With their loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder’s season was brought to an end. A little disappointing, but with everything the team faced this season, it could be viewed as a positive step moving forward. Before we head into the off-season, here are 5 thoughts about the series that was.
1. Serge Ibaka’s importance was on full display in this series
The first two games of the series tell the importance of Serge Ibaka. The Spurs dominated inside (averaged 60 points in the paint per game in those first two games) and punished the Thunder from outside when they collapsed (9 threes in both games). Granted, the Thunder’s perimeter defense was so bad, even a healthy Ibaka wouldn’t have helped in those two games. The Thunder were constantly switching on pick and rolls and were exploited when the switch presented a bad match-up. Add to that the fact that Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins don’t have the lateral quickness to keep up with PnR switches on quick guards, and you have a recipe for disaster. Even when the Thunder guards went under the screen, the defense, wary of its lack of a shot blocker, collapsed into the paint and left the Spurs’ shooters open from the outside.
But surprisingly, the offense suffered even more from Ibaka’s absence. Without the release valve that is Ibaka, the Thunder play-makers (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Reggie Jackson) were forced into either pick and rolling with Perkins, Collison, or the inexperienced Steven Adams, or playing isolation ball. Both of these options played into the Spurs’ strength as an experienced, coordinated defensive unit. The Spurs love to take away your first option and make your 2nd and 3rd options beat you. That’s why Ibaka is so important to the Thunder’s attack. A wing/big PnR involving Ibaka usually succeeds because the big defender will usually hedge towards the perimeter player. When that happens, Ibaka usually pops opens up for his deadly mid-range jumper. With Ibaka out of the picture, the Spurs big was able to hedge over onto the wing player as the big presented no threat of either rolling or popping out for a jumper. The Thunder trio shot only 43% (42-98) from the field in those first two games.
The Thunder’s success with Ibaka also lends credence to the decision to keep Ibaka and trade Harden. Now, the decision was a lot more complex than just Ibaka vs. Harden. The team tried to keep both. But with two max players already on the roster, the team couldn’t afford to pay a third max contract, Ibaka’s near max contract, and Perkins’ bloated contract. It would have been cap suicide and, eventually, one (or two) of those 5, would have been forced to leave via trade. Also, the team couldn’t afford to pay that much money for someone who only plays one side of the floor. So the decision, while difficult, seems to have been the correct one. Ibaka’s value to this team as a two way player would have probably outweighed Harden’s value as a secondary/tertiary scorer.
2. Experienced team ball trumps isolation ball most of the time.
It worked one time, in 2012. But for the most part, an experienced group that runs an offensive system usually beats the team whose offensive system depends on the greatness of a small amount of its parts. I’ve gone over it, ad nauseam, about how the lack of an offensive system dooms the Thunder when A) the defense is good enough to key in on the main components of the Thunder’s offense and B) when the Thunder’s supporting cast doesn’t provide enough.
Royce Young, of ESPN and DailyThunder.com, discussed how, in the 6-game series, the Spurs averaged 334.8 passes per game, while the Thunder only averaged 252.3. Does this tell the whole story? Of course not. But the more passes you throw, the more the defense moves around. That is the staple of the Spurs offense. It’s designed to have the defenders follow the ball, until someone without the ball gets open or until the defense is spaced out enough to allow penetration. The Thunder, on the other hand, relied on the ability of Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson to create things in isolation situations. When they received little to no help from the supporting cast, which happened a lot in this series, those three players were left to work things out on their own.
3. Russell Westbrook is not scared of the moment.
Not only in this series, but throughout the playoffs, Westbrook proved that he was not scared of the moment. He showed up, time and time again, for the Thunder when they needed him the most. Be it a late game steal or some “ice-water in the veins” free throws, Westbrook showed that the closing act for the Thunder was not just a one man show.
I always worried about Westbrook’s clutchness prior to this season. Be it the lack of opportunities or just the wild, unpredictable nature of his play, I never thought that Westbrook had the discipline to be clutch. And while a lot of his clutchness was within the realm of chaos, when Westbrook did it, there was a sense of calmness about it.
4. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are still pretty damn good.
I don’t know what wizard or voodoo witch doctor these two have visited throughout the years, but their play is still as good now as it was 10 years ago. They may not be able to sustain their style of play in the world of “4 games in 5 nights,” but if they are given days of rest, they can perform like it is 2004. Some of the credit definitely goes to the players and their disciplined off-season training regiments. Duncan has picked up boxing in the off-season and has slimmed down as he has aged to take the wear off his knees and ankles. And Manu, I have no idea what Manu does, but the weight he continues to lose on his head, apparently has a positive effect on his play.
A lot of the credit, though, goes to their coach, Gregg Popovich, and how he manages their minutes. Pop does a great job of resting his players (young and old, mind you) throughout the season. He could care less about how the NBA views his player rest habits and more about the bottom line, which is to be rested when it comes time for the postseason. Also, Popovich is not into miraculous comebacks. If his team is losing by a sizeable amount, Popovich will not hesitate to pull his starters for an entire quarter to rest them for the next game.
All of these factors made it appear like Duncan and Ginobili were a lot more rested throughout the course of the game than the young Thunder. It was no more apparent than in Game 6, when Duncan and Ginobili carried the Spurs throughout the 2nd half and into overtime, while Tony Parker was held out with a bum ankle.
5. Its hard getting back to the promised land.
It almost feels like the Thunder are the Israelites wondering around in the wilderness for 40 years in the book of Numbers. We’ve reached the promised land before, but didn’t do what we needed to do to stay there. Instead, we’ve spent that last 2 seasons trying our hardest to get back. Obstacles have gotten in our way, namely injuries and lack of depth/experience. I have no doubt that we will one day get back to the promised land, but the journey, can feel extremely long and tortuous. In the end, hopefully, it’ll all be worth it.