The Margin: Experimentation out of desperation
Editor’s note: We’re doing The Margin for each of the playoff games during the Spurs’ conference finals series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. For those readers not familiar with this format, let me get you up to speed. Stolen blatantly from our friend Rob Mahoney, The Margin is a bullet point for each point in the difference in the final score.
It may be just one game of a best-of-seven series, but the first 48 minutes of the Western Conference Finals reinforced a suspicion most felt would hold true. Without the injured Serge Ibaka, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in BIG trouble against San Antonio.
The Spurs did a number to the Thunder, controlling the pace for a solid three quarters in a convincing 122-105 victory at the AT&T Center. This thing is far from over, but Gregg Popovich’s group seemed honed in on OKC’s void in the middle. San Antonio smelled blood at the rim and was relentless in its attack.
- When we’ve talked about the Spurs-Thunder matchup in the past, the top concern was always OKC’s length and athleticism and how those things affected San Antonio’s systematic offense, which they always have. Significantly. But it all started with Ibaka, arguably the league’s most disruptive defensive force. His ability to singlehandedly control the paint and protect the rim allowed the rest of the Thunder’s freaky athletes to aggressively freelance and wreak havoc defensively, oftentimes in an undisciplined fashion. Those perimeter players knew he was back there waiting, ready to erase any mistake that came as a result of their gambles. But without Ibaka on Monday night, there was a silver-and-black conga line to the rim and the music never stopped playing.
- San Antonio outscored OKC 66-32 in the painted area, setting the bar for most points scored in the paint by any team during these playoffs. And it wasn’t difficult. The Spurs connected on 25 of their 29 field goal attempts in the restricted area, which is better than 86 percent. When Ibaka was on the court during the four regular-season games these two teams played against one another, San Antonio managed to shoot just 48 percent on these shots near the rim.
- Some of the effects Ibaka has on the game can’t even be quantified by percentages in box scores. More than just the shots he blocks are the would-be shots that never go up, the three or four pump-fakes that lead to nowhere and the peek over the shoulder that is normally directed at the basket. He’s always in the ball-handler’s head, even when he’s not necessarily directly affecting the play. But in Game 1, the Spurs played freely, without concern their layup attempts may end up among the Baseline Bums.
- The no-Ibaka domino effect took its toll on the Thunder on Monday. Without him, that aforementioned periodic lack of defensive discipline is death against the Spurs, and given the fact OKC isn’t used to playing without its best defender, it’s going to be really difficult to flip a switch on that side of the ball. San Antonio is just going to continue to force the issue with the pick-and-roll. From Andrew’s recap:
Per MySynergySports, the Spurs scored 1.26 and 1.38 points per possession in pick-and-rolls on plays ending in a basket, foul or turnover from the ball-handler or roll man, respectively. Basically, the Spurs diced up the Thunder defense for large chunks of this game.
- Oh hey, Reggie Jackson was held to just 13 points on 11 shots. It’s a freaking miracle. On the “random players that just kill the Spurs” list, he’s at the top, so good for San Antonio for nipping that in the bud.
- You know what, I take that back. Derek Fisher is at the top of that list and he won’t go away. He basically kept OKC in the game all on his own during the first half and went 4-of-6 from the 3-point line on the night. Because of course Derek Fisher did. Go coach the Knicks, bro. Oh wait, the Thunder were -18 when he was on the court last night because he couldn’t stay in front of anyone he was guarding? Now I’m torn.
- Normally, Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is a bad time to try new things, but Scott Brooks had no choice but to experiment with a lineup that was accustomed to Ibaka starting 94 of the 95 games it played this season. He took the safe route starting Nick Collison, then he spent time mixing and matching, going big and small and throwing out some “F*** IT” lineups along the way. Did you notice that weird, tiny-ball lineup that featured Kevin Durant at center? If it seemed like you’ve never seen it before, it’s because you haven’t. Durant, Jackson, Fisher, Russell Westbrook and Caron Butler played more than seven minutes together in Game 1; prior to that, they’d never been on the floor together for a second, per NBA.com’s lineup data.
- Speaking of small-ball, I don’t think the Spurs get enough credit for their versatility. We tend to associate lineup flexibility with size and athleticism, the latter of which San Antonio doesn’t exactly have in spades. But through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and now through the first game of this series, that lineup with Boris Diaw at center has been really effective in small stretches. And most importantly, it makes going small a less attractive option for the opposition, especially when Diaw gets matched up with smaller players on the block. Bobo’s ability to play three positions gives Popovich an incredible luxury with his rotations.
- Holy crap, Kawhi Leonard is good. Can anyone remember the last time we saw a spin move in transition from him? At any point? He just continues to add elements to his burgeoning offensive game on top of the predatory defense he’s playing these days. He’s the counter to the youth and athleticism of most opposing teams, and he takes the Spurs to another level when he plays well. I’ve often said I think he’s the team’s most impactful player, and the numbers tend to lean that way. The Spurs are +8.1 when Leonard has been on the floor during the postseason, the highest mark of any individual player in the playoffs thus far.
- I’m loving Pop’s random Aron Baynes substitutions. He’s kind of the perfect counter to Steven Adams. ‘You have your guy who pisses everyone off, well here’s ours’ is an option most coaches don’t have. And it’s not just that he’s playing meaningful minutes, it’s the timing. Pop is picking all the right moments to sneak him in the game—though ‘sneak’ probably isn’t the right word, as his presence isn’t exactly inconspicuous—and so far it’s paid off every time.
- Remember the series Danny Green had against this team two years ago? Well, he’s doing his best to make you forget. We’ve talked about the fact he needs to improve his ability to hit that pull-up shot off the dribble to counter aggressive closeouts from the defense at the 3-point line, but what he’s really improved upon since that 2012 WCF is hitting contested shots. He’s gotten to the point where, when he’s right, he’ll shoot it with guys right on top of him, and he’ll hit at a really high percentage. It’s kind of amazing to look back on that series and where Green, Leonard and Tiago Splitter were at that time. Those guys and the improvements they’ve made are three of the biggest reasons this team is so much better now than it was then.
- We’ve talked about the offense, but the Green-Leonard duo has become quite nice on the defensive end. The Spurs held the Thunder to just 84.2 points per 100 possessions in the 20 minutes those two spent on the court together in Game 1, a trend that carried over from the regular season. We know Leonard is going to guard Durant all series long—he was on the court for 39 of KD’s 41 minutes on Monday—but Green is a guy with just enough length and quickness to make life difficult for Westbrook at times. He also did a fantastic job chasing shooters off the 3-point line in Game 1. Every time OKC kicked the ball out it felt like Green was flying into their air space and forcing long 2-point shots, which is exactly what the Spurs want from guys like Thabo Sefalosha and Caron Butler.
- If you’re a dedicated 48MoH reader, you’ve probably read what I’ve written in the past about this, but the Leonard-Green tandem is one of the most effective, underrated pairs of wing defenders in the league. Kawhi’s defense is widely acknowledged as elite, but Green doesn’t get credit all that often. The narrative that the Spurs don’t have anyone who can guard Westbrook just isn’t true (to an extent, because nobody can truly guard him one-on-one). There wasn’t much evidence of that during the regular season because the Spurs’ starting wings played together in only two of the teams’ four matchups; but in those 36 minutes they shared the court, the Thunder scored fewer than 82 points per 100 possessions. Oh and how about this: In the 27-plus minutes Danny Green was on the court on Monday, the Spurs outscored OKC by 57.4 points per 100 possessions (hat-tip to Matt Moore for this one). Ridiculous.
- On the whole, the Spurs’ defense can stand to be quite a bit better. There was some really poor transition defense at times in this one, something that can kill you against the Thunder, and a lot of those breakdowns came after missed shots. It’s unlikely San Antonio is going to shoot nearly 58 percent from the floor regularly over the course of this series, so this is something that needs to be addressed. The fewer chances OKC has to run, the better off the Spurs will be, because their half-court defense is still very stingy.
- Tim Duncan scored 27 points in 29 minutes, and without Ibaka roaming nearby he had a pretty easy go of it. And the fact he didn’t even have to play 30 minutes might be a bigger development than him going for 27 points.
- Manu re-emerged from that nasty second-round slump. At least, it appears as though he has. He went for 18 points on just 12 shots, including a 3-of-4 performance from downtown, where he was particularly bad against Portland. Duncan and Ginobili looked rested and ready to roll on Monday; and the fact they didn’t have to extend themselves, and with a big three-day break coming up between Games 2 and 3, really bodes well for the old guys moving forward in this series.
- OKC is such a good team, even without Ibaka. But I’m having a difficult time coming up with a way they’ll be able to flip the script in this series. We saw them do it two years ago, but they were fully healthy at that time. Without Ibaka, I don’t know how the Thunder are going to suddenly fix these glaring defensive issues, and it looks like Westbrook and Durant are going to have to play 40-plus minutes a night just to have a chance. Will they have enough gas in the tank while Spurs’ reserves keep coming in waves? They’ve got the two best players on the court, but San Antonio has the third, fourth, fifth and sixth best, at the very least, and its depth has the one-man-short Thunder at a disadvantage. And regardless of what adjustments might come, forget the Western Conference, I’m not sure any team in the league can beat the Spurs if they keep playing like this.
Game 2 tips off at 8 p.m. CT at the AT&T Center on Wednesday.