Spurs vs. Thunder: San Antonio puts streak on the line against old foe

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It was all fun and games until now. That’s not to say the Spurs have had it easy during their current 11 game winning streak, but tonight they face an upper echelon team on the road in the Oklahoma City Thunder. While they’ve been dismissed by many, the Thunder are still a top five team in defensive efficiency and right behind the Spurs in offensive efficiency.

It’s easy to overlook Oklahoma City because they’re not as deep as in years past, but it’s still a team with two top-10 players in the league and Serge Ibaka, who’s having a great season so far. Ibaka’s points and PER are up from last year and his rebound numbers are easily a career-best. Around the rim, he’s still a beast, converting 71 percent of his shots in the restricted area.
This isn’t anything new or earth-shattering here, but the Spurs need to keep Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant out of the paint. Obviously, bad things happen when they get to the rim, but the pair’s ability to get to the rim can get Ibaka going as well. 76 percent of Ibaka’s field goals are assisted and 35 of his 75 made baskets have come via Westbrook or Durant assists. So the Spurs do what they’ve always done, and what any smart team should do, and entice Durant and Westbrook with long jumpers. They might make you pay, especially Durant, but the alternatives will leave you with no chance. Really, anyone on the Thunder taking long jumpers is ok, they’re only shooting 32 percent from the field as a team. Also, the Spurs are fifth in the league in opponents 3-point shooting, so if this turns into trading 3s, the Spurs theoretically will be in good shape.
On the flip side, the Spurs will likely need to rely on their bench for the first three quarters, as they’ve done throughout this early season. NBA.com’s John Schuhmann had a really good post this morning where he showed the Spurs starting five has actually been outscored by four points in the 99 minutes they’ve played together (also, the starting five has only played 99 minutes together!). Meanwhile, every other lineup has outscored opponents by 173 points. Having said that, it’s entirely conceivable the Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka trio jumps on the Spurs early. Not because the Thunder starting unit is particularly effective—it isn’t—but it’s unwise to bet against the explosiveness of guys like Durant and Westbrook. On the other hand, it’s just as conceivable that the Spurs bench will come in and run over the inexperienced OKC bench. Look at the individual match ups all you want, but if the Spurs bench continues to play the way it’s been playing, the Spurs have a really good shot of leaving Oklahoma City tonight with a win.
All stats courtesy of ESPN and NBA.com