Series Preview: Western Conference Finals, OKC vs SAS

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This preview will be segmented into three parts: first the overall statistical comparison, three matchups the series may ride on, and closing thoughts (along with my pick, as well as the picks of all our writers). Should be a good time. Let’s get to it.

• • •

The triumphant return of our starting extremely convoluted table! This summarizes the statistical performance of four separate teams, assessed on a per-possession basis through the four factors statistics. A primer on the stats: POSS is the number of possessions, Off/Def Eff is the offensive and defensive efficiency of the team, EFG% is the effective field goal percentage of the team (a derivative of FG% incorporating the added value of threes), TOR is the turnover rate of a team (lower is better!), ORR is the offensive rebound rate of a team, and FTR is the free throw rate of a team. For the four teams, I’ve chosen to show three variations on the San Antonio statistics (the whole-season stats, the last-third stats, and the vs OKC stats) as well as the statistics for the Oklahoma City Thunder (which is placed with a blue background to differentiate it). To provide an easier-to-digest way to analyze this monstrous table, here are two graphs. We’ll start by looking at San Antonio, from a high level view.

• • •

First, the Spurs offense against the OKC defense.

I’ll mostly be considering the dark gray bar (the Spurs vs the Thunder in this year’s three game series) with the blue bar (the average OKC opponent over the full season). A few items of note. As they did against many teams, the Spurs primarily hurt the Thunder this year by blasting them on the offensive end — the Spurs shot very well against the Thunder relative to the Thunder’s usual opponent averages, with a eFG% of 51%. It’s worth noting that this is well below the Spurs’ full season average, and far below what the Spurs have been shooting since Stephen Jackson’s return — the Thunder defense was effective in holding the Spurs slightly below their season average, but they certainly didn’t shut them down.

Oklahoma City doesn’t excel at forcing turnovers, and the Spurs don’t overdo them — don’t expect San Antonio to turn the ball over all that much in this series. Or, really, to deviate much from their offensive attack — the Thunder are not a substantially positive defensive rebounding team, and the Spurs produced slightly above their season average on offensive boards against the Thunder — as well, the Thunder allowed the Spurs quite a few easy points, allowing the Spurs to get to the line on a full 4% more possessions than their season average. Overall, the summary is simple — the Thunder forced the Spurs to shoot a bit worse than usual, but they didn’t force turnovers, crash the defensive glass, or keep the Spurs off the line to any significant degree.  Let’s look at the OKC offense against the Spurs defense, where we find ourselves more interesting things to analyze.


The Spurs defense — this year not keyed on forcing abnormally low-percentage shooting — did a relatively poor job forcing bad shots. Compare the dark gray bar (the Thunder vs the Spurs in this year’s 3-game season series) with the blue bar (OKC’s season averages) for the skinny. The Thunder’s offensive performance against the Spurs was slightly above their season average in eFG%, and several percentage points above San Antonio’s season average. The Spurs also did a poor job forcing turnovers, and an unexpectedly lackluster job at keeping the Thunder off the line. San Antonio’s defense was generally effective this year by keeping opponents off the free throw line — against OKC, the Spurs defense was significantly worse at that than it had been over the full season, and as a result the Thunder were able to kill the Spurs from the line in every game of the series.

The big problem for the Thunder, and the main reason the Spurs won two of three games, came on the boards. Despite being a good-shooting team and an efficient free throw magnet, the Thunder simply couldn’t buy an offensive board in the series. This isn’t unexpected — Tim Duncan averaged more rebounds per game against the Thunder than all but one team in the league this year, and that team was one that the Spurs only played over one game. Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins are decent at what they do, but against strong rebounding talent they struggle to get boards. Over a full series, that could be a major factor in the Spurs’ favor.

• • •

Having looked at the macro-matchup from a high level, we turn to three key conceptual matchups.

MATCHUP #1: TIM DUNCAN vs THE WORLD

This season, Tim Duncan has been having a better playoff run than he’s had since the Spurs last won it all. That’s rather remarkable, but it’s worth noting that despite his current run he didn’t play particularly well on offense against the Thunder this year. Perkins and Ibaka in both bothered him, with Duncan recording abysmal shooting efficiency numbers against the two. He shot 35% on 27 shots taken with Perkins on the court during the regular season and 34% on 28 shots taken with Ibaka on the court (and yes, these do overlap). Duncan simply did not score efficiently against the Thunder in the regular season — Perk, Ibaka, and Collison did a great job shutting down his own offense while still goading San Antonio into taking a lot of Duncan post-ups.

The problem for OKC? Everything else. While OKC’s bigs kept Duncan from scoring efficiently, in no other way did they shut his role down. Duncan averaged 17 rebounds per 36 minutes with Ibaka on the court, and 15 rebounds per 36 minutes with Perkins on the court. Read that again. And while Duncan’s post-ups were dramatically less efficient, shooting 2-7 in the painted area, he shot slightly above his season average from the midrange. This partly explains why Duncan’s offensive struggles didn’t really impact the Spurs on a macro level. As long as Duncan hits his midrange shots to keep the defense spread, Tony and Manu have the space to go to work and dissect a defense with their passing. Especially when the bigs are so focused on shutting down Tim, which hurt their ability to help on the drive. It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation — if you help off Duncan, you’re leaving one of the greatest post-up players of all time with open space. If you don’t, you’re leaving the lane open for the Spurs offense to explode. Hard to assess in the moment, easy to second guess.

Especially when you’re fouling the way Perkins and Ibaka were this season. Duncan averaged well above his season average in free throws against the Thunder and you can see why when you look at the foul totals of the OKC big men. Perkins went from a season average of 3.9 fouls per 36 to 7.1 fouls per 36. Ibaka went from 3.6 to 4.1. Collison went from 4.1 to 5.7. It’s rough out there for an Thunder big man facing Tim Duncan. And when you look past the individual stats, you notice a disturbing trend for OKC. They looked absolutely horrendous against the Spurs when Tim Duncan was on the court this year. I mean, really bad. I’m talking “offensive efficiency of 93.6, defensive efficiency of 106.8″ type bad. And those are really, really bad numbers. They shot terribly, rebounded poorly (as can be expected when the opposing center is blowing up for 17-15 rebounds per game), and shot far fewer free throws than they generally did in the regular season. If these trends hold in the playoffs? They can hold Tim to 35% shooting all they want. They can’t win this series unless they can figure out an effective way to counter Tim Duncan with their big men. And given that the most significant problem is awful rebounding, the oft-heard answer (“more smallball! MORE SMALLBALL!”) probably isn’t as good an answer as you’d think.

MATCHUP #2: JAMES HARDEN vs ANYBODY

Okay, James Harden destroyed the Spurs in the regular season. You know how Manu used to come into games and just absolutely dominate them, going on Jordan-esque personal runs and single-handedly filleting the opposing offense? Yeah, that’s what Harden did to the Spurs. Danny Green is rather irrelevant to this, but look at Harden’s numbers here — both with Green on the bench, and Green on the court. With Green on, he shot 56% from the floor, 40% from three, and shot roughly 10 free throws per 36 minutes. With Green off, he shot 71% from the floor, 50% from three, and around 7 free throws per 36 minutes. Offensively, Harden was their best player against the Spurs defense in the regular season. And nobody else was even close — both Durant and Westbrook shot under 45%, with questionable decisions and unsteady defense. Despite this, Scotty Brooks played Harden for 28 minutes per game against the Spurs. If Scotty realizes that Harden completely baffles the Spurs defense, and plays him the type of minutes a star of his caliber probably deserves? Spurs may have a problem, with a faux hawk and a Mr. T beard to drive the point home. And the points home. Get it? Driving, points… okay, I’ll show myself out.

MATCHUP #3: THE OKC DEFENSE vs OPEN SHOOTERS

The Thunder defense has been utterly unable to stop the Spurs offensive attack over the last few seasons. A mark of this? In the last two years of play against these two teams, the Thunder have allowed the Spurs to shoot 51% from three on — I kid you not — 111 attempts. That’s beyond abysmal. You simply cannot beat a team consistently if you don’t keep them to — at least — 40% from three. Not when the team has as many shooters as the Spurs. The habit of leaving shooters open has continued into the playoffs — the Thunder have faced 138 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers in the playoffs thus far, per Sebastien Pruiti through Synergy. A big part of their recent dominance has been how the Lakers and Mavericks shot on those unguarded shots — they only shot 32.3% on (again) unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers. The Spurs will do better, and in the regular season, they dominated the matchup by doing so.

The main issue is that the Thunder are slow closing out, but it’s more than that. Pop’s offense is about moving the ball and moving the ball and moving it some more, until you finally break the rotations and get an open shot. Many coaches eventually tamp down the effectiveness of the Spurs attack by forcing them to make tougher decisions, and crowding passing lanes, and goading isolation plays. The Thunder… don’t. Against the Spurs, they just do the same thing over and over again. They’re slow to close out, they don’t adapt, and they get confused by the same things that confused the Clippers and the Jazz. It would be strange, if it didn’t confuse every other team in the league. But really, the Thunder need to figure out a way to keep the Spurs from getting shots that are that open. Somehow.

• • •

This is probably the best series we’re going to see in the playoffs this year.

The fact is, the Thunder and Spurs are the best teams left. The Heat could certainly win a playoff series against either team, but it would take a large confluence of luck on their end. They’re the two best teams in basketball. The two most efficient offenses. Two of the three MVPs of the playoffs will take the floor in this series — Duncan and Durant, for those counting — and neither team is struggling through injuries at the moment. All things considered, we should probably be looking at a 7-game thriller. However…

  • Zach Lowe covered this in explicit detail in a little-read mid-march post, but it bears repeating. The Thunder have quite simply had no luck whatsoever against the Spurs in their history. There’s not a single team in the NBA that the Thunder have performed worse against in their current franchise history (as you can see in the table below this paragraph) — and the 4-10 is a bit misleading, as they went a shocking 2-2 against the Spurs in their first Oklahoma City season. You know, the one where they didn’t even win 30 games. No, the Thunder are 2-8 in their last 10 against the Spurs. They haven’t won in San Antonio since November, 2009. And they’re losing in systematically similar ways, every time. That’s tough.
  • Kawhi Leonard hasn’t been the greatest defender this year. I love his game (and have since before the season started), but he’s certainly had room for improvement. Yes, he’s been promising, even excellent in spurts, but he’s been a bit too foul prone with superstar players and a bit too willing to help off his man at times. And he needs to learn when to contest and when to lay off — sometimes, he makes the wrong move in the heat of the moment. But there’s one superstar this year that he’s done a pretty excellent job covering, despite having had him in single coverage since game 9 of his pro career. That superstar, as context would probably indicate, was Kevin Durant. Durant shot abhorrently from the 3 against Kawhi this season, and although his rebounding was up (if only slightly), Kawhi’s long arms turned out to be perfect for keeping Durant’s shot challenged beyond the arc. If that keeps up in this series, that would be crucial to the Spurs.
  • Scotty Brooks has gotten a bit of a pass on poor coaching decisions, because he’s happened to have an impossibly talented team. At some point, though, the other shoe has to drop and people have to notice how utterly absurd some of his coaching moves can be. All indications are that he intends to keep Thabo Sefalosha in the OKC starting lineup. That would be an excellent idea… if the Spurs started their best scoring guard. They don’t. Instead, Thabo gets to peddle his shutdown wares against such illustrious shot-creating offensive players as Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. Thabo’s defense is good, but it’s wasted on spot-up shooters. His primary role as a defensive player is to eliminate shot-creation from gifted shot creators. So, players like Manu Ginobili. Who… come off the bench. Who he could easily cross-match Thabo onto by starting Harden and benching Thabo. But indications have been going around he doesn’t intend to start Harden, which is absurd. He also tends to punt three or four possessions a game on worthless, ball-movement-challenged isolation post-ups for Kendrick Perkins. Perkins shot — I kid you not — 14% from the field against Tim Duncan this year. I’m pretty sure that’s a bad play call, Scotty. Just saying.

The series will be close in margin, hard fought, and fun to watch. As I noted — Harden baffled the Spurs this year, and in a series, he could break out and do that in a seven game thriller. Durant and Westbrook are amazing players, both of whom could win a game for the Thunder by themselves. While the matchup is favorable to the Spurs, the true gap between these two teams is nowhere near as stark as this post would indicate — some favorable bounces roll their way, they could take a game or two in San Antonio and really make the Spurs sweat. Their smallball lineup worries me, a tad — even though the rebounding would be poor, Diaw on Durant is a matchup I’m not so sure I want to see. And I’ve almost gone through an entire post without mentioning how abjectly terrified Tiago’s numbers against the Thunder make me. Really. They’re about as bad as you can get. But in the end, while all these things could happen, I don’t find them likely. It’d be a different story if the Thunder hadn’t punted home court advantage — but how could I pick the Thunder in a series where they’ll have to win in San Antonio at least once, with San Antonio being a place they haven’t won at since 2009? I can’t. I simply can’t. So I’ll go with my gut.

I think the Spurs take two, split on the road, and close it at home. Spurs in five. Keep frosty, friends.

• • •

Tim Varner_ Graydon Gordian_ Andrew McNeill_ Jesse Blanchard_ David Menendez Aran_ Wayne Vore  Aaron McGuire
SAS vs OKC
SAS in 4

SAS in 6

SAS in 6

SAS in 6

SAS in 5

SAS in 5

SAS in 5
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  • Tyler

    Great post.

    Touching on your 3 matchups, I think the gameplan is pretty simple for the Spurs. Defensively, make the Thunder big 3 work for all their points (although we need to do a better job on Harden’s PnR). Don’t give them anything easy in transition or at the free throw line. Make them play 5 vs 5 each trip. Offensively, run TD’s defender ragged through the PnR and keep moving the ball like we’ve been. If OKC has to take the ball out of the basket each trip, it’s going to be really hard for them to get out on the break and get easy buckets.

    Also, judging from this year’s contests, I think TP really gets up for playing Westbrook. Add to the fact he’s on such a roll right now, I think TP dominates this series.

  • Jimbo

    Wow, a lot of confidence in the group’s predictions there. I am expecting an absolute war for the right to advance to the Finals. Those numbers and the analysis make me feel significantly better about the Spurs’ chances, but the Thunder have come a long way in the last year or two and I don’t know how much stock to put in the 3 games this year.

    I agree that Brooks gets a bit of a free pass at times, but I can see why he likes to bring Harden off the bench and start Thabo regardless of what team he is up against.

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  • Tim in Surrey

    Lots of good research, Aaron. Great material on Tim, looking beyond the obvious, and on Kawhi as well.

    If I may say so, however, there is one crucial element missing from the numbers you looked at: Manu. He didn’t play a single minute against the Thunder this year, which skews those head-to-head numbers quite a bit. That’s ok, because the numbers are what the numbers are. But what’s particularly important is the effect this will have on Harden, who was free to wreak havoc during the regular season. Without Manu, OKC enjoyed their usual advantage, with Harden available as a plug-in, multi-skilled player who, in a pinch, can do almost anything you need. For a good coach he’s like one of those Leatherman utility tools. (In fact, can we make “Leatherman” a nickname for him?) But add Manu to the Spurs and I suspect it would really dampen the effectiveness of Harden, if for no other reason than because Harden has to spend time and energy dealing with him. With all due respect to Kawhi, Danny, and Jack, Manu is different because he commands your attention at all times. And Manu in the playoffs? As someone else famously put it, “he’s a bad man”. So I still think that he key matchup in this series isn’t “James Harden vs. Anybody” but “James Harden vs. Manu”.

    Thanks again for all the heavy analytical lifting. Great stuff!

  • Vermont Spurs Fan

    It is time for Secret Weapon DeJuan Blair!

    Nobody has to do anything special for the Spurs to win this series in five or six. We just need double figure rebounds from Duncan and team rebounding from everyone. We just need to hit open shots with Parker and Ginobili going for about 16 assists combined. Parker needs to slash a bit and expect him to score 20 a game in the wins.

    OKC can get to around 100 points per game but not in this series say 95 average for Thunder. The Spurs can go to 110 against OKC. Remember that the Spurs usually sit the core players for long stretches. The results this playoff year when Duncan Parker and Ginobili are on the court together has been off the charts.

    Not sure that it will be a sweep – let’s say a gentleman’s sweep – Spurs in 5. Go Spurs Go!

  • Tim in Surrey

    @Jimbo – Point taken. I feel pretty good about this matchup for a number of reasons, but I think it will be a tough one. I certainly don’t expect the streak to last much longer. But the Spurs happen to be a particularly tough matchup for OKC.

    One thing about Kawhi, btw, is that he not only is long enough to bother Durant’s shot, he’s also very comfortable playing PF. So the Spurs can use him in that role if OKC goes small. Of course they can also use DeJuan, who also seems to cause problems for OKC. And they will be using that lineup. Charles Barkley made the very good point that OKC simply can’t play both Ibaka and Perkins against the Spurs because of Bonner.

    That said, OKC has three transcendent talents in Durant, Westbrook, and Harden, and two young talents who are still developing in Ibaka and Sefolosha. That gives them five young players for whom this series might be the occasion when they take their game to another level and cause real problems for everybody. Scary to think that all five of them are still improving and might make a sudden leap this week.

  • http://www.poundingtherock.com Joe deLarios

    Great write up. I totally agree that the biggest threat from OKC on the o-side is Harden. That guy seemed to score at will on the Spurs and get to the line. Interested to see if and how Manu (or whoever else) handles him.

  • Stijl

    Again…as they say…numbers don’t lie. So. With that said I did some loose investigating on my part after coming across espn’s “shot chart” numbers for each game played. Ad not that this is scientific enough to make a difference but…the Spurs would do well in forcing the Thunder to take shots from the left side of the basket facing the rim. It appears the percentage of shots made from that area of the court is less than if the Thunder can get off a shot from the right side of the court.

    Consequently…I looked at the Spurs “shot charts” in games and they appear to be equally succesful from both sides of the rim.

    Again…not sure if it’s significant enough to warrant a plan but it’s interesting to view.

    http://scores.espn.go.com/nba/shotchart?gameId=320521025

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  • Spursfan

    You did all of that analysis, and in the end you went with your gut?  Nice job.

  • Abc

    Lmao. All that work, and the thunder still go 04 lakers on your old busted team.

  • Spinetrine38

    Those should be changed from “predictions” to…”since I’m a homer, this is what I want to happen, even though I just outlined why it will be a very evenly contested series.

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