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Sizzlin, Leonard-led Spurs sight outrageous Thunder

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Lineup problems are killing OKC, and that spells doom against the silver and black.

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THAT'S THUNDER DEFENSE!!!!
THAT'S THUNDER DEFENSE!!!!
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder continue their end of season grind tonight when they see the Spurs. These two teams couldn't be more starkly contrasted right now. The Spurs have been red-hot ever since coming home from their annual Rodeo road trip in February, while the Thunder are dealing with a slog of injuries. In terms of pure numbers, the Spurs are 17-3 over their last 20, while the Thunder are 10-10. In other words, even though these two teams are only 9 games apart in the standings, they might as well be miles apart in terms of where their play is at.

Kawhi's Rise

The Spurs are known for flipping the switch late in the season. But it's not easy to do that, and Kawhi Leonard deserves all the credit for getting the Spurs in gear this year. Check out Kyle Carpenter's description of Leonard's play from a recent Warriors recap over at Pounding the Rock:

Going back to February 25th, Kawhi had averaged 18.7 points on ~53 FG%, 7.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.6 steals, and 1 bpg. The steals and blocks are an indicator of his strong defensive play, but to truly understand how dominant he's been, you have to watch. One quantifiable example however: the Warriors had an offensive efficiency rate of 98.8 in his 24 minutes on the floor, an unfathomable 11.1 point drop from the league-best 109.9 they average.

He opened the game by outscoring the Warriors while on the floor in the first quarter and put up one of the most incredible statlines I have ever seen in 24 minutes: 26/5/3/7 steals/0 turnovers! The 7 steals in 24 minutes is mind-boggling in it's own right, but 4 of them directly involved MVP-favorite and "best ball handler in the league" Steph Curry.

The Thunder have had no such defensive force on their team. It's crazy, because the Thunder boasted one of the best defensive teams in the league very early in the season. But OKC's rotation has been a revolving door of injuries and transactions since then. Furthermore, the Thunder's three best defensive players (Ibaka, Collison, Roberson) have all been out with injury since March 20th. As such, OKC will have no choice but to try to outscore San Antonio tonight.

OKC's Lineup Problems

But it's hard for OKC to outscore anybody when their lineup situation is so dire. All four of the Thunder's currently injured players have been taken out of the middle of the rotation. Furthermore, the Thunder happen to have two very strong players at both the point guard and center position. So it's almost a necessity that OKC plays a good portion of the game with two centers, and another good portion of the game with two point guards. And when that isn't happening, the Thunder are likely playing with two scoring specialists, Morrow and Waiters, on the wings.

Scott Brooks has searched far and wide for answers, having played 68 different lineups in the past 9 games. But it's really hard to account for the problem I've described above. Playing two centers sacrifices speed. Playing two point guards sacrifices size. Playing Kanter alone at center sacrifices defense. Playing McGary at any point is a huge gamble. And it's really hard to tell if Waiters, Augustin, or Singler are going to produce on offense on any given night, because they're given too much responsibility. So they all have to be accounted for, and only contribute to OKC's lineup confusion.

Last Time was a Spurs blowout, ugh

In any case, these teams played each other two weeks ago, basically. The Spurs destroyed the Thunder because they're a very utilitarian team that can exploit weak lineups with ease. San Antonio won the last game with a torrent of good shooting, but I'd expect Scott Brooks to try and protect the paint anyway. This will likely lead to the Spurs getting a lot of mismatches and open shots.

On the offensive end, expect Russell Westbrook to be cross-matched by a Spur shooting guard for a good portion of the game. Also expect the Spurs to take full advantage of any Westbrook turnover, as they always seem to do. Still, the Thunder have a fighting chance of keeping this competitive on the offensive end. Even in the throes of the blowout two weeks ago, OKC was still shooting over 40% and staying competitive on the boards. If the Thunder offense got hot while San Antonio lost rhythm, you never know....

Prediction: San Antonio Spurs 121, Oklahoma City Thunder 105.

What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2014-15 NBA Season Game 78
@
51-26
(Won 7)

42-35
(Lost 3)
April 7th, 2015
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: Turner Network Television
Injury Report: Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Tiago Splitter (Out), Andre Roberson (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: Dec 25 (W 114-106), Mar 25 (L 91-130)
Probable Starters
Tony Parker PG Russell Westbrook
Danny Green SG Dion Waiters
Kawhi Leonard SF Kyle Singler
Matt Bonner PF Enes Kanter
Tim Duncan C Steven Adams

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