January 20, 2019

The NBA playoffs are about to give us the first must-see series of the year. The San Antonio Spurs will take on the Oklahoma City Thunder for a spot in the Western Conference Finals.

No other second round matchup can boast as much talent as this one, featuring three top 10 players in Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, plus another perennial All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge. There are four surefire Hall-of-Famers involved as well in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Gregg Popovich. Everyone is healthy and the stakes are high.

It’s a clash between teams that have history but have undergone changes since last meeting. The Spurs beat the Thunder in the conference finals en route to a title 2014, but barely resemble that iteration anymore. Many of the core players remain on the roster but the style has shifted completely to accommodate LaMarcus Aldridge and the superstar version of Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio has toned down its equal-opportunity style and embraced a slow pace as well as post-ups.

The Thunder, meanwhile, have completely revamped their supporting cast since that last matchup. They are now younger and more athletic, with Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, and Enes Kanter getting the minutes that went to Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, and Kendrick Perkins three years ago. Serge Ibaka has regressed, however, so there’s a case to be made that this team is not as good as the one who pushed the Spurs to six games.

Going by the numbers alone, this doesn’t feel like that close of a series. The Spurs led the league in defensive efficiency and finished third in offensive efficiency. The Thunder had the second best offense of the league but couldn’t sneak into the top 10 on defense. If not for the Warriors’ historic campaign, San Antonio would have been the prohibitive favorite to win the championship. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, has simply looked like a very good team that can’t measure up to the two Western juggernauts.

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The first round series against the Mavericks did little to change that impression. The Thunder won comfortably 4-1, but the late-game struggles that plagued their regular season resurfaced in a loss that shouldn’t have happened against an overmatched opponent. The stars put up gaudy numbers, but they did so at the expense of efficiency, especially in Durant’s case. The former league MVP shot just 37 percent from the field and had more turnovers than assists in those five games.

It’s the same old issue with the Thunder. Their transition attack is deadly but they don’t move the ball in the half court and rely on isolations and post-ups. When the stars are cooking, they can open up a 10-point gap with ease. When they have an off night, like Durant had in Game 2 against Dallas, they can barely keep up, as there’s little shot creation elsewhere and neither Westbrook nor Durant will defer willingly. They have an explosive offense that is based on their elite individual talent, for better or worse.

To be fair, things go well more often than not. The process might not always be pretty but no one can deny that it produces results. Oklahoma City might have averaged the fewest passes in the league in the regular season but they ranked sixth in assist per game. When Durant and Westbrook attack one-on-one or simply using a screen they are too deadly to defend without sending help. Durant can occasionally get tunnel vision, but Westbrook has improved greatly when it comes to finding the open man.

Their strategy might be simple, but it typically works. Will it be effective against the Spurs? That’s another issue altogether.

Kawhi Leonard is one of the few defenders who can hold his own against Durant without needing copious amount of help. He can defend Russell Westbrook as well, while Danny Green takes on Durant, to neutralize the mismatches they force with their 1-3 screening game. One of them might go off but it might not be easy for both to put together great games against San Antonio. If the Spurs can limit transition opportunities like they did in the regular season, their half-court defense should be able to slow down the potent Thunder offense.

One potential adjustment Billy Donovan could attempt to prevent that from happening would be to go small with Kevin Durant at power forward and Serge Ibaka at center. That wrinkle would force the Spurs to sit Tim Duncan and would open up the floor for Westbrook and Durant to attack. Donovan has been reluctant to do it all season long, however, and it’s hard to blame him, since those types of lineups have hemorrhaged points in most configurations.

The Spurs are well prepared to counter small-ball anyway thanks to Boris Diaw’s versatility. Going big with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to crash the offensive glass would probably be a better option. Neither can stretch the floor like Serge Ibaka can but they could overwhelm the Spurs with size if they trot out an all subs lineup with Diaw and David West as the big men.

Hiding liabilities, however, will be more important than strategic adjustments about going big or small. Tony Parker brings effort on defense but he can’t guard Westbrook. He could be assigned to Andre Roberson when the starters are in but if Dion Waiters — fresh off a great series against the Mavericks — plays alongside Westbrook and Durant, Parker will be forced to guard someone who had an edge over him.

Billy Donovan’s main concern will be Enes Kanter and how to keep him on the floor without the defense suffering too much, especially against the Spurs’ bench unit. They will surely target him in screen and roll action with Manu Ginobili as ball handler and will force him to step outside to contest hand-offs designed for Patty Mills. The perimeter defenders will have to be sharp to recover quickly and prevent San Antonio from taking advantage of him.

On paper, the Spurs should win the matchup. They have the tools to neutralize the deadly Thunder offense, the versatility to counter adjustments, and enough firepower of their own to hurt a mediocre defense. If we get the versions of the teams we’ve seen all throughout the regular season, San Antonio is simply better in most areas.

The Thunder have arguably the highest ceilings out of any team besides the Warriors, however, so it would be foolish to count them out. They could catch fire and take control of the series. Durant and Westbrook would only have to be at their best for four out of the seven games, Ibaka would have to go back to being one of the scariest defenders in the league and the supporting cast would have to overachieve. It’s not likely for all of that to happen at the same time but it’s certainly not impossible.

The degree of unpredictability is what has traditionally made Thunder vs. Spurs series so much fun. This one won’t be the exception.

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