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Game 1 Preview: A Look Back at the Thunder-Spurs Regular Season

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A detailed study of the known past gives us a window into the mysterious future.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
2014 NBA Playoffs, Western Conference Finals

May 19th, 2014
The American Telephone and Telegraph Company Center, San Antonio, Texas
8:30 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: Entertainment Sports Programming Network
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM/640 AM), NewsRadio 1200 WOAI
Injury Report: Tony Parker (Probable), Serge Ibaka (Out)
Previous Matchups: None in the playoffs.
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Tony Parker
Thabo Sefolosha SG Manu Ginobili
Kevin Durant SF Kawhi Leonard
Caron Butler PF Tim Duncan
Kendrick Perkins C Tiago Splitter

Regular Season Series

Game 1, November 27th: Win, 94-88

Storyline: In this epic early-season clash between two full-strength teams, Reggie Jackson proved to be the X-Factor. Patty Mills gave him some really tight defense, constantly bothering Reggie on the perimeter and trying to force a steal. The Spurs interior D was never quick enough to react to Mills all-or-nothing strategy though, and Reggie was able to escape the game with 23 points on 71% shooting. Westbrook was the opposite person, shooting just 12% due to a mysterious case of vertigo.

On the Spurs' end, they were able to get the absolute most out of Kawhi Leonard, who exploded for 14 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 4 steals. He benefited from a lot of transition play early on, and did an excellent job of containing KD. Of course, KD was still able to get reasonable production, shooting 43% for 24 points with 4 assists and 6 turnovers. But Kawhi's sheer energy was to blame for KD's turnovers and a few of his misses, as OKC's ball movement was too stangant and lazy to get KD the ball in the right position. Meanwhile, Kawhi was able to take advantage of some suspect D by KD, especially while KD had to carry OKC's offense during Westbrook's first half struggles.

In terms of the Spurs strategy, they came out with guns blazing. Unfortunately, they ended up hitting nothing and starting the game off ice cold, missing their first 7 threes. Popovich responded with a repeated concerted effort to attack the basket, as his team only took five threes in the second and third quarters. It wasn't until the late third that the Spurs offense began to space the floor again, as they saw themselves sinking into a hole. There wasn't a lot of lineup play though, as both teams went traditional for the vast majority of the game. Brooks only put KD at power forward during a brief stretch of the mid-fourth, and Popovich generally had two of Splittler, Ayres, Duncan, Diaw, and Bonner out there. During the latter part of the second quarter and fourth quarter, Popovich flexed and played Leonard at power forward. A Durant onslaught negated the potential matchup advantage in the second, and the Thunder were able to match up in the fourth.

The bad news from this game? Serge Ibaka single-handedly scored 10 straight points to start off the third quarter, missing only twice. The run put the Thunder ahead of the Spurs for good. The good news about that run is that Ibaka wasn't really exploiting a key flaw in the Spurs defense or anything. He was just doing his typical Ibaka stuff, like getting a mid-range jumper when defenders collapse on Durant or Westbrook, getting offensive boards, and rolling to the rim. It's cool, but not irreplaceable.

Lost in the fray is Jeremy Lamb's 12 point, 5-7 shooting night.  This was one of those games where he worked so effectively as a weak-side player that you can't help but hope that Scott Brooks will have it in his heart to give this man minutes. He did a great job of calmly shooting around a couple of Adams screens, and was always in perfect position to help out with a transition three or weak-side drive. I don't think he can isolate against Danny Green or anything, but when he's put on a weaker defender like Ginobili, he can really take advantage.

Why we won (Via Trey Hunter):

Well, what would you have said if I told you the Thunder would beat the Spurs, who are coming off 11-straight wins, with Westbrook shooting 2-16 and the team, not just Durant, shooting 15 free throws?

It took the best defensive effort the Thunder have turned in to beat the Spurs on Wednesday. Westbrook, to his credit, played intense, Westbrook-like defense for 32 minutes. Thabo Sefolosha played the best defense he's played this season. Lamb, Jackson and Fisher were all three dominant defending the perimeter. Ibaka blocked five shots and was the possibly the biggest reason the Spurs shot under 40 percent. Air-Congo was bullying down the stretch of the game.

"They're a hard team to guard," Brooks said after the game. "They're the hottest team in the league. We did a good job with their length and making them miss shots. I thought defense was the key tonight."

So the Thunder won a game without Westbrook and Durant dominating the offensive end and they played better defense than a great defensive team. And it was against the defending conference champs.

Links: WTLC RecapBox ScorePopcorn MachineReggie HighlightsLeonard Highlights

Game 2, December 21st: Win, 113-100

Storyline: This was one of the last games that OKC would play before Russell Westbrook's third knee surgery, which would sideline him from Boxing Day until the All-Star Break. He wasn't showing any pre-injury wobbliness, and tore through the Spurs D on a spectacular 13-22 shooting night. Early on, he was able to use his body to isolate against the smaller and seemingly slower Parker. He even saw major success on a few pick and rolls, because the Spurs played low and were so terrified of Westbrook bursting into the paint. Pop eventually stopped the bleeding by matching Danny Green onto Russ, but it wasn't for long. Russ made quick work of Green with early attacks, simple screens, and transition play. Eventually, Parker was switched back onto Russ, and Russ had his way with Parker in single coverage for the rest of the game.

On the other side of the ball, Parker stumbled a bit in the limelight. For all intents and purposes, he had Russ' number on offense. But for whatever reason, he had trouble hitting a few easy jumpshots and floaters. His overall percentage wasn't terrible at 42.9, but you felt like he could have done more. Russ was easily getting stuck on a lot of screens, and frequently went to his playground-level behind-the-back steal. Still, the Westbrook-Parker matchup accounted for 21% of the game's shots alone, so I can't really fault either player for spacing out occasionally.

Again, Reggie Jackson was the main difference maker in this game. However, it wasn't in nearly the same way as it was earlier in the season. The Spurs were still reeling from how easily Jackson ran around Patty Mills, so they elected to go big and match a combination of Ginobili, Green, and Bellinelli on Jackson. Jackson couldn't get to the rim as easily, but he was just as effective. He managed to get around screens for easy jumpshots and passes. RJ also spent a good amount of time off the ball, nailing weak-side jumpers and leading the break.

In general, the Thunder cruised to what could be considered a dominant victory. The only real question mark is the impact of Kawhi Leonard's absence, due to dental surgery the previous day. It's easy to discount the presence of a non-original three Spur, especially with how deep their bench is. But Leonard is a serious glue guy, and you can't discount the fact that the Spurs are a lousy 8-8 without him this season. He might not affect any Thunder player directly, but he's excellent at generating momentum and executing timely plays, and that can be key for a team that doesn't rely on talent.

Speaking of talent, the Thunder's own had another throwaway game. Shooting 42% from the field and scoring 17 points isn't bad for a normal player, but it's not exactly KD-level. Worse still, KD was only able to get to the line three times, well below his season average of 9.9 trips per game. He had suffered a similar setback early in the season, so it's pretty apparent what Pop's strategy is. Durant never really noticeably struggles though. He simply becomes more passive, and doesn't go to the hole as much. This only really hurts him when he starts taking bad shots, like late in the third quarter of this game.

In terms of coaching, Brooks and Popovich both made their first real move when they input small lineups during the second quarter. For the most part, Brooks' lineup dominated, as KD really effectively spaced the floor at power forward. Meanwhile, Ibaka and Duncan basically canceled each other out down low, aside from Ibaka's superior interior D. Brooks next move came in the very late third, as he went with a small lineup in the late third and early fourth with Adams. Popovich continued to play Diaw and Duncan, leading to the Thunder making silly drives and the Spurs constantly attacking the paint. San Antonio went on a minor run and Brooks relented, eventually taking control of the game with an effective starter-bench fourth quarter mix.

On a more minor note, Marco Bellinelli was able to give us his best Steven Jackson impersonation and hit four threes in the first half for no reason. Waugh!

Why we won (Via J.A. Sherman):

The Thunder produced 113 points against a top-rated defense despite a) Durant, the NBA's scoring leader, producing only 17 points on the night; b) OKC only got to the FT line 18 times (around 8 fewer than average) and c)  OKC produced only 10 points on the fast break.

On top of that, the Thunder defended the Spurs' interior exceptionally well. While it may not look it given that the Spurs scored 40 points in the paint, take a look at their shot distribution:


The Thunder, led by Serge Ibaka, protected the paint and kept Tim Duncan and company at bay. Early on, it appeared that OKC might be in trouble as Kendrick Perkins picked up 5 fouls in 15 minutes, but the Thunder did not waiver. Rookie Steven Adams played a big role in this regard, grabbing 6 rebounds and blocking 2 shots in 19 minutes of action.

Lastly, Steven Adams nearly rolled up another Kiwi tech, this time against Tiago Splitter. The man has a way with provocation of his foes.

Links: WTLC RecapBox ScorePopcorn MachineWestbrook HighlightsJackson HighlightsBellinelli Highlights

Game 3, January 22nd: Win, 111-105

Storyline: At this point, Russell Westbrook had been gone for a month and the Thunder had found their groove again. They came into this game having won four straight, and left with the best record in the Western Conference. The reason for the Thunder's victory should be obvious by now. Reggie. Freaking. Jackson. He only shot 70% from the floor while scoring 27 points, dishing 8 assists, and stealing it twice. He faced single coverage from either Tony Parker or Cory Joseph the entire game, and could basically get whatever shot he wanted. He was basically going full-speed for the entire game, only really struggling when he ran out of gas at the end of the game and started charging recklessly. Some of the shots Jackson hit in the early fourth were especially gamey, in the midst of a one-on-one scoring battle with Tony Parker.

Still, Jackson doesn't deserve all the credit for the win. Kevin Durant pitched in his best game of the series to date. He was able to get to the line, unlike on the previous occasions, and he didn't have much trouble getting open shots. He definitely faced some energetic defense from Kawhi Leonard early on, but Leonard would leave after the second quarter with a hand injury. As you'd expect, Durant's first half highlights against Leonard are a lot more impressive than his second half highlights against Bellinelli, Joseph, and Parker. As you'd also expect, KD had 8 turnovers in the first half against Leonard, but only 3 in the second half against the committee. Despite the statistical improvement, it feels like KD's game took a decided step down over the course of halftime. He bricked a couple of gimmes, and wasn't as aggressive. Nevertheless, you can't argue with his consistency and timeliness.

On the Spurs end, their hero was Tony Parker. I don't know if he found Reggie Jackson easier to fake out or what, but his game was absolutely insane. A lot of his points came from usual Parker trickery, like running constantly around the court off-ball and drawing ridiculous mismatches. But he had some really legitimate moves against Reggie Jackson too, both taking him directly to the hole and fading away in his face.

But really, I could talk all day about San Antonio's offensive successes in this game. I mean, they finished 53% from the floor and 45% from three. The real problem was their interior D, especially in the fourth. The Thunder were able to hit on 8 of 9 attempts around the rim, and made a pretty serious 5-0 run that put the Thunder in command for the entire quarter. The other big mistake the Spurs made was leaving Parker and Joseph on KD for a couple of critical possessions, allowing KD to get a nearly uncontested three both times. Those two baskets were absolutely killer with a minute to go, and probably ultimately sealed the game for OKC.

So, at the end of the day, we're cheated out on a real result because of Leonard's absence. Luckily, he'd get another shot at us in April....

Minor Addendum (Via J.A. Sherman):

As I was rewatching the final moments of the game, something jumped out at me as Kevin Durant lined up the first of his 2 crunch time 3-pointers. Take a look at this screen shot.


What should strike you is not only what you do see, but what you don't see. The Thunder were in a 2 possession game with 2 minutes left to play, a situation calling for defensive stops if there ever was one, and 2 Thunder defensive specialists were not on the court.

Instead, take a look at what we have: Durant, Ibaka, Jackson, Lamb, and Fisher. All five of these players are competent 3-point shooters. With Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha on the bench, the Spurs have nobody that they can lay off of in order to corral Durant (you could argue that Thabo is a competent shooter as well, but he isn't nearly as likely to let it fly as the 5 guys on the court). They have to stay out on the perimeter and hope that Durant doesn't try to take the ball to the rim. He doesn't; instead he pulls up and drains the 3-pointer, but the personnel is striking, given Brooks' penchant to almost always go defense in situations like this.

This is very similar to the Heat's "5-out" play set. Surround LeBron James with shooters and allow him to either drive to the rim or create spacing to free up one of them. Durant can act in the same way. He could have easily attacked the rim, and any player who opted to help off would have had to leave a shooter wide open. Durant has proven that he can find and hit the open shooter. Even if Durant decided to drive and finish, he would have also had Ibaka rolling to the rim for either a pocket pass or for good offensive rebounding position.

This is a deadly personnel set, and I hope we see more of it.

Links: WTLC RecapBox ScorePopcorn MachineExtended HighlightsJackson HighlightsTP vs. KD Highlights

Game 4, April 3rd: Win, 106-94

Storyline: The last game between these two teams is significant for a lot of reasons. For one, we were seeing the emergence of Caron Butler and the diminished role of Jeremy Lamb, with mixed results. In this particular game, Lamb didn't play at all, and Butler managed to grab a season-high 5 steals. He only shot 1-5 on the floor, but his role in disrupting the Spurs' offense before it could even start was invaluable.

The saga of Reggie Jackson continued, although in less grandiose fashion. He was still a ridiculous 6 of 8 from the floor, and had some critical baskets at the start of the fourth. He was definitely a lot quieter than he was in previous games though, and seemed to be overshadowed by the team's traditional scorers on offense. Jackson also made his mark in transition moreso than in the half-court, so it's possible that he was bothered by bigger defenders. He never hurt the team by any means, though.

Westbrook and Durant, however good their statlines are for this game, definitely lived off of transition. They were great at taking advantage of live ball turnovers, blocks, and long rebounds. It was almost like the Thunder didn't need a real offense at all. Kawhi Leonard did play in this game, so that might help explain why the Spurs D had a serious uptick.

Still, the Spurs simply could not compete with a small lineup. Most of their runs came while some combination of the Thunder's bigs were in. On the other hand, OKC's arguably most successful stretches were when they ran lineups with Ibaka or Collison at center and KD or Butler at power forward.

The big asterisk on the win is Manu Ginobili's absence. He is one of San Antonio's primary scorers, and he chipped in double digits in all three of the other contests between the two teams. Still, he's not a tour-de-force offensively, and he isn't overtly effective defensively, so I'd say that this team was stronger than the Leonardless teams that the Thunder faced in December and January.

Why we won (Via Chris Hanneke):

Just 13 turnovers for the Thunder, compared to 18 for the Spurs. That, along with 49 percent shooting from the field, meant the Thunder used their possessions wisely.

49 percent isn't earth-shattering, but given how well the Spurs were defending for most of the game, particularly Durant, it's a respectable percentage. And it highlights how well the Thunder worked to get good shots and take care of the ball. The Spurs thrive on taking your mistakes and moving in transition to get open looks. So taking care of the ball, as well as getting back in transition when they did miss/turn it over (as mentioned above) put the Thunder is a much easier position to defend.

One other stat that is interesting and shows both how hard the Thunder D had to work, and how difficult it is to guard the Spurs, is in the raw passing numbers. According to the NBA Stats player tracking, the Spurs passed the ball 351 times tonight. The Thunder? Just 210. Was this the Thunder forcing more passes, or the Spurs passing more to make the Thunder have to defend more? It's probably a little bit of both.

Either way, it's no easy task to guard the Spurs, but all of that passing meant least looks at the hoop, and more opportunity for turnovers, both of which worked in the Thunder's favor.

Links: WTLC RecapBox ScorePopcorn MachineExtended HighlightsBBallBreakdown

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 101, San Antonio Spurs 99.

What do you think of tonight's game? Let us know by dropping a comment!