February 15, 2019

Since the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs have each undergone some changes.

And yet, so much remains the same.

Oklahoma City has turned over much of its rotation around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka since the 2014 Western Conference Finals, with Steven Adams two seasons more experienced and Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler, Andre Roberson, and Dion Waiters added to the roster since then.

But of all their additions, including a coaching change, this is still a team far too reliant on the individual exploits of Durant and Westbrook when it comes time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Though limiting the duo is easier said than done, when elite defenses lock in—as the Spurs did, limiting them to a combined 30 points on 11-for-34 shooting in their 124-92 Game 1 victory—Oklahoma City has few other answers.

San Antonio has mostly abandoned the three-point happy, pick-and-roll dominant offense dubbed, “the beautiful game,” during their 2014 NBA championship run. Images of touch passes zigzagging from Manu Ginobili to Patty Mills to Tim Duncan to Boris Diaw for a corner three in Game 6 against the Thunder are mostly confined to the archives these days—the offense reconfigured around the individual talents of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The pair represent a stark contrast in catalysts to the free-flowing attack driven by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The initial actions are a bit more structured (post-ups and isolations) and slower to develop, and the shots yielded different, but when Leonard and Aldridge get rolling, they can key the same type of devastating ball movement that the Spurs tore teams apart with two years ago. And in Game 1, both were at the peak of their games.

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On the Spurs’ first possession, Aldridge set a screen for Leonard—a burgeoning on-court duo finally starting to reap the benefits of each other’s presence. LaMarcus Aldridge is the type of shooter who bigs cling to on screens, opening up driving lanes out of pick and pops. And Kawhi used the screen like a jet on a runway, with gradual acceleration giving way to an explosive takeoff:

Aldridge and Leonard outscored the Thunder 27-20 on a combined 13-for-15 shooting in the first quarter by themselves, which the Spurs’ leveraged for a 43-20 lead. In the past, the Thunder were able to use their length and athleticism to scramble the Spurs’ driving and passing lanes, disrupting the patterns in their offense—swarming the ball and then recovering against crosscourt passes to chase three-point shooters off the line.

Those Spurs relied on Parker or Ginobili to get downhill and collapse the defense. Aldridge and Leonard, by contrast, are superb shotmakers, needing far less machinations to get to their shots and hitting contested ones at a greater clip. Leonard is the type or primary option one simply can’t leave, capable of working in transition, navigating off the ball for open shots along the baseline, or getting to his pull-up jumpers; finishing with 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting.

And Aldridge is the type of scorer who can soften a defense at the point of attack in the right matchup, as he did against Ibaka, dislodging the Thunder shot blocker with every dribble towards the rim, creating room to get to his high-release shot; or by wandering into open space along the elbows, top of the key, or baseline for midrange jumpers when his defender drops back to wall off the paint—as Oklahoma City did so often in ceding 15 midrange jumpers, of which Aldridge hit 13.

Though Aldridge’s 38 points on 18-for-23 shooting are likely an outlier in terms of results, the process versus this Thunder defense is likely something that can be replicated—with the Spurs using the pick and pop to the elbows for open jumpers or quick ball reversals that flow into secondary actions that further distort the defense.

Too often, Oklahoma City surrendered the high ground on defense, as evident by Parker’s 12 assists to no turnovers (the Spurs had only eight for the game).

Impressive as the Spurs were on offense, that’s not what figures to keep the Thunder in trouble this series. San Antonio retains its perfect choreography and disorienting blur of movement, only repurposed towards the defensive end.

Kawhi Leonard can be used to both snuff out fires, switching onto a hot shooting opponent, or prevent them—cutting off elite players before they can gain any momentum. In Game 1, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich used him as the primary defender on Russell Westbrook (14 points and nine assists on 5-for-19 shooting). Against anything less than Westbrook’s most disciplined self, Leonard is capable of walling off the paint while still contesting those off-the-dribble pull-up jumpers.

And by crossmatching, the Spurs were also able to exploit Oklahoma City’s poor floor balance on Westbrook’s improvised shots—not to mention their point guard’s inattentiveness—with leak outs for easy dunks in transition:

After the game, Westbrook cited the Spurs’ help as the bothersome component of Leonard’s defense—which isn’t uncommon for a star player used to getting their way against individual defenders. And he’s not exactly wrong. Leonard, and Danny Green, are superb defensive players who benefit from—and key—a suffocating overall team defense.

Green stayed attached to Durant’s hip on the ball, while the Spurs shaded help towards him to discourage drives. When Durant swung the ball, the Spurs rotated seamlessly, as if on a strong. Every time Durant drove, he met a help defender; and when he spun away from the help, he did so right back into Danny Green. Even the Thunder’s makes were the result of strenuous labor:

And every Spurs’ player got in on the act:

The Spurs were able to use their defense to get into transition and flow into easy actions, keeping the Thunder back on their heels, using dribble handoffs against their retreat for open three-pointers:

San Antonio isn’t this much better than Oklahoma City, but to date, they have been the superior team. And though only hints of the beautiful game remain, their repurposed movement and execution remains devastating. And there’s beauty in that, too.

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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