Spurs at Thunder Give and Go Preview
No amount of regular season wins will take the sting away from how the 2012 Western Conference Finals went down, but they’re still required to play the games. The Thunder are still the Thunder and no matter how much (or how little) you can take away from regular season matchups, winning games against elite teams is always important.
In our preview for tonight’s game, Royce Young of ESPN TrueHoop Network site Daily Thunder and I chatted about the Kevins Durant and Martin, the Spurs bench and how much a win tonight means for either team. Unfortunately for San Antonio, the Spurs will be without Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson, all out nursing some form of injury.
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: First thing I want to know: how is Kevin Martin working out in OKC?
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Beautifully. Considering the fact Martin had basically two practices with the Thunder before he had to step on the floor and perform, he’s fit in extremely well. There haven’t been any obvious growing pains to speak of, as some might’ve figured. He’s a different player than James Harden and the Thunder have had to adjust in a lot of ways in terms of ball handling and roles, but in terms of providing bench production, Martin has filled the role extremely well.
AM: So how does that bench unit play now, offensively, with Martin instead of Harden? I’m assuming less high pick-and-rolls with Nick Collison.
RY: Definitely. Harden was essentially OKC’s best point guard last season. What Scott Brooks has done is manage his rotations a bit differently so that he keeps Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant with the second unit more. With Harden, he basically captained the bench in the second and third. Martin doesn’t get a ton of time alone on the floor as The Man, but instead flows off of Westbrook or Durant mostly.
AM: Have the Thunder changed much defensively with Martin replacing Harden?
RY: They’re a little less versatile, but for the most part, they’re similar. No huge drop-off or anything. Harden wasn’t a great defender or anything, but he did have the ability to guard a few different positions. Martin is a little more limited.
The Spurs continue to have one of the best benches and while the Thunder have reloaded a bit with Martin, I think that’s a pretty big advantage for San Antonio. You see it that way too?
AM: I think so. It’s kind of hard to say at this point, because Pop hasn’t quite figured out his rotations and who he actually wants playing. On paper, the Spurs probably have the best bench in the league, because we’ve seen pretty much every player come through with good performances at some point this season. There hasn’t been a lot of consistency from a lot of the guys, though. Tiago Splitter has played well this year, so much so that he started against Boston on Saturday night and could be in line for another start against the Thunder.
But Matt Bonner’s playing time has been spotty, even though he’s played pretty well when he’s gotten time. DeJuan Blair is struggling and Boris Diaw hasn’t quite been as improved as people were expecting. And Gregg Popovich hasn’t figured out who his backup point guard is yet. We’ve seen Gary Neal, Patty Mills and Nando De Colo all get time as Tony Parker’s understudy. And we won’t really know anything definitively until San Antonio gets over some of these injuries.
Have you watched much of the Spurs this season? Manu Ginobili isn’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of opponents.
RY: Mostly the national games, but I’ve definitely seen a fair amount. And yeah, while Ginobili hasn’t looked great, he ALWAYS strikes fear. Opposing fans can just feel that big steal, that big shot, that big charge, that big something coming when Manu’s in.
AM: That’s a fair point. There is an unpredictability to Ginobili.
Let’s talk about Kevin Durant. He’s probably the second best player in the world. How has he improved this season compared to last?
RY: Couple ways: He’s rebounding better, defending better, creating better, shooting better, scoring better — he’s just better in most every way. But specifically, he’s taken on more of a creating and distributing role with the loss of Harden. He’s focused a lot on setting teammates up and handling the ball a bit more. And he’s compulsively obsessed about scoring efficiently. It’s all he thinks about on the floor offensively. He wants to be a well-rounded player that scores on limited attempts, creates points for teammates and fills the box score. He’s probably playing as well as he ever has, in terms of all areas of the game.
AM: It almost sounds like he’s practicing for the Olympic team.
RY: He’s definitely trying to LeBronify his game a bit. It’s obvious. And he’s not denying it.
In the Western finals, OKC made the big change to put Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker. I don’t know if we’ll see that against on Monday, but what made that so effective? Just Sefolosha’s length?
AM: I think that was part of it. The Spurs like to put longer defenders on point guards, so I can see the appeal of the Thunder doing it. Part of the Spurs’ problem was Danny Green wasn’t able to take advantage of having Russell Westbrook on him. Not to say that Westbrook is a bad defender, but I don’t think he was all that worried about Green and instead was able to be disruptive off the ball.
The Spurs’ offense is so predicated on timing and rhythm, having an athletic freak like Westbrook running around off the ball can cause problems. And a bigger player like Sefolosha getting physical with Parker can get them out of their groove as well. Parker’s playing a different game this season, though. I’m curious to see how it would go if Scott Brooks puts Sefolosha on Parker on Monday night.
How much stock do you place in the previous matchup between these two teams this season? For me, that already seems like so long ago.
RY: Yeah, to be honest, I almost forgot it happened. The Thunder were a completely different team then. They were in the very early stages of not just adjusting to a new player, but wrapping their minds around the fact Harden was gone. It was kind of a surreal experience for the team and the fact they had a chance to win felt miraculous.
AM: Glad we’re agreed on that. I really don’t think we can look at any of these regular season matchups before the All-Star break as any sort of barometer for the playoffs, which is a big reason why the two losses the Spurs had to the Clippers haven’t bothered me all that much.
RY: For the Thunder though, there is a little extra meaning behind Monday’s game, just because the schedule has been so soft. OKC only has a couple quality wins over good opponents, so while the record is sparkling, there are still some doubters out there just based on who the wins have come against. A loss at home to the Spurs will only validate some of those concerns. I’m not of that mind because a win or loss in December doesn’t decide much of anything, but the Thunder probably need this game more than the Spurs.
AM: After the Celtics game on Saturday night, Tony Parker was asked about the rivalry between the Spurs and Thunder and Parker said he didn’t think the rivalry is as meaningful as the Spurs-Mavs and Spurs-Lakers rivalries. Especially, he said, with how the rivalries with the Mavs and Lakers were in the 2000s.
Do you tend to agree with him on that?
RY: One playoff series a rivalry does not make. The Thunder and Spurs have things in common because they’re similar organizations, but I’d say it’s extremely far from a rivalry. There has to be a lot more history than just one playoff series and some close regular season games.
AM: That said, these two teams have played some really exciting games, even going back to the days where the Thunder were (somehow) much younger and not winning many games. I’m picturing Manu Ginobili diving out of bounds and saving the ball to George Hill.
RY: Oh definitely. And like I said, with the Thunder trying to plagiarize the Spurs in so many ways, it has a perfect master vs. pupil vibe. And probably will until the Spurs are forced to retool. Whenever that happens in like 40 years.
AM: Alright, before I let you go, I need one random prediction from you for Monday night’s game. A prediction that has nothing to do with the final score.
RY: I’ll go with this: Nick Collison gets a double-double. Why? Because I can dream, can’t I?
AM: I heart Nick Collison.
RY: He’s my spirit brother.