Oklahoma City hasn't faced a legitimate title contender all season, and this matchup offers their first true test. Of course, you already knew that. There's no way that I can really paint the significance of this game to be any more or less than it already is. If the Thunder want to be considered a legitimate title contender again, then the road starts with our four-game series against San Antonio.
The Spurs haven't changed much since last season. Their biggest addition is acquiring the services of Marco Bellinelli. He's traditionally considered a three and D player, but here he'll also provide a good amount of ballhandling. He acts as the defacto backup point guard with Manu Ginobili, replacing the departed Gary Neal. The only other addition to the team has been journeyman Jeff Ayres, who took over the 15th man spot from Tracy McGrady.
In terms of the team's roles, the only other real change has been the addition of Patty Mills to the team's regular rotation, replacing the minutes formerly given to Stephen Jackson. This is largely an upgrade, as Mills has been capable of performing on the team's rotation of years, grabs nearly a steal a game, and provides a high level of offensive athleticism.
As a team, the Spurs look as mighty as ever. But on an individual level, Tim Duncan is really struggling. It's not anything to panic about yet, but when he's played heavy minutes in slow-paced, low-scoring games, he hasn't been able to produce. Very un-Duncanlike performances of 1-12 shooting against the Wizards and 3-13 shooting against the Celtics have been examples of that. He still plays great defense, and in both of those games his teammates shot nearly perfectly, so it hasn't been too much of a concern thus far. But, accordingly, his minutes and usage over the past few games has gone down, and as a result, he's somewhat returned to his efficient ways.
Who's stepped up to fill the scoring role vacated by Timmy D? Well, the team doesn't really have much of a second option anymore, but they've had such a successful scoring committee that it doesn't really matter. However, Boris Diaw has seen his role significantly increase this season, with his PPG average nearly doubling last year's. He's not exactly the post threat that Tim Duncan is, but his range is really help stretch out opposing defenses.
If you're trying to find anything negative to harp on related to the Spurs, you'd be hard-pressed. Their last few games have been complete blowouts, and their only loss came to a very formidable Blazers team. And that lone loss wasn't a game where the Spurs so much failed as the Blazers simply came out and dominated. And it was the second game of a back to back.
Soooo, yeah, the Thunder are definite underdogs here. But they definitely still have the tools necessary to win. A common link that was present in the Thunder's two victories against the Spurs last season was the great performance of their top four scorers. The same wasn't true in their two losses to the Spurs, where either Ibaka or Martin didn't show up. Normally, the Thunder could win with three scorers, so I wouldn't say it's a reflection of the Spurs' ability to shut down or contain Durant and Westbrook as much as its' a reflection of how good the Spurs are.
With the Thunder having a lot more interchangeable pieces and some new faces this year, it will be interesting to see how they stack up. As I've noted in previous articles, the bench operates an entirely different offensive scheme, so it's almost like getting to see the Thunder as a different team. In terms of strategy, this is a good thing, because we've simply got more offensive options out there, and that's absolutely essential when you're facing the Spurs.
Of course, the strategy could backfire as we see the bench lose the game in the third quarter, but the strategy is essential if the Thunder want to survive freak injuries (like that one last year). As J.A. Sherman noted in his article about Sous-Vide cooking, the Spurs have always been willing to give time to their young players, and it's paid huge dividends. This is the first time that Brooks has really given minutes to his youngsters, so it's nice to see him go the way of Popovich.
At the end of the day, this is going to be a heck of a game. With how capable both of these teams are, it's not hard to see either side winning by 20 points. But I think the Thunder are going to be able to take this one. They've had a great deal of success when taking it to the rack this year. The Spurs aren't particularly bad in that area, but one of their primary strengths is their unwillingness to foul on defense, and I think the Thunder possess the tools to make them foul. Then again, that's ignoring the Thunder's starter's poor three point shooting defense. Then again, that's ignoring Kevin Durant's ridiculously efficient shooting numbers against the Spurs last season. Then again, that's ignoring that both of the Thunder's wins against the Spurs last year came with Manu Ginobili injured.
UGH, I'm just going with the Thunder because it's at home and at home I can be a homer. But not a Homer, because I've already eaten enough D'OHnuts and I don't like baseball.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 101, San Antonio Spurs 99.
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