After a year away from the playoffs, I had forgotten the complete and utter dislike that starts to accumulate when you have to play the same team at least four times in the span of a week. You start to dislike the opposing players (yes, even you Dirk), the opposing coach, the opposing owner if they are bombastic enough, the opposing writers, and definitely (most definitely!) the opposing fans. And I relish in the fact that the feeling is most likely mutual from the opposing team’s side. But after dispatching of the Dallas Mavericks in five games, I leave with a feeling of gratitude and respect.
Even though the series was contentious and chippy throughout, the Mavericks gave their all throughout the five games. They were the antithesis to what the Houston Rockets are currently displaying in their first round match-up. They knew from the beginning they were outmanned, outgunned, and out everything else’d, but they competed. They didn’t lie down and roll over, waiting for the inevitable. They played, and they played hard. And for that, I applaud them. Were their antics annoying? Of course. But the Mavs literally had nothing else to stand on. It was either rattle the Thunder’s cage a little or let them do whatever they pleased. And for a couple key moments in the series, the Mavericks rattled the Thunder’s cage enough to knock them off kilter a bit.
In the end, though, the better team won, and did so pretty convincingly. So now it’s on to the next round, where manifest destiny continues to rear its head. As the season progressed, it became clear early on, that the Thunder would likely be behind the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the standings. It was an inevitable that if the Thunder wanted to make it to the Finals, they would first have to go through San Antonio, and then, likely, Golden State.
This is the third time in five years that the Thunder will face the Spurs. The Thunder beat the Spurs in 6 in 2012 to reach the NBA Finals. In that series, the Spurs won the first two games, but then lost four straight to the young Thunder trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Two years later, these two teams met once again in the Western Conference Finals. This time, though, it was the Spurs that bested the Thunder in six. In that series, Serge Ibaka sat out the first two games with a strained calf and was hobbled for the rest of the series after that. This is sort of the rubber match between these two teams.
Wins in the regular season don’t always paint a clear picture as to how a series will play out. Many variables exist during the season that do not exist during the playoffs. Scheduling, fatigue, and sample size are all factors that come into play during the regular season, but have little to no bearing during the playoffs. But there are always factors within a season series that are highly applicable to the playoff series.
The Spurs and Thunder tied their season series 2-2, with the home team being the victor every time. When it comes to a season series with the Spurs, you always have to look at the circumstances surrounding each game before truly judging them. Although they’ve played four games against each other, only in two of the games did both teams choose to be at full strength. In the first game of the season, the Thunder beat the Spurs 112-106, behind a couple clutch baskets from Dion Waiters. Being that it was the first game of the season, not much can be gleaned from that meeting, as Durant was returning from a broken foot and LaMarcus Aldridge was still getting used to his role on the Spurs. In the next meeting, nearly 5 months later, the Spurs made the key plays down the stretch to win 93-85 in San Antonio. In the final two meetings of the season, the teams alternated sitting starters in favor of playing reserves. Each of the reserve units did well in the games in which they played the bulk of the minutes.
- Game 1 – Saturday, 30 April 2016 at TBA (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX) TNT
- Game 2 – Monday, 02 May 2016 at 8:30 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX) TNT
- Game 3 – Friday, 06 May 2016 at 8:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK) ESPN
- Game 4 – Sunday, 08 May 2016 at 7:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK) TNT
- *Game 5 – Tuesday, 10 May 2016 at TBA (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX) TNT*
- *Game 6 – Thursday, 12 May 2016 at TBA (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK) ESPN*
- *Game 7 – Sunday, 15 May 2016 at TBA (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX) TNT*
* – If Necessary
5 Keys to the Series1. Unstoppable Force (Offense) vs. Immovable Object (Defense)
This is a clash between one of the top offensive teams in the league, in the Thunder, versus the best defensive team in the league, in the Spurs. Whoever imposes their will on the other team will likely win the series. If Russell Westbrook continues to do what he did in the Dallas series and pushes the ball, this will force the Spurs’ defense to scramble and get out of position. If the Thunder adhere to the Spurs’ preference of slowing the game down, then the Spurs will likely come out on top. If the score of the game is in the high 80’s, then the Spurs are likely controlling the tempo. The same can be said if the score is in the 100’s in regards to the Thunder. Each team has the ability to win playing the other’s style, but would much rather prefer to play their style of basketball.2. Bench Play
For as much as has been questioned about the Thunder’s bench, the Spurs’ bench also has concerns. Outside of known commodities like Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, David West, and Patty Mills, the Spurs tend to struggle after that. Kyle Anderson, while showing flashes this season, is still just a 2nd year player who is getting his first experience in the playoffs. With the Thunder likely to use a big line-up throughout this series, the Spurs will likely have to counter some with Boban Marjanovic coming off the bench. While the Serbian big man has been a pleasant surprise throughout the season, this is, in reality, his first taste of playoff pressure. The same can be said about Jonathon Simmons who may get playing time to combat the Thunder’s bigger athletic guards (i.e. Westbrook and Dion Waiters).
On the Thunder’s side, the question becomes, ‘Were the performances of Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters a result of the opponent or are their skill sets more prone for success in the postseason than in the regular season?’. As the game slows down, having a big man that can gobble up boards and score in the post is a luxury many teams can’t fathom. As for Waiters, can he continue with his controlled, aggressive style of play without reverting back to his default? And if you know Waiters, you know that his defaults are to be overly aggressive on drives, put up bad shots at the rim, and take too many step back jumpers. If he can curtail that, the Thunder may actually win the battle of the bench. Another player to look out for is Cameron Payne. Yes, its the playoffs and, yes, he’s a rookie. But if the Thunder view tape of their last meeting against the Spurs, they’ll see that Payne gave the Spurs’ bench fits with his speed and ability to playmake.3. Russell Westbrook
This series comes down to him. Durant and Kawhi Leonard will likely be a wash, but Westbrook will be the key to the series. It’s been amazing watching him mature to this point as a player. Even as he is taking it to the game, he is still letting the game come to him. And for a player with his usage, that can be an extremely fine line to walk. If the game calls for him to score, he’ll score. If it calls for him to play-make and manage, he’ll rack up the assists. He’s gotten that good, and his effect on games has become tantamount to the Thunder’s success.
It will be interesting to see how the Spurs choose to defend Westbrook. Westbrook is a terrible match-up for the Spurs’ point guards, Tony Parker and Patty Mills. Danny Green would likely be the most logical defender, but he is a little slow-footed on the perimeter to hang with Westbrook. If the Spurs’ coaching staff believes Westbrook is the head of the snake, can they live with Leonard guarding Westbrook, while leaving Green on Durant? Regardless of defender, if Westbrook has a good series, then the Thunder will definitely be in it.4. Perimeter Defense
While the Spurs are no longer the pace and space team they were the last 5 seasons, they are still able to hit from deep at an extremely efficient rate. Danny Green, of course, seems to have found his shot just in time for this series. In the Grizzlies series, the Spurs hit 47% of their shots….FROM 3-POINT TERRITORY! If the Thunder allow that, this will be a very short series.5. Post Players
If the Spurs force the Thunder to play in the half court from time to time, then the post players for the Thunder will have to come up as big in this series as they did in the last. Tim Duncan, for all of his defensive exploits, has started to age here in the last few weeks. Positionally, he is still one of the best defenders in the league. But get him moving around (i.e. pick and roll situations) and you start to see the age in his movements.
X-FactorsFor San Antonio – David West
I don’t know if David West scares Enes Kanter, but Kanter seems to play timid when West is out there on the floor with him. If West can nullify any sort of advantage Kanter has over the reserves, that will be huge for the Spurs moving forward.For Oklahoma City – Serge Ibaka
If Ibaka can pull his defender out of the lane, that will make that much easier for Durant and Westbrook to operate. It’s been said that Ibaka kills the Spurs, but that hasn’t been the case this season. If Ibaka plays against the Spurs like he did against the Mavericks, he will definitely be a big weapon for the Thunder. But more importantly, his defense on LaMarcus Aldridge will be extremely important to the Thunder’s chances. He had a bit of a warm-up with Dirk Nowitzki. Hopefully he can apply the lessons learned against Nowitzki to Aldridge.
Thunder in 6 – I think the Thunder’s athleticism will outlast the Spurs’ experience and wisdom. They seemed to have found out a lot about themselves in the Dallas series, and I think that will carry on to this series. I see the first two games being split, with the home team winning every game from there on out.