May 17th, 2014
Taking on the Spurs Challenge

The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers presented extreme physical challenges that tested the Thunder’s athleticism, stamina and toughness. The San Antonio Spurs will do the same, in addition to creating a mental battle on every possession.

The Thunder begins its Western Conference Finals clash with the Spurs on Monday night in San Antonio, and will be facing a squad that it has done battle with on countless occasions over the past few years. Head Coach Scott Brooks’ club went 4-0 against San Antonio in the regular season and beat the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference Finals 4-2, but overall in the regular season, the Thunder is just 8-12 against San Antonio since arriving in Oklahoma City. This is certain to be a hard fought series with a chance to go to the NBA Finals on the line, but both teams already know what to expect from their opponent.

“We’re very familiar with what they do,” Brooks said. “They’re a very good basketball team. They’re well coached. They have good players, good role players, good bench players and they have a style of play that demands that you play with great effort for the entire shot clock.”

The early keys for the Thunder all start on the defensive end, as the Spurs enter the series shooting 49.3 percent from the field, best amongst playoff teams, in addition to scoring 105.5 points per game and knocking down 38.8 percent of its three-point attempts. While the Thunder has been the best fast break scoring team in the playoffs thus far at 16.7 points per game, but the Spurs aren’t far behind, scoring 15.0 fast break points per contest.

The Thunder has been holding teams to 12.0 transition points per game in the playoffs, so it will be paramount that Brooks’ team, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison, ensures that all five players on the floor hustle down court and set up shop early to prevent easy Spurs run outs.

“We have to get back in transition,” Durant said. “They’ve been pushing it a lot. We have to control the three-point line and just man up on defense. One on one defense is going to be key.”

“Defensively, you really have to be on,” Collison said. “You have to have all five guys engaged. That ball is moving so quickly. If you don’t have all five guys in tune with what is going on, that’s when they get open threes and open layups. Defensively, getting back, getting in front of them and getting into our defense is big.”

The head of the snake for San Antonio is Tony Parker, and it will be Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher primarily assigned to the initial defense against the Spurs point guard. As always with the Thunder, it is a five-man effort, so forcing Parker to back-pedal in pick-and-roll defense and not allowing him into the teeth of the defense will be a huge factor, particularly with Serge Ibaka out of the lineup with a calf injury. Drives into the paint, particularly by Parker, set up the Spurs for open three-point attempts, which the Thunder can’t live with in this series.

“It’s just keeping them in front of you,” Westbrook said. “They’re a team that likes to pass the ball around your head and make you run all around. You have to keep them in front of you and be solid.”

“We just have to play every possession for 24 seconds, try to limit their transition with Tony Parker and take away their transition threes,” Perkins said. “The biggest key is running them off the three-point and making it rough on Tony Parker.”

Brooks will have many options in replacing Ibaka in the starting lineup, from Steven Adams to Nick Collison to Perry Jones, in addition to the other seven players on the roster who Brooks mentioned at Saturday’s practice. Regardless of who actually steps into the starting lineup, the Thunder trusts in its “next man up” mentality, and that however Ibaka’s minutes are filled, Brooks has faith in every player in the locker room to fill in admirably.

Inevitably, it seems, there will be more minutes to be had for players already in the rotation, like Kendrick Perkins, Collison and Adams. In particular, Collison will be a vital part of the series because of his ability to make plays for teammates and to set up dynamic ball handlers like Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson.

“(Collison) can make the simple play immediately without having a second to react whether it’s a dribble hand off or just a swing-swing pass or a pin down,” Brooks said. “He obviously has great experience, a feel for the game and great chemistry with our scorers with our screening, and his ability to make plays off a backdoor cut. His IQ is very high and he has a great understanding on how to play and a great understanding of doing whatever it takes to win mentality.”

In general, whoever is on the floor for the Thunder will have to be locked in and precise with their movements, spacing and tempo in offensive sets. If Spurs bigs hang back in pick-and-rolls, Durant, Westbrook and Jackson must be ready to attack the rim in a north-south style, and Thunder bigs and shooters must be ready at all times to relocate, cut to the rim and catch. Keeping constant movement and challenging the Spurs to stay in front of some of the Thunder’s dynamic athletes can help put the pressure on San Antonio’s back line.

“That’s what you need in playoff basketball, to be spaced and read what’s going on,” Collison explained. “Teams take away what you’re trying to do a lot of times. The second and third actions are when you have to be able to read it. In order to read it and make good plays, you have to have good spacing. On the offensive end, pace, space and decisions are what wins the games.”