With breaks and strains changing one side of the Western Conference playoff bracket, all eyes are now on the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, two teams who have a history as well as a big brother-little brother relationship.
To get ready for this series, let us take a look at the key aspects and match-ups that will impact the final outcome.
Keys for the Thunder
1. Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard/Danny Green & Russell Westbrook vs. Kawhi Leonard/Danny Green
Durant might take the assignment of guarding Leonard himself. We’ll probably see Andre Roberson, Dion Waiters and even Kyle Singler (sigh) on him for short spurts. But Durant is interested in reaffirming his claim atop the NBA pecking order. This is an opportunity to do so by guarding and possibly outplaying Leonard. Not to say he will, but I think he’s determined to do so.
At the other end, I think Leonard will primarily get the Durant assignment, but don’t be surprised if he guards Westbrook some, while Gregg Popovich shifts Green onto Durant. Also, a little more fuel to the fire should come with the announcing of the MVP award and Leonard most likely finishing ahead of Durant and Westbrook.
2. Durant and/or Westbrook have a monster series
Durant didn’t have the best series against the Mavericks. He didn’t shoot the ball well and he never entirely found his rhythm. It doesn’t get any easier for Durant with the back-to-back defensive player of the year standing in his way.
Durant and Westbrook are perhaps the league’s most overpowering force, but Leonard is a rare exception in slowing down that force. But Leonard can’t guard both of them at once (at least I don't think he can), so whoever Leonard isn’t guarding has to make their impact for the Thunder offense.
Durant and Westbrook will get 6-9 more minutes per night, which lessens the Thunder’s depth disadvantage. And while the OKC franchise sways on Durant’s free agency, an early elimination could start a domino effect. So look for the two to come with ferocious energy, which their teammates typically respond to. A 40-point outburst from Durant or a triple-double from Westbrook could win a game for the Thunder.
3. Good Minutes from the three big man rotation
Look for Billy Donovan to go with a three big man rotation, excluding Nick Collison, giving the 96 available frontcourt minutes to Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter. Each player should get get around 32 minutes each, give or take a few on any given night depending on how they’re playing. This won't be a chippy series as it was against Dallas, but I'd expect to see some back-and-forth between Adams/Kanter and David West.
4. Steven Adams vs. LaMarcus Aldridge/Tim Duncan
The Thunder put Adams on Dirk Nowitzki in the first round and it worked to some degree, so maybe Donovan tries him on Aldridge. This may be necessary if Aldridge has a strong series and utilizes his mid-range shooting against Ibaka. However, it’s important for Adams to stay out of foul trouble, especially if they want to play a three big man rotation. Adams is big and strong and can frustrate and wear out Aldridge with his physicality, which is critical for OKC's chances. Adlridge's biggest weakness is that if you are physical with him early, he wears down in 4th quarters. Adams' strength may be enough in the first 3 quarters to take Aldridge out of the equation.
5. Serge Ibaka vs. LaMarcus Aldridge/Tim Duncan
Ibaka was excellent against the Mavericks up until Game 5. He was back to shooting the ball well and his defense was up to his standard. But he’s always been important against the Spurs. They need the guy they got in games 1-4 against the Mavericks, not the lethargic looking guy who was around most of the season.
How important is Ibaka in this series? San Antonio outscored OKC by 14.6 per 100 possessions without Ibaka on the floor and OKC outscored San Antonio by 18.3 with him on. Just like Ibaka was important in the Western Conference Finals series against the Spurs in 2012 and 2014, he’s still just as important in 2016.
6. Enes Kanter vs. David West/Boris Diaw
Kanter’s entering the Thunder’s series vs. the Spurs coming off a stellar performance in his first real playoff series against the Mavericks. In Oklahoma City’s five games, Kanter averaged 15.2 points per game and shot 70.2 percent from the field. He completely dominated in the fourth quarter at Dallas in Game 4 where he finished with 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting.
Kanter could be a big matchup problem for the Spurs. He’s still a bad defensive player, but he always seems to be productive on offense. He gets to take advantage of backups in the post and benefits from the attention defenses have to pay on Durant and Westbrook when he plays alongside them.
The 23-year-old is a beast on the boards and has a chance to make the Spurs pay for playing Diaw and West together.
The Spurs do have a trio of bigs they can throw at Kanter. But if Kanter can hurt the Spurs on the boards and with his inside scoring more than they take advantage of him on defense, he will be a big-time weapon for the Thunder.
7. Dion Waiters vs. Tony Parker/Patty Mills
The sheer thought of counting on Waiters to be productive probably makes Thunder fans cringe. But if Waiters can play as he did in the Mavericks series, things become much more settling for Thunder fans.
The Mavericks are not the Spurs, but the five games of Oklahoma City’s first round series were some of the best basketball Waiters has played in his career. In just over 26 minutes per game, Waiters averaged 11.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He made 10-of-25 three-pointers, and attempted just three long two-pointers the entire series. Those numbers represent a tremendous step forward for Waiters in the first playoff series of his young career.
If he can have a the same performance, he could give the Thunder more options offensively and make the Spurs pay for hiding Parker on him when Green and Leonard are focused on defending Westbrook and Durant.
We’ve seen how devastating the Thunder can be. When at their best, the Thunder score in transition and dominate the offensive and defensive glass. They win the points in the paint battle, and even notch as many blocked shots as turnovers.
OKC has the talent, athleticism on both sides of the ball and the experience of a championship-caliber team. Unfortunately, the most consistent thing about this squad has been its inconsistency in late game situations. Extremely sharp and unbelievably impressive for stretches, but then in an instant, unexplainably careless and painfully frustrating.
Playoff defense increases and knowing what a team does, especially in late game situations, only makes it easier for the team on defense and harder for the Thunder.
This should be a close series throughout with fewer blowouts and more late-game toss-up scenarios, which could be the Thunder’s biggest concern. But the Spurs on the other hand hold things together at both ends of the floor when the games get late and everything is on the line.
The Spurs have a great system, a great coach, and are as mistake-free as a team can be. They won 67 games this season, swept the first round and now hold home court, a place where they have lost only once all season. Their dominance is no fluke. Winning 4 games against them is a tall order.
Are the Thunder up to it? I like how the Thunder is playing right now. They’re playing confident, playing as an underdog, and have a balanced feel to their offense. Waiters was solid against Dallas, Kanter was incredible, Adams continues to emerge, and I liked what I saw, in general, from Ibaka.
However, the Thunder have too many potential disadvantages and weaknesses the Spurs can exploit. One big shot or hustle play could be the difference in who wins this series, and it is tough to gamble on OKC's chances when I'm betting against the Spurs.
The series could be the defining moment of the playoffs, especially if Stephen Curry doesn't return. The Thunder have the talent, but can they put everything together while staring down the team that last vanquished them in the playoffs?
The Thunder will compete, but in the end, Spurs in six.