1. Did you see anything in the first round from the Thunder that worries, excites or otherwise interests you heading into this series?
R.K. Anthony: I'll choose "D", all of the above. I'll start with what interests me going into this series.
Enes Kanter. I saw Enes get tougher as the Dallas series progressed. I think he even tried to take a charge when he caught the Anderson knee in the ribs early in the fourth quarter of game 5! Atta KID! What I am interested in knowing is whether Kanter will continue to hold his ground on defense like that. I think if Donovan keep getting Kanter minutes with Nick Collison beside him early in his rotations that he may do just that. Kanter plays better defense when Collison gets him going in the right direction.
What excites me?
Dion Waiters. Com'on Waiter haters, bring it! Once Dion settled in he was brilliant. From day one I have called Dion a caged tiger and that mentality served him well in the first round. It is like as the intensity of the series rose to the intensity Dion brings every day he suddenly looked comfortable and in his element.... and more importantly, he produced.
What worries me?
Kevin Durant. The injury and missing the playoffs last season must have ignited something, the realization of his own mortality perhaps, and he is pressing. While I applaud the new killer instinct I see, I think he is trying to force things rather than letting the game come to him and then releasing the beast. The best thing that could happen has with this 4 day break before the next series starts. Hopefully it will allow KD time to step back and find a way to control this fire burning inside. In the Dallas series Durant took more shots but finished with the lowest PER and TS% of his playoff career. My advice to KD would be to take a breath and trust his teammates. They have his back.
Brandon Jefferson: My worries are two-fold following the five-game series against Dallas. First and foremost, the OKC defense got worse as the series progressed. Game 1 showed what the Thunder are capable of when fully locked in, but in the grand scheme it was only one game. In order to beat the Spurs (and possibly the Warriors) the team will need to prove what they did in Game 1 against an injured Mavericks team was no fluke. San Antonio has always prided itself on ball movement and quick actions on and off the ball. The Thunder will need to be locked in at all times if they want to truly use the leg up they have on the boards and in athleticism and length against the Spurs.
My second worry is the production from Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter. Both were remarkable in the opening series, but can we rely on them to continue to play at a similar level the rest of the postseason? If we could then OKC probably would be the title favorite with Steph Curry hobbled for Golden State. As it stands Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are always going to be two of the best three players on the court in this matchup, yet, without help from their supporting cast their talents will be for naught in this round.
Chris Hanneke: I think the fact that we still saw the No-Point-Guard lineup is most worrisome. The Spurs have plenty of solid defenders that will make life difficult if OKC doesn't have a reliable ball handler. But on the exciting note, Donovan did turn to Cameron Payne in Game 5 and perhaps that was a sign of things to come? We also saw very little Kyle Singler, so it's possible that the high stakes finally broke Donovan into realizing what Thunder fans have known since November - he shouldn't be on the floor. Ever.
Honestly, though, what's most exciting is the fact that Russell Westbrook looks like the point guard we've always hoped he could become. He's controlling the tempo, isn't forcing shots, and getting everybody involved. Serge and Adams had great first rounds, and a lot of that had to do with Westbrook setting them up. Which leads to my biggest worry, which is that San Antonio realizes Westbrook is OKC's biggest weapon and throws Kawhi Leonard on him. In fact, forget I even said anything.
rustybrooks: Kanter makes me want to buy tickets just to watch us beat them in San Antonio with his 30/15. But that's all that excites me this far in the playoffs.
Bennett Berry: Kawhi Leonard worries me. His hands are too big.
2. Let's talk superstars, since, you know, we're being treated to three top-5 players colliding together. How do Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard match up in this series?
Anthony: Russell - The Spurs have no answer for Russell. End of story.
Durant - See above. Durant needs to channel his emotions, stop pressing and trust that Adams, Ibaka, Waiters, etc. have some skill and let them carry some of his load. Being a superstar is a role just like being an enforcer is a role. As a superstar, KD's job is to force the Spurs to put their best defender/defenders on him and to exploit that by getting the ball to his less defended or wide open teammates when the time comes. If he doesn't do that he makes the Spurs job too easy. If he continues to force bad shots the Spurs may even be able to rotate their best defender on to Russell and then it is cancel Christmas.
Kawhi - Speaking of the Spurs best defender, it's Kawhi, not to mention he is their best all around player. I hate to disagree with Durant, but it isn't just the system in San Antonio that makes Kawhi a special player. Funny thing, and very likely it is just an anomaly, but late in the season a chink in his armor may have surfaced. In the Spurs 11 point loss at Golden State and their 4 point win against the Thunder, a game in which KD, Russell, and Serge didn't play, Kawhi shot just .625 from the free throw line. In the game against the Thunder Leonard shot just 1 for 5 from distance and interestingly enough, he was guarded much of the night by Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters.
Jefferson: The Spurs haven't had an answer for Russell Westbrook since he came into the league. At first it was his lack of point guard skills and frequent turnovers that allowed the Spurs to keep him at bay, however, since he's turned the corner as a player there isn't much Gregg Popovich and company have been able to do to slow Russ down. As I say that I know that what might look on paper as an easy advantage can surely become a gift and a curse for OKC. If Russ tries to exploit his mismatch too often it will leave other players (notably KD) out of rhythm and could result in Westbrook having or trying to do everything. If Russ can keep playing like he did against Dallas that could be the biggest factor in the outcome of this series.
As far as Durant is concerned he too as been a thorn in the side of San Antonio since entering the league, but then the Spurs for their mitts (pun intended) on Kawhi Leonard. Leonard almost seems like he was bred in a genetic lab with the sole purpose of his creation being to guard KD. Durant's shooting woes against the Mavericks were a bit overstated in my opinion. The 7-33 game of course helps make it seem like Durant's shot was off, but I think he was simply missing shots he normally hits. In this series that can't be the case. Where he was least effective was from beyond the arc and OKC is going to need him to be a threat from there if they are to open up the hounding defense of San Antonio.
Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the Spurs, but he's probably the second most important piece for San Antonio against the Thunder. Yes he draws the daunting task of trying to slow KD down, but even if he is unable to the Spurs can go score-for-score with OKC all series. Leonard's maturation has meant that less can be counted on from the trio of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. His offensive game is still fairly basic at the moment, but if the Thunder let him get comfortable looks at his spots he could quietly--the same way does just about everything it seems--average 25+ points in the series. The true barometer for OKC's defense will be how it handles LaMarcua Aldridge. Aldridge used to give Serge Ibaka fits when he was in Portland and if he still has his way with Ibaka that could spell real trouble for the Thunder'a chances of reaching the Western Conference Finals.
Hanneke: OK, let's get into that. Traditionally, Kawhi and Durant have mostly just dealt with each other and that has left Westbrook as the odd man out, which meant when he was on, OKC could handle the Spurs, and when he was off, they were in trouble. What was alarming in the Dallas series (and JA Sherman touched on this in our latest podcast) was that Wes Matthews had quite a bit of success guarding KD simply by keeping his body or a hand on him at all times. That's something Danny Green is more than capable of doing, and if the Spurs can get that from Green and use Kawhi on Westbrook, that completely changes the dynamic that has typically worked in OKC's favor.
For OKC, Durant has always done an OK job guarding Kawhi, but as RK points out, Roberson was fantastic guarding him in that final game of the season. Roberson is worthless on offense, so he may as well use his energy slowing down the Spurs biggest offensive weapon while Durant gets an easier assignment to save energy for the other end of the floor.
Lastly, I worry that Aldridge isn't on this list. I actually want to pull a Mark Cuban here and say he isn't a superstar, but I'm afraid that if we do that, he'll be extra motivated and shoot like 75 percent on his annoying midrange jumpers that have no business going in.
rustybrooks: Personally, I do not consider Kawhi a top five player. When 90 percent of your threes are assisted (compared to 50 for WB and KD) all of a sudden it's not that impressive anymore. And that's precisely my point. He can post up but I doubt he can create anything on the perimeter scary enough to match what KD and WB produce there.
Berry: I'm more confident in Westbrook vs. Kawhi than KD vs. Kawhi, but he's capable of taking either guy out of the game. Doesn't mean that's going to happen, but it's a concern.
3. Name a hidden player on either team that could change the complexion of this series.
Anthony: For the Thunder I think that player is Nick Collison. I really want to see him on the floor early in Kanter's rotations to kick Enes' defense in gear and Collison is more rested than he has been in years going into these playoffs. He won't stuff the stat sheet, but Collison's presence on the floor will be a plus if for no other reason than helping to steady the ship.
For the Spurs I worry about Patty Mills. Not Mills so much as Foye's inability to stop him from breaking down the defense. If Mills can get into the paint the bench will struggle.
Jefferson: Cameron Payne. My love and affection for him goes deeper than any choreographed pre game dance/handshake routine. As I wrote earlier for WTLC, Payne gives the Thunder a potential third ball handler at the end of games. If Billy Donovan has enough trust to put the ball in his hands late and have both Russ and KD playing off the ball will be a huge wrench to throw at the Spurs who, like the rest of us, assume the ball won't be in anyone else's hands besides KD and Westbrook with the game on the line. Payne is a capable scorer who has the talent to take advantage of Parker's defensive defeciencies, but will he have the poise to bring his A game to the playoffs after spot playing time throughout his rookie campaign.
Hanneke: Cam Payne for OKC, for all the reasons Brandon pointed out, and I'd say the Patty Mills/Boris Diaw combo for the Spurs. That duo was gigantic against the Thunder in 2014, and it was those minutes off the bench when they were going against Derek Fisher that really swung the series. The Thunder needs to have an answer off the bench, particularly for Diaw, because his dynamic skillset poses problems, especially if OKC wants to use the 'Stache Bros together as they did for stretches against Dallas.
rustybrooks: Andre Roberson hitting threes and Boris Diaw playing well in a small lineup with him at center is somewhat of a bellwether for this series.
Berry: Dion Waiters, but I'm not sure if you could call him "hidden" at this point.
4. What song does Kawhi listen to after losses?
Anthony: Eiffel 65's "I'm Blue"
Jefferson: White Noise. Not the song by Disclosure, but actual taped white noise of an empty room.
Hanneke: "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls. The Goo Goo Dolls are a vanilla band that no one can possibly hate because they're so vanilla, but at the same time no one is broadcasting their fandom of the Goo Goo Dolls because they're so vanilla. Which I feel like suits Kawhi perfectly. Plus, I don't think Kawhi wants the world to see him when he loses, because I don't think they'd understand.
rustybrooks: Lady Marmalade - The kitchy kitchy ya ya song
5. Make your series prediction.
Anthony: I think the Spurs will struggle containing the Thunder's speed and if the ball movement we saw in round one continues I say the Thunder take this one in 6 games.
Jefferson: As much as I want to type "OKC in ..." I just think the Spurs have just enough to withstand the Thunder in a long back-and-forth thrilling series. Spurs in 7.
Hanneke: I'm actually so confident in the Thunder right now that it scares me. It's probably blatant homerism, but I genuinely think that OKC could win this thing in 5. With Curry hobbled, nothing is for sure, and OKC suddenly has a real shot at this thing. But it also won't be easy, which it never should be for a championship team. If Durant and Westbrook are ever going to win a title, this is the perfect opportunity to prove themselves.
The Spurs are really good at home, though, mostly because their fans whine a lot so the refs get shaky (did I say that out loud?), so I think OKC in 5 is a tad aggressive. I'll take OKC in 6.
rustybrooks: Thunder in six.
Berry: Spurs in 7.