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Preview: Westbrook is key in late season Thunder-Spurs clash

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Kawhi=KD. But no one =Westbrook.

Holy Basketballs, Batman!
Holy Basketballs, Batman!
W. Bennett Berry

The San Antonio Spurs, having picked up LaMarcus Aldridge and Davis West in the off-season, are cruising to the highest win total in franchise history. With 11 games left in the season and just four more wins required to set that record, it would require a complete collapse for the Spurs to fall short of a historic mark at this point.

Yet, the Spurs still sit four losses behind the Golden State Warriors, who could be on their way to the most successful regular season of all time. The Thunder, meanwhile, sit in a comfortable third. OKC is 11 losses behind San Antonio, and 5 losses ahead of the fifth place Clippers. Both margins are near insurmountable.

With both teams' fates virtually sealed, it's valid to question how much this late-season game means. Both clubs are full of playoff experience, and have stars that are out of their early 20s. They know that this game won't count for much in the grand scheme of things.

Nevertheless, a win for the Thunder here would be a huge statement. It would put OKC up 2-1 on San Antonio for the season. In other words, the Thunder would be the only team in the league that has a winning record against the Spurs. With the Thunder and Spurs almost destined to meet in the second round, that kind of morale boost would be huge.

How can the Thunder beat the Spurs?

The answer seems to lie in Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant has had successful nights against the Spurs overall, but Kawhi Leonard can shut down KD when it matters. Russell Westbrook has no defensive equal though. Popovich will cross-match his wings, like Green and Ginobili, to slow Westbrook down. Parker and Mills will even get some time against Westbrook. But none of them are consistently effective at stopping Russ.

Here's how Westbrook was able to tear through the Spurs defense back at the start of the season. From my recap of the Thunder's October 28th win:

By and large, Westbrook took what the defense gave him tonight. I mean, Westbrook took four threes off the dribble during the first quarter, just because the Spurs were giving him space. Russ also dared to shoot a couple of floaters during the first half, despite the fact that floaters aren't a regular part of his game. And any time Westbrook could draw a matchup with Parker, Russ went right into post-up mode.

But by the second half, Westbrook was focusing much more on his pick and roll game. Russ spent different plays working with Adams, Kanter, and Ibaka. As a result, Westbrook became more focused on his passing. Five of Westbrook's 10 assists came during the third quarter. Interestingly, Westbrook didn't enter the fourth quarter until there was 7:20 left in the game. Russ immediately attacked the paint with success, and deferred to KD and Dion late.

Towards the end of the game, Westbrook had to rely on his teammates. But Westbrook is still effective at creating the offensive opportunities for them, and simply needs his teammates to execute. So when their teammates' don't step up, like on March 12th, bad things will happen. From my recap of that loss:

It's a bit unfair to say the Thunder really had an advantage this time. OKC's biggest fourth quarter lead was 4, with 9:57 to go. San Antonio took the lead with 8 minutes to go, and never really looked back. Despite OKC's starters playing a generally effective game up to that point, the offense just stopped in the fourth quarter. There was hardly any more off ball movement, and everything became a simple pick play. The Spurs were prepared to stop the easy stuff, and OKC didn't give themselves any other options.

Let me explain it this way. In the fourth quarter, Westbrook was 0 of 4 with 1 assist and 2 turnovers. Durant was 4 of 7, with 0 assists and 3 turnovers. But for the first through third quarters, Westbrook was 5 of 12 with 6 assists and 7 turnovers, while KD was 7 of 18 with 8 assists and no turnovers. Taken on the whole, Westbrook and Durant were mediocre during the first through third quarters, but horrible in the fourth quarter. That's not by coincidence.

It's fair to say that the Thunder were dealing with some major lineup problems at that time. OKC was still trying to run Kevin Durant at point guard, and wasn't giving any minutes to Payne. Now that Payne is in the lineup and can take some of the load off of KD earlier on, the late game may be easier for the Thunder's stars.

Who steps up?

Dion Waiters has been a really positive presence for the Thunder over the past three games. Waiters has shown effectiveness from three point range, in transition, and when looking for the steal on defense. Even Dion's mid-range shot has been going down. I'm not sure if this consistent success will continue, but Waiters has definitely looked inspired in his play since the death of his brother. With Waiters slated to go against the older Ginobili, tonight is a prime opportunity for him to cash in a good performance.

Enes Kanter is the Thunder's sometimes third option, but he'll probably be down the list of priorities today. The Spurs can run Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, or even Boban Marjanovic off the bench. None of these guys are defensive world beaters, but they can do an effective job of keeping Kanter away from the rim. Also, the Spurs will always do their best to get Kanter in mismatches on the other end.

Serge Ibaka will play his usual role offensively, but will focus more on wrapping up LaMarcus Aldridge defensively. Cameron Payne could be a solid offensive contributor, because I think the Spurs will give him space to account for other players. It will really depend on Payne's ability to hit long-range shots off the dribble. Traditionally, he hasn't been that good in that area. Foye should see some opportunity, but the Spur defense is likely to respect his shot.

So really, we're back to where we started. Hopefully Dion can step up.

How will tonight's game go?

I'm envisioning big performances from KD, Westbrook, Aldridge, and Leonard. Obviously those are the superstars from both teams, but I don't see either team forcing one of the superstars into a bad night overall.

Whether the Thunder win really depends on their defensive effectiveness. Adams will be doing his best to protect the paint and not foul. Hopefully Tim Duncan doesn't draw Adams out too much with his mid-range game. Collison will likely be in to mitigate the effects of David West off of the bench. Waiters will have to deal with the wily Ginobili around screens. It's kind of a sheepish answer, but I really think the defensive performance of those three will have a big effect. Normally I'd talk about Ibaka, but he's looking really tired and I have a hard time seeing him slow down LaMarcus Aldridge at this point. Ibaka will keep Aldridge honest for sure though.

Then again, maybe the Spurs sit Duncan, Parker, and Manu. It would be be very....Popovichian. It would also make a Thunder win a lot more meaningless. And it would also make a potential Thunder loss all the more meaningful.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 100, San Antonio Spurs 98.

What are your thoughts on tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!

2015-16 NBA Season Game 73
@
60-11
(Won 1)

50-22
(Won 6)
March 26th, 2016
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
7:00 PM Central Standard Time
TV: National Basketball Association Television, Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Southwest
Injury Report: Kyle Singler (Questionable), Kawhi Leonard (Questionable)
This Season's Matchups: Oct 28 (W 112-106), Mar 12 (L 85-93)
Probable Starters
Tony Parker PG Russell Westbrook
Danny Green SG Andre Roberson
Kawhi Leonard SF Kevin Durant
LaMarcus Aldridge PF Serge Ibaka
Tim Duncan C Steven Adams