The Spurs will take on the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, a match up most predicted all season long. The top seeded Spurs look to be a slight favorite over the second seeded Thunder, despite the Thunder posting a 4-0 against the Spurs in the regular season. This is largely contributed to the fact the Thunder will be missing Serge Ibaka, who is out with a calf injury for the reminder of the playoffs. This is the second year in a row the Thunder have lost a key player for the playoffs, last year being Russell Westbrook. The Ibaka injury is extremely unfortunate for the Thunder because of how important Ibaka is and how impactful he has been vs the Spurs. The regular season Spurs offense against the Thunder without Ibaka (44 minutes) is scoring 120.8 points per possession vs 93.0 points per 100 possessions with him (148 minutes). This is only a four game simple size and a lot of that can be attributed to the Spurs bench outplaying the Thunders bench (something they did to pretty much every bench unit in the league). With or without Ibaka this series is still a great matchup, both teams have keys to winning, so let’s get into some of them.
Execute– It is extremely important that the Spurs execute their offense this OKC defense, the length and athleticism of this Thunder team can be death for a team like the Spurs who shot under 44% vs the Thunder this season.
Ginobili!– Manu has to be huge this series for the Spurs, he has to be able to get to the rim and finish in order to open things up for the Spurs shooters. During the regular season, he struggled mightily vs the Thunder shooting just 39% from the field and 33% from three, this must change if the Spurs want to have a chance to win.
Make shots in the paint- Did you know the Spurs were the best in the league in terms of percentage in the restricted area at 64.8%? That percentage drops to a whooping 14.4% to 50.4% against the Thunder.. This could be less of an issue with the injury to Serge Ibaka, we shall see.
Thunder Keys to Victory
Defending the PnR– The Thunder are going to have to try and stop the Spurs offense, the best way to achieve this is to defend the Spurs pick-and-roll game. One of the ways they can go about this is to defend them like the Mavs did in round one and basically stay home on the Spurs shooters. The Mavs defenders didn’t help off of their man, forcing the Spurs ball handlers and roll man to play a two man game. Effectively removing the Spurs shooting, San Antonio countered the technique and won the series. The Thunder may not have to do that as they are a much better defensive unit with much more athletic wing players who can help and recover.
Production from “the others”– The Spurs defense is going to key in on stopping the duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant (good luck there), even more so now that the noted “Spurs killer” Serge Ibaka is out for the series. This is going to be a series where OKC’s others will have to really step up and make plays. Scott Brooks may have to get creative with the lineups and should look to find minutes for Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, both of which he has buried on the bench for varying reasons.
Go Small– Kevin Durant is posting 42.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 2.8 blocked shots per 48 minutes playing the power forward spot this season. Again, this is a small simple size but it is still an option. KD is only allowing 11.8 PER to opposing players when playing at the four.
Honestly, I’m prepared for anything to happen in this series, besides a sweep of course, I could see the Spurs or Thunder winning the series as neither result would be shocking. I’m going to go with the Spurs winning in 6 because they are the healthier team and quite frankly they are the better team at this point. I think they do a good enough job to force the Thunder’s “others” to beat them and I don’t have much faith in them or Scott Brooks.