2012-2013 Game 24 Preview: Thunder See Spurs W/O Jackson and Ginobili

Westbrook just saw a delicious hamburger, Parker just dropped a dead cat, and Perk just happened upon a lovely lady. Judging from their facial expressions, at least. - US PRESSWIRE

For a team that's had the same starting lineup for almost three years, it might seem like not a lot of change has occurred. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Looking back on the Thunder's season opener against the Spurs is almost like looking into a different world.

2012-2013 NBA Season
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The San Antonio Spurs (19-6)
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The Oklahoma City Thunder (19-4)
December 17th, 2012
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM CST
Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Southwest
WWLS the Sports Animal (98.1), WOAI 1200 AM
Enemy Blogs: Pounding The Rock, Project Spurs, 48 Minutes of Hell
Previous Meetings: Nov. 1st (Spurs Lead Season Series 1-0)
Probable Starters
Tony Parker PG Russell Westbrook
Gary Neal SG Thabo Sefolosha
Danny Green SF Kevin Durant
Tim Duncan PF Serge Ibaka
Tiago Splitter C Kendrick Perkins

For a team that's had the same starting lineup for almost three years, it might seem like not a lot of change has occurred. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Looking back on the Thunder's season opener against the Spurs is almost like looking into a different world.

Back then, we were fresh off the Harden trade, and things were looking uncertain. Who was going to fill that scoring void off of the bench? Kevin Martin was an oft-injured nameless scorer who had seen a huge dip in production. He couldn't defend, he couldn't pass, and sometimes, he couldn't even score. Our backup big situation was even murkier. Were we really going to give minutes to Hasheem Thabeet, who was rumored to be a bigger draft bust than Kwame Brown? What about Perry Jones, who had ridiculously shooting percentages in the pre-season? Was Jeremy Lamb going to contribute right away? And what about Eric Maynor? Had he fully recovered from his ACL injury, or was Reggie Jackson about to take the reigns.

All of those questions haven't been resolved, but the air of uncertainty is gone. After losing their first game and enduring a semi-rocky start, the Thunder have steamrolled their way to the NBA's best record. Along the way, they've won 10 straight games and solidified a fantastic rotation. The team isn't without problems, but it's clear that, at least in the short term, they haven't suffered due to the James Harden deal.

The Spurs are less of a surprise. They saw very little movement in a roster that nearly took them to the NBA Finals last year, so they've continued to tear up the schedule, and remain only a game behind the Thunder in the Western Conference Standings. Still, they've had a couple of bumps along the way. Gregg Popovich was widely criticized for sending four starters home on the final game of a road trip against the Miami Heat, and Stephen Jackson was fined for threatening Serge Ibaka on Twitter. To make matters worse, both Jackson and Kawhi Leonard will likely be out for tonight's game, meaning that the Spurs won't have anybody suitable to guard Kevin Durant.

Likely taking their place as the Durant stoppers will be Danny Green and Manu Ginobili, both of whom give up four inches to Durant. They're crafty enough defenders to make things interesting, but I doubt Durant will have many problems against the Spurs, especially considering that he had 23 and 14 in the season opener.

What will be more interesting to keep an eye on is Popovich's lineups. As a result of the aforementioned injuries, Popovich has played small at the guard spots, starting both Tony Parker and Gary Neal. This combo could force a lot of turnovers from Westbrook and Durant if the Thunder aren't careful. Small guard combos are precisely what killed the Thunder against the Hornets a few nights ago, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Scott Brooks bust out Reggie Jackson in the second or third quarter to mix things up.

The Tony Parker-Russell Westbrook matchup in particular will draw a lot of eyes, especially considering Parker's well-publicized wide open shot to seal the deal on November 1st. Westbrook has really struggled to hit his mid-range jumpers lately, most likely a result of playing quicker point guards and a lack of transition offense. With Parker still being quite spry, I'd expect it to be another offensive struggle for Westbrook tonight. Where he'll need to continue to make his mark is by setting up his teammates, staying focused on defense, and igniting the team during key points of the game.

Still, I think the biggest X-Factor of all has to be the Tim Duncan-Serge Ibaka matchup. Serge Ibaka's point total can be a good litmus test for how well the Thunder are doing. Put it this way- When Ibaka's shooting struggles, generally, the Thunder are struggling. His game against the Spurs was perhaps his worst of the season, as he scored only 4 points on 2 of 7 shooting and nearly fouled out of the game. Conversely, Tim Duncan was really killing it, nailing tough hook shots and drawing Ibaka out of the paint. Hopefully, tonight Ibaka will be able to keep Duncan out of the lane himself with some solid mid-range shooting.

All in all, you know this game's a tossup. Sure, the Spurs have taken some injuries, but Popovich is the master of coaching rotations and strategy. Just last Friday they blew out the Celtics, and earlier in December they managed to topple the fearsome Grizzlies. The Thunder's likelihood of winning will ultimately rest on their ability to take advantage of the flaws in any given Spurs lineup and their ability to manage late game situations. In other words, if Durant can manage the game like he has been doing against bad opponents, then tonight will be a good night. I'm hoping it will be, but with 10 straight victories, I think something's got to give. My prediction is that the Thunder commit too many turnovers and lose a close one. Here's hoping I'm wrong!

Prediction: San Antonio Spurs 114, Oklahoma City Thunder 111.

If you are looking for tickets to upcoming games, you can find Oklahoma City Thunder tickets here.

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