that all-world defender Kevin Garnett has mastered, but his rim-protection might thwart the effectiveness of the Spurs’ penetration. And even if the Spurs run circles around Ibaka, they might not have such an easy time with the charge-taking and disciplined plus-minus monster in Nick Collison. While I expect the Spurs offense to outplay the Thunder’s D, I also think the Thunder will have a (relatively) easier time adjusting to the Spurs P-n-R offense than the Spurs will have adjusting to the Thunder’s athleticism.
5) Kevin Durant.
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