Game 6 preview: It’s not you, I just need a little space
The Spurs rediscovered their offensive flow at home in Game 5, but now they must maintain in a hostile atmosphere against an inevitable explosion of Thunder. The Miami Heat have already punched their ticket to a fourth consecutive trip to the Finals, now they’re just awaiting word on their final destination.
Adjustments on San Antonio’s side of the ball were prevalent in the team’s 117-89 victory on Thursday. Matt Bonner replaced Tiago Splitter in the starting lineup in an effort to spread the floor (Boris Diaw later started the second half in place of Bonner, as he was more effective); Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green swapped defensive assignments, with the former taking on the Russell Westbrook challenge and the latter left to deal with Kevin Durant; and there were several little differences in the Xs and Os of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll game that left them with more options than they’d previously had, though much of that had to do with the extra room available for ball-handlers.
It remains to be seen whether or not Bonner or Diaw gets the start on Saturday night in Oklahoma City, but it’s almost guaranteed Gregg Popovich will stick with the stretch ‘four’ to combat the lineup OKC puts on the floor. Simply put, the combination of Splitter and Tim Duncan has been rendered useless by Ibaka’s return to the court, and after two demoralizing defeats, Pop made the change.
In Games 3 and 4, the Spurs were outscored by 22.4 points per 100 possessions when Splitter and Duncan were on the floor together. The offense was fumbling all over itself as the paint became gunked up with two big men who are unable to stretch the floor — even Duncan, whose mid-range game has really gone missing for giant stretches of the season.
But what’s made the Spurs so good since Popovich inserted Splitter into the starting lineup back in December of 2012 has been the defense. Once again, San Antonio had a two-tower system able to defend traditional bigs and provide rim-protection at a near-elite level.
Not against OKC.
The hyper-athletic Thunder have turned the Duncan-Splitter duo into a major liability on the defensive end of the floor. Oklahoma City doesn’t have a low-post threat in the sense that not one of its four big men puts his back to the basket or scores in post-up situations. Their contributions come as a result of what Westbrook and Durant create, whether it’s out of pick-and-pop situations, cuts to the rim out of penetration or putbacks via offensive rebound.
Still, the most dangerous aspect of the Thunder matchup is their superior athleticism and ability to shred the Spurs in transition. That advantage is only compounded with Duncan and Splitter on the floor.
When the Spurs offense isn’t scoring efficiently, the defense suffers dramatically. The Thunder look to run at every opportunity, and even missed baskets can jump-start a fast break for Westbrook and Friends. So, as the offense suffers with the two big men in the lineup, so does the defense.
Both Duncan and Splitter are relatively slow-footed and no match for the speed of the Thunder. They simply cannot run from the paint on the offensive side of the court to the basket on the defensive side in enough time to deter any sort of OKC attack, and it’s caused an avalanche of points from which the Spurs can’t bounce back.
The two didn’t spend a second on the floor together in Game 5, and I’d expect that to carry over.
So that’s perhaps the less-obvious side of the thinking behind the Spurs’ move to replace Splitter in the starting lineup, but the results offensively were as plain as day. Ibaka has been a nightmare, and he needed to be lured away from the rim.
Bonner’s play wasn’t very effective, but his presence meant something. Not only did it spread the floor early, but it ignited the Spurs’ game plan. When Splitter is on the court, Ibaka doesn’t have to leave the paint. That’s not the case with Bonner on the court.
In semi-transition, where normally Ibaka would be sprinting toward the rim, he’s hooked to Bonner on the wing and Tony Parker’s got a great look at the basket. He missed, but Duncan was there for an easy follow layup.
And here, even though each Thunder player was in the paint, you can still see what Ibaka’s concerns are. As Green is setting to shoot off Parker’s kick-out, the OKC big man is searching for Bonner.
But this is where things get interesting. With Bonner on the court, Ibaka is forced to close out very hard. Matty’s got an underrated pump-fake-and-drive game — he can score a little bit around the basket. But he’s not a good passer, especially off the dribble. Here, Bonner actually got by Ibaka on the close-out and had options, but he couldn’t take advantage. Look at Duncan’s positioning in this screenshot, as well as Leonard’s spot-up in the corner.
When Diaw is in the game, this is money. He is a threat to score and able to make any pass on the floor where Bonner isn’t. The only issue is that Ibaka doesn’t close out quite as hard on Diaw as he does Bonner, which is understandable. But this still illustrates why Bobo is so much more valuable in these situations. He would be able to get to the rim, dump it off to Duncan or kick to Kawhi if Durant helped at the rim. He’s the team’s Swiss (French?) Army Knife.
Yet, I still like the idea of starting Bonner. Diaw isn’t as much of a necessity within that starting unit as he is with the bench group. All Parker needs is a little more space to operate from the jump, and Bonner provides that. I’m not sure you can go wrong either way, but the synergy that exists between Diaw and Manu Ginobili off the bench is a very tangible thing I’m not sure I’d want compromised. Then again, all these lineups have experience playing together, and Popovich is very good at staggering players’ time on the floor. So, again, you can’t really go wrong.
The spacing made all the difference in the world on Thursday, and Diaw has really established himself as one of the team’s most important players. How will the Thunder respond to this? I’m not sure. Then again, there’s been a ton of uncertainty throughout this series, and we’ve seen each team bounce back on the home floor.
I know we’ve been saying it all along, but I think THIS is the game we finally get a competitive outcome. We’ve reached the point where you don’t make big adjustments, so these teams have a damn good idea of what the other is going to do. It feels as if the Spurs haven’t won in Oklahoma City in a decade, but they’ve been historically great in these type of closeout situations. On top of that, the Thunder won’t have that surprise factor to pile on top of home-court advantage, and the Spurs seem to have collected themselves just in time.
My belief is that it ends tonight, and San Antonio will find its way to the Finals for a second consecutive season.
- Expect more of Leonard on Westbrook. Russ was an efficient 6-of-12 from the floor, but the low shot-count is indicative of the job Kawhi did defending him. He’s bigger and more athletic than Green, and Westbrook has a lot of trouble getting to his spots on the floor and sliding by Leonard to get to the rim. Russ had eight shots right at the rim in Game 4 and got to the line 14 times; in Game 5, he only put up two shots at the rim and got to the line nine times (which is still good, but not ’14′ good). Besides, Durant is going to get his; the problems come when Westbrook explodes for 30 or 40 points. Durant has become so consistent that it feels like his scoring doesn’t elicit a ton of emotion, but Russ, on the other hand, is a freaking firecracker. When that guy is amped and scoring points in bunches, you basically have no chance in that building.
- It’s going to be very interesting to watch how the Spurs shoot in this game. San Antonio has shot nearly 14 percent worse from the floor in Oklahoma City than it has at home during this series. I believe that much of that has to do with the stagnancy of the offense during Games 3 and 4, because the Thunder have been leaving Spurs shooters open all series. Will it all come to a head on Saturday?
- The largest byproduct of playing at home is the extra energy the crowd provides. And make no mistake about it, the Thunder feed off theirs more than anyone in the league. If San Antonio is able to match that intensity and maintain it for 48 minutes, they’ve got a great shot to win in OKC.
Stats and screenshots courtesy of NBA.com’s media site.