NBA history fact - since Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls, there have only been 3 teams that have represented the West in the NBA Finals - the Mavericks, the Lakers, and the Spurs. Those 3 western teams won 10 of those 13 championships. In other words, the Thunder are trying to invade an extremely rare club.
On top of this difficult initiation, the Thunder are facing one of the best top flight offenses I've seen in some 25 seasons. Not only are they exceptional, but they have an offensive flow, a collective team IQ, and coaching acumen that you could argue is unrivaled since the 1987 Lakers. The Spurs are really, really good.
You already knew that. I certainly know that. The Thunder are underdogs facing a challenge considerably more talented than last season's Mavericks squad, and the experts who are picking the Thunder to advance are precious few. I've written often my affinity for the Spurs this season, and it is going to be a delight to watch them work in this series.
The Spurs are awesome...but can the Thunder win? Is there no hope at all? Objectively, the Spurs are the easy pick, but to say that the Thunder have no chance at all is fallacy as well. Given the praise that is being sung about the Spurs, I wonder if we're in for another 2007 Patriots-like moment. No team is completely unbeatable, and in my opinion, the Thunder do have a path to victory.
Aside from the usual mantra of things like, "play good defense, rebound, win the turnover battle, etc.," I think the series' outcome can turn on three distinct facets, and they all involve taking a posture that the Thunder are the underdogs. When you are an underdog, you must be willing to go above and beyond the norm and sieze the opportunities when they arise.
1. Russell Westbrook has to decide that he is going to shut down Tony Parker.
Is there any NBA soul who can truly stay in front of Tony Parker and deny him open shots and passing lanes? Of course not. However, if you had to choose one type of player to do it, it would be Westbrook. He is fast enough, strong enough, and has an emotional streak in him that could make Parker's forays to the rim much more difficult.
The problem though is that, "Russell Westbrook, defensive stopper" has long been more of a fanciful thought than a reality. He was a defensive specialist in college, but over the past two seasons Westbrook's offensive capabilities have grown, along with the team's need for them. As a byproduct of Westbrook's offense, he often has looked to his defense to create offense rather than use defense to crush an opposing team's spirits. The former offers both highlights and embarrassments, while the latter offers All-Defense candidacies and championship banners.
In these past two years, Westbrook was as likely to miss a steal and find himself alone at half-court as he was in a breakaway situation winding up for a slam. However, something in the series against the Mavericks caused a shift in Westbrook's approach. When Jason Terry started to light up the Thunder in Game 1, Scott Brooks put Westbrook on him. Suddenly, Terry disappeared. He could not get clean shots, he could not come off of screens, and often he had a hard time even receiving passes. Westbrook eliminated Terry from the equation.
Tony Parker is not Jason Terry.
I don't think it matters though. I believe that this series is going to turn on whether Westbrook can own the same attitude that he had against Terry. Even if he gets burned from time to time, Westbrook can re-direct the spear tip of the Spurs' attack with such a focus. If Westbrook can do this, even to a partial degree, I think the series odds flatten out considerably.
2. OKC HAS to win the offensive rebound battle.
The Thunder and the Spurs are about even in the rebounding department. The Thunder have better rebounding athletes while the Spurs have Tim Duncan and a serious knowledge about how to limit the other teams' offensive possessions to a single shot. The Thunder MUST match the Spurs' ability in this regard.
As we know, OKC has been victimized from time to time this season in securing defensive rebounds. It has allowed such teams like the Kings and Wizards to win games they should not have won. OKC has done a better job in the playoffs, but too often they rely on their athleticism to secure defensive boards instead of applying solid box-out fundamentals.
The Spurs as a team are shooting almost 50% from the floor and over 42% from 3-point range. They do not miss much. They do miss though, and when they do, they have won the offensive rebounding battle often in these playoffs. It is hard enough to stop a team that hardly ever misses, but a loss is all but certain if they are permitted to secure an additional 3-5 shots at the rim per game.
The Thunder lost to the Spurs by 9 points twice this season, and in both of those games the Spurs grabbed 4 more offensive rebounds. If OKC can commit mentally, emotionally, and physically to winning this ORB battle, they take a sizable chunk out of the Spurs' victory margin potential.
3. Kevin Durant has to play close to the rim.
Durant is probably going to see a number of different looks this series, but his main opponent is going to be rookie Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has been a revelation this season, bringing good defensive chops and a growing perimeter game to compliment his Spurs teammates well.
He is still a rookie though and he is facing the NBA's best pure scorer in the game. Kevin Durant is probably delighted that he gets to go at the rookie instead of trying to extricate himself from Shawn Marion or Metta World Peace.
That said, Durant must be mentally prepared to make the kid work in the one place where he cannot handle Durant - in the post. Leonard is sturdy and capable, but he cannot contend with Durant's lift and length when KD elevates. Durant has a clear match-up advantage over Leonard and every Spur he might face if he plays out of the post, and he must exploit that mismatch.
Durant's tendency, for better or worse, is that he likes to face up to the rim and attack. The problem with this, especially against a player like Leonard, is that it makes Leonard's job far too easy. Leonard might not be able to block KD's shots, but he can stay in front of him and keep Durant from getting to the rim off the dribble-drive. In the Thunder's 2 losses, Durant shot 2-10 from 3-point range, playing a far-too passive perimeter game for the Thunder to have a chance to win. Every time he pulls up from 20 feet against the Spurs, he's making their defensive job easier than it needs to be.
Durant's bread-and-butter has to come off the blocks. Not only will he get more makable shots, but it is the best way for the star to get 'star treatment' and earn trips to the charity stripe. OKC has to produce efficient offense, and that offense starts with Durant in the post.
These three facets serve a central purpose. In order for OKC to have a shot to win in these games, OKC has to stay in contention and make it a 4th quarter game. If the game is close, the Thunder have proven numerous times so far that they have what it takes to make winning plays in the end. The problem against the Spurs though is getting to those final 2 minutes in a position to win. I believe success in the three points above can accomplish this goal.