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Game 1 Preview: Thunder-Spurs is the only series to watch

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A look back at the regular season series, and potential playoff X-Factors.

It's ours, Tony!
It's ours, Tony!
W. Bennett Berry

The NBA Finals might as well be right now, in the second round. Devastating injuries to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Stephen Curry have shaken the balance of power in the West. The Clippers have already been eliminated, and the Warriors are looking weak. Even LeBron's Cavaliers were playing close games to the lowly Pistons out East.

To most NBA fans, it's clear- The Thunder and the Spurs are the two strongest teams left in the NBA Playoffs. Whomever wins this series will be the odds-on favorite to be the 2016 NBA Champions. It's probably the best chance the Thunder have ever had to pull something like this off. The stars are healthy, the bench is developed, and the new coach knows how to play chess.

There's even a great series history to look back upon. The Thunder and Spurs met in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. OKC lost the first two games of that series on the road. But some great play from James Harden and defensive adjustments by Scott Brooks allowed the Thunder to sweep the next four games. The Thunder and Spurs also met in the 2014 Western Conference Finals. Ibaka was out with injury, and the Thunder lost their first two games on the road. But Ibaka returned in Games 3 and 4 to inspire Thunder home wins. The Spurs re-adjusted, playing a stretch four against Ibaka and attacking the basket. San Antonio won Games 5 and 6 this way, moving on to become 2014 NBA Champions.

This season, the Thunder and Spurs are 2-2 against each other. The Thunder won the opening game in dramatic fashion, with Westbrook nailing a clutch three that sealed OKC's victory. But that was all the way back on October 29th. OKC was manhandled on March 12th, with neither Westbrook nor Durant showing effectiveness. Then, Popovich rested his starters against OKC on March 26th. Predictably, the Thunder won. But the Thunder rested their starters against the Spurs on April 12th. And OKC's B-Team actually came close to capturing a victory.

Anyway, that leaves us with two usable games from the regular season to look at. Let's see what we can learn from those matchups:

The regular season games, and what they mean for the playoffs

Oct 29, W 112-106

In a game that saw neither team lead by more than 10 points, the Thunder were able to shoot their way to victory over the Spurs, 112-106. Russell Westbrook led all scorers with 33 points on an extremely efficient 12-23 from the field. The post-up game was responsible for Westbrook's success early. Later on, Russ was mainly scoring via the pick and roll game. Durant wasn't far behind, scoring 22 points of his own. Durant had a lot of trouble evading Kawhi Leonard the entire game, but was still able to get some shots in.

Leonard, on the other hand, was dominating KD all game. KD was too slow to guard Leonard around screens, and Kawhi was able to get whatever shot he wanted. Leonard also got KD backpedaling in transition quite a bit, and it was apparent that Leonard's stamina was superior. The Spurs also had a great game off the bench from Manu Ginobili, who spaced the floor and worked off the ball for 11 points.

This doesn't sound that far off from what we might see in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is probably KD's equal in a lot of areas, and they have similar games. Both Leonard and KD have extraordinarily long wingspans. Normally defenders have a hard time bothering either player, but when they go head to head it's easy to see one succeed defensively. My best guess is that Kawhi and KD are going to succeed when one or the other has a hot shooting night. KD will find his shots no matter what, and KD is lazy enough on the perimeter to let Kawhi take a couple open ones.

On the other hand, I don't expect Russell Westbrook to have many problems. Westbrook, if he's ever matched up with Parker or Joseph, will go immediately to the post-up. I'm expecting Danny Green and Manu Ginobili to match up with Westbrook most of the time. Their length will give Westbrook problems when he tries to attack the rim. But Westbrook has the advantage of his pull up jumper around screens. On nights where that jumper starts to go in, there won't be much that the Spurs can do.  Also, Westbrook will be able to get to the rim occasionally. Tim Duncan is a good rim protector, but is ultimately still a power forward.

More from Oct. 29th-

The first half of this game saw Billy Donovan use the same lineups that Scott Brooks might have run. Adams and Kanter traded time at center, while Ibaka and Collison traded time at power forward. But at halftime, the Thunder were down four. Donovan made a few changes that would help the Thunder win the game.

First of all, Donovan decided to run with Ibaka and Collison together at center and power forward. This happened with about 8 minutes to go in the third. That lineup forced eight straight empty Spur possessions right out of the gate, largely thanks to the interior D of Ibaka and Collison. Then, Donovan decided to play Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together for 8 minutes of the third and fourth quarters. The Adams-Kanter lineup ran a lot of HORNS, and went on a 9-3 run to start the fourth quarter. Interestingly, Donovan didn't run this lineup during the Pre-Season at all.

But Coach Donovan saved his best for last. For the last 5:26 of the game, Donovan went with the starters, minus Andre Roberson and plus Dion Waiters. The inclusion of Waiters turned out to be absolutely crucial. Dion hit two back-to-back mid-range jumpers during the last 2:11 of the game. Both shots were tough, with one contested around a screen and the other being a fadeaway on Parker. But Waiters shot them with confidence, and made the Spurs pay for forgetting about the shooting guard position.

After this game, we didn't see very much of the Ibaka/Collison lineup at all. This is mostly due to the emergence of Enes Kanter, who has become a better scorer than we all might have imagined. But I would like to see many minutes for Nick Collison. Stopping David West off the bench will be a priority. Also, I wouldn't mind seeing Ibaka take on Duncan at center occasionally. But I'm doubting it happens often in this series, because Marjanovic could overpower Ibaka easily at center. Marjanovic was less of an option back on October 29th.

Obviously, expect to see a lot of Waiters playing with the starters towards the end of the game. Waiters has proven to be an extremely reliable complimentary player during these playoffs. During the first round, Waiters shot 40% from three. Furthermore, Waiters has been involved in the offense during clutch plays in the past, and has played a large part in winning games. Roberson might get clutch time to counter Ginobili. But Ginobili will likely only be a huge factor for one or two games.

More from Oct. 29th-

It was a really crazy day for Serge Ibaka. Things started off rather terribly on the offensive end. Ibaka missed three straight wide open jumpers, and lost the ball off his foot when trying to back down Kawhi Leonard. Things finally got going with a pick and pop in the last first, followed by another in the second quarter. But Ibaka was very passive during the latter part of the second half in general, and got blocked on a jumper by Boris Diaw.

Then, Ibaka had an offensive explosion to begin the third quarter. Six points in the first five minutes, all of which came from spacing the floor. But after the 6:31 mark in the third, Ibaka didn't take a single shot for the rest of the game. That's roughly 9 minutes Ibaka spent on the floor with zero offensive impact. But, hay, I'm not complaining. Ibaka grabbed an extremely key offensive board on a missed Kevin Durant three with 57 seconds to go, and dished it to Westbrook for the game sealing three.

I'm putting this here to remind everyone of just how inconsistent Serge Ibaka has been this season in terms of involvement. Ibaka used to have problems with his shot. But Ibaka's form appears to be refined at this point. These days, the most important thing is giving Ibaka opportunities in the first place. Ibaka will rarely call for the ball, and can fall by the wayside on offense. It will be Westbrook's responsibility to keep Ibaka involved. If Russ gets too shot happy, I can see that becoming a problem.

Mar 12, L 85-93

That's not to say that the Thunder put themselves in a position to win, either. Without Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder were -7 overall. There's nothing wrong with the bench lineup defensively, it's just that the no-Westbrook lineups have such a hard time moving the ball on offense. No one can get space. Also, our bench wings are notoriously unreliable. Singler 0 of 5 on mostly open threes, Foye 1 of 4 overall. Morrow didn't even get minutes, save for a cameo after the game had ended.

Still, I can't just brush the blame off OKC's stars entirely. Russell Westbrook was 4 of 12 in the paint today, well below his averages. The Spurs knew all of his tricks, and it's disheartening that Westbrook didn't try a single mid-range cotton shot. Durant was 0 of 5 from three today, and that's crushing. KD is normally the backbone of this team's three point shooting.

On the positive side, Durant was solid from two. Discounting the threes, KD was 11 of 20. There were transition opportunities for KD, as well as post ups and set plays. What generally didn't work was when KD tried to post Kawhi, and Leonard's D was appropriately tough.

This is the grim reality of the Thunder's matchup with the Spurs. Westbrook makes or breaks the team, because the Thunder simply haven't been able to find a reliable backup point guard. To Donovan's credit, he was able to find a solution at backup PG that doesn't hurt the team too much. Randy Foye can be an effective game manager, simply putting the ball in the right places and making sure it doesn't get stolen. But Foye was largely a dud in the first round, showcasing no offensive capability beyond hitting the occasional three.

The Spurs do have defensive weaknesses that can be exploited, even if you have a superstar like Westbrook. But none of the weaknesses are likely to be exploited. LaMarcus Aldridge and David West are bad at defense. But the Thunder will often match up Ibaka and Collison, both of whom have no ability to generate their own shot. Parker is a small point guard, but he'll be hidden on Roberson or Waiters defensively. And the Spurs will sometimes not play a backup center, opening the way for Kanter. But Kanter will be Westbrookless half the time, and can be countered with doses of Marjanovic.

One potential tactic I could see Donovan trying to use is going small, with Singler or KD. The Thunder could space the floor and render Aldridge and West useless. But this is a huge gamble, because Aldridge will likely make you pay every single time on the other end.

Anyway, Westbrook will need to continue to go to his jumper if he wants to be effective. On the nights where Westbrook goes paint-only from two, it's going to be hard to win. For that matter, it will be hard to win when Westbrook takes too many threes. KD will need to work to get looks in transition and off of screens. Generally speaking, the Thunder are a team that needs their long two game to open up their game from three.


Players who could swing the balance of power

1. Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has two extremely important tasks. The first is to slow down LaMarcus Aldridge. The second task is to be a regular pick and pop threat, and hit all of his open jumpers. Arguably, the Spurs are the matchup that will make Ibaka work the most.

2. Nick Collison. David West is the lynchpin of the Spurs' bench. West is good enough to start on most teams in this league, and makes his name almost exclusively as a scorer. If you go small on West, he'll post you up. If you go big on West, he'll cash the mid-range jumpers. So it's very important for Nick Collison to get in the game and play his trademark physical defense. Hopefully the physicality can throw West off of his game. Also, if Kyle Singler gets any time against West, I'll probably cry.

3. Dion Waiters. The Spurs are going to try to hide their point guards at the shooting guard spot. Guarding Westbrook is the main priority. So I'd really love to see Dion get involved in some off-ball movement. Open shots from the corner are nice, and spacing the floor in transition is also nice. But I'd really like to see more of those Dion drives that get him going with momentum. The Spurs PGs won't be able to stop him. If things play out right, I could see Dion pulling off a couple 15+ point nights this series.


Final Thoughts

It's going to be incredibly hard for the Thunder to win against such a fully stocked team. OKC will need major contributions from players that aren't often called upon, like Ibaka, Waiters, and Kanter. Adams will have to stay out of foul trouble. KD will have to equal Leonard. And Westbrook will have to use the breadth of his game. But this task, while extremely difficult, is certainly not impossible. The Thunder have the best two players on the floor, hands down. And when this Thunder team is playing at their best, they're virtually impossible to stop.

Easier said than done, but I really think that this year is the year for OKC. There's been too much tragedy and camaraderie within this team for the run to end now.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 99, San Antonio Spurs 98. Thunder in 6!

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

2015-16 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semi-Finals Game 1
(Thunder Won Previous Series 4-1)

(Spurs Won Previous Series 4-0)
April 30th, 2016
The American Telephone and Telegraph Center, San Antonio, Texas
7:30 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: Turner Network Television
Injury Report: Enes Kanter (Probable), Mitch McGary (Questionable), Nazr Mohammed (Questionable), Kevin Martin (Probable)
The Thunder First Round: Game 1Game 2Game 3Game 4Game 5
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Tony Parker
Andre Roberson SG Danny Green
Kevin Durant SF Kawhi Leonard
Serge Ibaka PF LaMarcus Aldridge
Steven Adams C Tim Duncan