OKC and San Antonio battle after cruising through first round
POSTED: Apr 29, 2016 8:16 PM ET
San Antonio and Oklahoma City -- two familiar teams -- will square off in the Western Conference semifinals.
While everybody in the NBA and all the ships at sea have been looking forward for months to a Spurs-Warriors clash of the titans in the Western Conference finals, this gem of a preceding series has been lurking under the radar and could be a humdinger.
Spurs arrive off a 4-0 sweep of Memphis and the Thunder took care of Dallas 4-1. First of all, there's history between the two teams in the playoffs. Since the move to Oklahoma City, the Spurs and Thunder have met twice before, both times in the WCF. Both times the winner went on to face Miami in the NBA Finals. The Thunder lost in 2012. The Spurs won in 2014.
Second, there are big names aplenty on both rosters, from the venerable Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker in San Antonio to the suddenly edgy Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in OKC. Then there is the matter of a cumulative bundle of wins. San Antonio has already won 71 times this season and the Thunder 59, counting their first-round victories.
They split the season series with each team defending their home floor. Toss in the fact that the Warriors could suddenly be vulnerable with Steph Curry on the shelf with a bum right knee and the doorway that leads to the championship may have just swung wide open for these two elite teams.
The pot is boiling.
They can continue to apply the squeeze that made them the No. 1 rated defensive team in the NBA all through the regular season and now through the first round of the playoffs. Of course, it's one thing to stifle the wounded, undermanned Grizzlies and quite another to take the pop out of the OKC big guns.
But the Spurs don't have to shut off Durant and Westbrook completely, just get them to take tough shots that result in low shooting percentages and force the supporting cast of OKC to produce more. The Spurs have been able to have success against the Thunder when having to deal with only the Big Two. It's keeping a lid on Ibaka that can be a make-or-break difference in a game and a series.
The Spurs were expecting big production from the addition of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and he's delivered more and more as he's grown increasingly comfortable with his role in the offense. What's been a surprise is his level of contribution to the defense. Kawhi Leonard has been named Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season and still managed to be even more impressive at the offensive end, where he's turned into a bonafide star capable of pouring in 25 points a night. In this series, that could be a necessity.
The venerable Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are all playing fewer minutes, but each is capable of taking over a game. So is most of San Antonio's roster. It's the fact that coach Gregg Popovich can legitimately go 12 deep that makes the Spurs so formidable.
They hold things together at both ends of the floor when the games get late and everything is on the line.
For so many years with Scott Brooks calling the shots from the bench, a criticism of the Thunder was that they played too much "hero ball" and relied on Durant or Westbrook — usually the former — to bail them out with a clutch bucket at the end. Well, the change from Brooks to first year NBA coach Billy Donovan has changed much, except that OKC has actually gotten worse at crunch time. The Thunder have blown 15 fourth quarter leads this season, including that stunning Game 2 loss to the Mavericks in the first round.
Part of the problem is that Durant and Westbrook just don't trust their teammates to make a clutch shot and you really can't blame them because there's good reason for that. There is a shocking lack of versatility in the makeup of the OKC roster. In order to get the most out of their defense, the Thunder give up too much offense with Steven Adams and Andre Roberson. When they go for offense with Enes Kanter and Anthony Morrow, the defense suffers.
For all the hits that the stand-around-and-watch offense takes from critics, it's the Thunder defense that has let them down far more often and led to all those late-game collapses. They had the Warriors on the ropes twice in the fourth quarter this season and both times let them off the hook. Donovan has tended to go with a more offensive punch late in games by using Dion Waiters as shooting guard, but might have to consider using Robertson to keep the very capable Spurs from finding a way to score.
The alternative, of course, is to build big enough leads to hold off any kind of a fourth quarter charge. But in a series between the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the Western Conference, many lopsided games are not to be expected. The Thunder will have to raise their game in the clutch.
3 quick questions and answers
1. Who is the third man?
The Thunder know they can count on Durant and Westbrook to pile up points even against a defense as stout as San Antonio's. So the key will be to find another scoring option or two to step up when the Spurs tighten the defensive vise in the fourth quarter. Somebody has to stop star-gazing and come to the ball and the moment in order to survive a seven-game series against the best defense in the NBA.
2. Can 40-year-old Tim Duncan keep up?
He's played the fewest minutes per game of his 19-year career and averaged just 20 minutes in a quick four-game sweep of the Grizzlies in the first round. Yes, he's still a solid, even formidable defender, probably even remains the best in the game at protecting the paint. The Spurs have been saving up Old Man River Walk for this playoff run and there's no reason to think he's not still up to the task.
3. Donovan or Popovich?
Nobody is ready to suggest that Billy the Kid is in over his head in his first NBA playoff experience. But this is like moving from freshman algebra to a graduate course in quantum physics. As the best coach in the game today, Popovich probably has his deepest roster ever at his disposal and so many different ways to deploy a lineup filled with versatile talent. If the games get down to the final minute or a final play, you've got to give the edge to the master.
Making the pick
Any team bringing the 1-2 punch of Durant and Westbrook into the ring is capable of delivering a knockout, so there is reason for the Spurs to be on high alert at all times. It's an OKC team hungry and overdue to get back to The Finals. But the Spurs have the depth and their own firepower in Aldridge and Leonard to survive a rollicking classic. Spurs in 7.
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