|2014 NBA Playoffs, Western Conference Finals|
|May 29th, 2014|
|The American Telephone and Telegraph Center, San Antonio, Texas|
|8:00 PM Central Daylight Time|
|TV: Turner Network Television|
|Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM/640 AM), NewsRadio 1200 WOAI|
|Injury Report: All players are expected to be ready to play.|
|Previous Matchups: Game 1 (L 105-122), Game 2 (L 77-112), Game 3 (W 106-97), Game 4 (W 105-92)|
|Russell Westbrook||PG||Tony Parker|
|Reggie Jackson||SG||Manu Ginobili|
|Kevin Durant||SF||Kawhi Leonard|
|Serge Ibaka||PF||Tim Duncan|
|Kendrick Perkins||C||Tiago Splitter|
With the script of this series firmly planted in 2012, it's hard to imagine the Spurs winning Game 5. I mean, it's destiny that the Thunder sweep them, right?
Back over here in reality, I don't believe any of the hype. Really, the Spurs are completely capable of coming back and taking this series. The easiest way for them to do it would be by spacing the floor, as highlighted in a recent BBallBreakdown by Coach Nick. As long as their bigs (Timmy D, Splitter, and Diaw) can consistently hit their jumpers, the Spurs can effectively erase the effect that Ibaka has on their team. Those three have largely failed to deliver over the last two games, which explains a lot of what's happened. Boris Diaw picked up his performance in garbage time of Game 4 though. So he may well start over Tiago Splitter, who has been nothing short of atrocious against the Thunder's starting front line.
Still, even if the Spurs do an effective job of spacing the floor, there's one thing that they cant account for: The Thunder's athleticism. It's no coincidence that the grounded Sefolosha hasn't played in two games, and that the older Nick Collison didn't get in until the bitter end of the third quarter. It's not that they're horrible, it's just that the Thunder work so much better when they can get live-ball turnovers. It's how OKC can win games against a Spurs defense that really stagnates them in half-court sets half of the time, and it's how they won both Game 4 and the fourth regular season matchup. As long as Scott Brooks can go small, go athletic, and have Ibaka at center, the Spurs are generally toast.
That being said, the Spurs have their own counter to the Thunder's athleticism. For one thing, they have the ability to post up and score when the Thunder go small, which has happened a lot. For another thing, the Spurs can draw mismatches very easily, even when both teams are playing traditionally. Their offense moves the ball a ton, and the Thunder love to switch defenders, so it's just the nature of our matchup. The last response I'd say the Spurs have to the Thunder's athleticism is the corner three. Under the current Thunder strategy, the team concentrates on locking down the paint, locking down the top of the perimeter and the wings of the perimeter, and forcing a bunch of turnovers. But even on this strategy's best day, the Thunder generally do a poor job of defending the mid-range shot and defending the corner three. OKC defending the mid-range poorly mostly has to do with big men, but they defend the corner three poorly simply because they tend to concentrate on the strong side of the ball, and are always concerned about the pick and roll. The proof is in the pudding over the last two games, as the Spurs have shot 7-13 from the corners (not including the called off Patty Mills three in Game 3).
Kendrick Perkins, however forgotten he may have been, was key to the Thunder's Game 4 victory. His help defense was at a higher level than it's been all year, and he was unusually active on the boards. I really don't know what managed to power his motor, but I wouldn't expect him to continue playing at this pace. His Game 3 contributions were downright awful, and he very nearly killed the Thunder's momentum during rough stretches of the first and third of that game. Still, I wouldn't bee too quick to blame Perk. The Spurs see him as the Thunder's weak link on several possessions, and routinely challenge him to move outside his comfort zone and challenge faraway shots. Hopefully, he can replicate his Game 4 performance in Game 5. If not, there's always Nick Collison.
The Kawhi Leonard-Kevin Durant matchup has been a doozy, even though its' sat behind a ton of other storylines in terms of significance. Game 4 was probably KD's most successful game against Kawhi, as he was able to get a number of points against him in half-court sets. Then again, Kawhi was able to get free of KD for two threes early on in Game 4, he always offensively produces on some level, and he contributes really effectively as a Draymond Green-like glue guy. Leonard has seen his offensive game hit the tank since the team left San Antonio though. It's mostly been a result of him having to do too much against a defender in single coverage, rather than working withing the flow of the Spurs offense. I'd expect him to have a better day from the floor if the Spurs can space the floor better, but he'll be far more key in countering the Thunder's athleticism and energy. Meanwhile, KD will continue to be the Thunder's offensive rock, and how Leonard counters him at important times will be key.
The elephant in the room right now is Serge Ibaka's injury. Ibaka wasn't noticeably worse or hampered in Game 4, though he did make less of an offensive impact. Still, that calf is probably a long way from completely healed, and it's likely that we'll see this injury rear its ugly head at some point. Hopefully, Ibaka heals quickly and we never heave to hear about it again.
No one can really predict how far this series is going to go, but it's hard to argue that this game is probably going to be the one that decides who's going to the Finals. Ibaka's return has propelled the Thunder to comfortably beat the Spurs on two straight occasions, and it's hard to see the Spurs coming back from three straight losses to win in OKC. Especially considering their track record. Then again, the Spurs did manage to grab some momentum at the end of Game 4, and a win here would solidify them as a team that can produce when it matters. These teams are too explosive, too capable of blowing each other out. Something's going to give.
And it's going to give tonight.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 103, San Antonio Spurs 97.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!