Spurs vs. Thunder Conference Finals Tale of the Tape

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Two years ago the San Antonio Spurs rode a 18-game winning streak into the Western Conference Finals and took the first two games against the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. San Antonio then lost four straight and saw a return to the NBA Finals escape their grasp.

The Spurs made their reappearance in the Finals last season, losing in seven games to the Miami Heat, but a rematch with the Thunder along the way was not in the cards. Russell Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus in Oklahoma City’s first round series with the Houston Rockets and the Thunder fell to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the playoffs.

This season it seemed like we were on a collision course all season long to watch the two best teams in the West over the past several years settle all scores. We got the Spurs and Thunder facing-off once again for the Western Conference crown. And then, just days before the tip-off of Game 1, the Thunder announced that Serge Ibaka will miss the remainder of the postseason with a calf injury.

Just like that, the rematch we all hoped for has been undercut in many fans’ minds. This will, in theory, be a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals, but the absence of Ibaka and the plethora of difficulties he creates for the Spurs will create a mental asterisk in the heads of many observers. For many, this series will be exempt from making up for San Antonio’s collapse in 2012.

But there is still a best-of-seven series to be played. Yet again, the 48MoH writing staff is here to break down the series as only we can: with little blurbs.

Matchup to Watch

The obvious pick here is Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard, but I think the most impactful matchup might be Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson vs. the Spurs’ backcourt. Historically, San Antonio had brought a decent how-to-defend-Russ gameplan to the court, but the guy really seemed to break through against the Spurs this year. He’s just too big for Tony and too strong for guys like Manu, which is why you’re going to see a lot of Danny Green picking him up. It might not happen from the opening tip, but it will happen. Then there’s Reggie Jackson, who has just torched the Spurs this season. I’m sure Gregg Popovich is going to throw some different looks at Jackson that he didn’t see during the regular season, but he’s been a really difficult cover. If the Thunder are going to swing momentum back their way without Serge Ibaka, it’s going to take some big-time outputs from these two guys. We’ll see how the Spurs defend them.

– Matthew Tynan

Favorite storyline

My favorite storyline has simply become “What is Kawhi going to do?” This is a massive stage, one for which he wasn’t totally prepared two years ago. At this point in his career, he might not be the Spurs’ best, most refined player, but I won’t argue with any talk of him being their most important. His impact on this postseason has been significant—he’s got the highest plus-minus of any player in the postseason and is the only Spur whose absence leaves the Spurs with a negative point differential on the floor—and he’s the only true counter to Oklahoma City’s youth, energy and athleticism. Put it this way: The loss of Serge Ibaka is less harmful to the Thunder than any injury to Leonard would be to the Spurs. San Antonio will go as Kawhi goes, and that’s why the 22-year-old has become my favorite storyline. He’s the wild-card, X factor, super role player and borderline All-Star all rolled into one, and we’re really just starting to see it. As the stage gets bigger, so does his game.

– M.T.

Fabricio Oberto Memorial “Guy Who Will Make the Biggest Impact While Scoring Fewer Than Five Points in the Series”

Thabo Sefalosha. The book on how to stop Tony Parker reads, and I quote, “Put your best perimeter defender with the longest arms on him.” It’s a short book. Kevin Durant has the longest arms, sure, but he’s not Oklahoma City’s best perimeter defender. You also don’t want your best offensive weapon tiring himself out on the other end by chasing around a French blur. Sefalosha defender Parker expertly in the 2012 Western Conference Finals and beyond, becoming a thorn in Parker’s side and one of the most successful players in the league at harassing the Spurs point guard. With Parker’s health status going into Game 1 unknown—he’ll play, but how much is the hamstring strain going to limit his effectiveness—Sefalosha could have more of an impact on the defensive end of the floor than expected.

– Andrew McNeill

Opposing player who is most likely to cause you to break out of your objectivity

I would say Perry Jones III, but I’m not sure he’s getting enough burn even with a missing Serge Ibaka. The only other answer is Reggie Jackson. He’s the definition of love/hate relationship for me. He has roasted the Spurs this season and when he’s on, it really doesn’t give opposing teams much of a break from dealing with Russell Westbrook. It’s frustrating when he’s playing the Spurs and just delightful when it’s against the Lakers, Knicks or one of those teams I don’t like. It’ll be interesting to see if the Thunder go small and he starts alongside Westbrook. The Thunder have had success with a Westbrook-Jackson backcourt in the past, but the particularly good line ups also included Ibaka.

– Trevor Zickgraf

Statistic that will best define the series

This is a really simple stat, but I think it’s going to come down to the Thunder’s field goal percentage. Daily Thunder’s Royce Young and our own Matthew Tynan did a great job of pointing out the problems Serge Ibaka causes for the Spurs’ offense. I think this series now turns into whether the Spurs can make Oklahoma City take difficult shots. Without Ibaka, I don’t know how Oklahoma City slows down San Antonio’s offense. Whether it’s fatigue or both Memphis and Los Angeles making things tough for Durant, the MVP wasn’t entirely efficient at times. However, simply finding a way to make Durant and Westbrook momentarily inefficient wasn’t enough to beat Oklahoma City because the Thunder were able to put the clamps on opponents on defense. Now, I can’t see that happening consistently. Without Ibaka, it becomes incredibly risky for the Thunder to attack the passing lanes the way they’re used to against the Spurs.

– T.Z.

Coach that would win in a back-alley brawl

It’s Pop, but not without an extended fight. Scotty Brooks, a tough former point guard, and CIA Pop. This fight would start off with both feeling each other out. Here’s where things head in Pop’s favor: Brooks would defend himself well and find a move that gets in some good shots. Same for Pop. Then, when Brooks figured Pop out, Pop would find a different move to use. However, when Pop figured Brooks out, Scotty would stubbornly keep trying that same move. Even worse, he’d wait and wait before launching into said move. You’re not going to win a back-alley brawl that way.

– T.Z.

The Spurs lose this series if…

…several things happen. First, Tony Parker’s hamstring never fully recovers and he struggles to get separation on offense from Sefalosha and whatever defenders Thunder coach Scott Brooks decides to unleash. And by being unable to gain separation from Sefalosha, the rest of the Thunder defense is able to stay at home down low and on San Antonio’s shooters on the perimeter, thus negating a big portion of what Oklahoma City misses with Serge Ibaka out of the lineup. Second, Kevin Durant does the things that the world has come to expect MVP Kevin Durant to do. Namely, score bunches of points at a very efficient rate and get Kawhi Leonard in foul trouble. Finally, Steven Adams manages to get Tim Duncan thrown out of and/or suspended for at least one game in this series by instigating him and drawing an infraction from the Fundamental. Not all these things have to happen for the Spurs to lose this series, mind you, but probably the first two.

– A.M.

The Spurs win this series if…

…they just maintain their second-round level of execution. The loss of Ibaka is a giant blow to OKC’s chances in this series because his impact on both sides of the ball can’t be understated. In a series that already had Gregg Popovich’s group as the likely favorites by a slim margin, the Spurs now won’t have Ibaka’s game-changing defense to deal with; and so long as they keep the pace up and stay aggressive in their penetration, more doors should open than would be the case if OKC’s best defender were playing. Durant and Westbrook will still be a force, and they’ve got to figure out how to control Jackson a bit better, but the Spurs need to continue to play their game and understand that the extra stuff on the margins won’t be as devastating without Ibaka.

– M.T.

48MoH Staff Predictions

Matthew Tynan: I kind of have a feeling this is going to get weird. The Thunder are not as good without Ibaka, and that’s not even a question. But this is still a very good team with the two best players in the series, and injuries like these can often galvanize the troops so to speak. I think OKC is going to find a way to muck things up defensively and make life as difficult as possible for the Spurs, but as the series goes on, the absence of that freakishly athletic rim-protector and offensive pressure valve is going to make for an incredibly small margin of error for the Thunder. I mean, we see all the numbers that show Ibaka’s impact, but he totally changes the way the Spurs play. All those awkward layup attempts, extra pump fakes and dribble hesitations won’t necessarily be there without the threat of him swatting a shot into the fifth row. Again, I think it’ll get weird, with KD, Russ and Reggie having a couple of huge games. But, following the “weird” theme, I think San Antonio will end it in OKC. I just can’t believe the Thunder will win this series without Ibaka, especially given the way Pop has his guys playing. Spurs in 6.

Trevor Zickgraf: Spurs in 6. The Spurs should win this series. However, there’s still going to be a couple of bonkers Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook games. Maybe a random Reggie Jackson game. However, I think the Spurs are playing their best right now and the Thunder just lost the biggest key to their defense. We’re getting a Heat-Spurs rematch.

Andrew McNeill: My thought process coming into the series was this: I believed the Spurs were a better team than Oklahoma City, but the Thunder created so many problems matchup-wise for San Antonio that it was essentially a toss-up. I went with Spurs in seven games based on San Antonio being a slightly better team and the inherent bias of running a Spurs blog. Now that Ibaka is out for the entirety of this series, I think the dynamic shifts greatly and matchups heavily favor San Antonio. Tony Parker’s hamstring and its health as this series develops is the wild card in all of this, but I think everything’s coming up silver and black. The Spurs go to the Finals for the second straight year after beating the Thunder in six games.

Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tips-off at 8 pm central time and can be seen on TNT. If you’re looking for tickets to Game 1 at the AT&T Center, visit our friends at TiqIQ.

  • SpurredOn

    DId Westbrook really breakthrough this year vs the Spurs? His one big game came when Kawhi didn’t play, thus Green and all attention went towards KD, opening up space for RW. With both teams at full strength, he shot 2/16 in the first meeting.

    My hope is that, much like the Grizzlies did, Pop’s plan is for KD & RW to be volume jump shooters. If they can combine to average 55-60 points for the series, bully for them. But in the process, Jackson and all other 3pt shooting goes away, their teammates become uninvolved, and the wear & tear of a long season weighs on them come games 5 and beyond.

  • The Kawhiet Storm

    Andrew, a lot has been writtensaid about Kawhi defending KD, but a look at the numbers suggest that Durant has actually shot worse when defended by Danny Green. Might this be something Pop tries to exploit? Putting Green on KD, and letting Kawhi guard Westbrook, while Parker guards Sefolosha? With Ibaka out the Spurs big can just pack the paint making it difficult for KD and Westbrook to get easy shots at the rim and forcing them to become a spot up jump shooting team which is not their strength, I think Kawhi can make it more difficult to dribble and penetrate than Green. We also wouldn’t have to worry about Sefolosha posting or muscling up on Tony with plenty of bugs helping inside. Would this be a viable strategy?

  • Graham

    #Smallsamplesizetheatre

  • The Kawhiet Storm

    Is there a way to check that stat going back to 2012?

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  • Len

    Pop will likely give Durant the “LBJ” treatment. I expect a variety of defenders to be thrown at him. Obviously Kawhi will get the majority of the minutes but Danny will get some too. Even Boris and Marco will probably get a crack at him.

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