Let’s get this over with quick: The San Antonio Spurs are a better team than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Without All Star guard Tony Parker, they outscored the Thunder 91-66 over the final 38 1/2 minutes. An even clearer picture emerges by looking over at their respective benches. Greg Popovich has built a team in every sense of the word, with an offense that shares the ball and places maximum pressure on the opponent’s defense. And they have a foundation of solid man to man defense that invites their opponents to take inefficient shots. In this game, it wasn’t that they got hot, or lucky – it was precise teamwork on both ends of the floor that separated them in the 2nd quarter, and enabled them to extend their lead and win going away.
The first key for the Spurs offense it to get the ball to the screener as he rolls to the middle of the floor. Both Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter have become so adept from this position, that if they get the ball, the Spurs are almost guaranteed a great shot. The Thunder couldn’t adjust, and the Spurs used their poor hedging and ball pressure to slice them up time and again. While the Spurs were impressive, there were 5 possessions that got them right to the basket where they fumbled the ball away uncharacteristically.
The next key we identified was Russell Westbrook’s game management. One look at the box score shows he took 27 shots (making only 11) while the best scorer in the league took only 13, making 7. Toss in his 4 turnovers, only 1 assist after the 1st quarter, and you can see how this game got out of hand. More head scratching plays abound – at the end of the third quarter, he tosses up a shot from half court, thinking the Spurs were taking a foul. One problem with this notion – the Spurs were WINNING by 2, it was the THIRD quarter, and they had no need to foul. Gary Neal was simply closing out to pressure him.
Kendrick Perkins is another culprit on our radar. While he has a reputation as a defensive stopper, aside from an occasional good possession against a post player, his effort last night was downright unacceptable. Numerous opportunities for him to rotate over and help on a post player never materialized, while his hedging was filled with reaching for the ball and huge gaps for the Spurs guards to exploit.
Kawhi Leonard continues to impress with his all around play, taking good shots under control, rebounding well from his position, and playing very active and heads up defense. The Spurs are grooming him to be the face of their franchise, and I can see him becoming the next in line to Scottie Pippen’s brilliant play.
Lastly, Tiago Splitter is quickly establishing himself as the primary down low threat for the Spurs, allowing Tim Duncan to roam and plug his skills in wherever necessary. The Thunder had no answer for him down low, as he exploited everyone OKC could throw at him – including Ibaka, Perkins, and Collison.
These two teams are on a collision course for the Western Conference Finals, and it’s clear the Spurs are out to avenge their curious loss in last year’s playoffs. By switching Sefolosha onto Tony Parker, it stymied the Spurs offense and changed the series. This time around, the Spurs have established they don’t need to rely on Parker for their offense – they can kill you from every position at any time. With their strong bench play, it’s hard to envision the Thunder emerging victorious in another matchup.