Tag Archives: Boris Diaw

Five Thoughts from the Western Conference Finals

durant perkins duncan thunder spurs

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.

ibaka duncan spurs thunder

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.

duncan ginobili spurs

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.

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2014 Western Conference Finals after 4 games: Swinging Pendulums and Rear-view Mirrors

San Antonio Spurs v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three

One of my favorite Jay-Z songs from early in his career was “A Week Ago”. The basic premise of the song deals with the chronology of living a drug dealer’s life and how things can change in the span of a week. One minutes things are going good; the next, you’re left wondering how things could have gotten so screwed up when it was all good just a week ago.

Rewind back to May 22nd.  The San Antonio Spurs were coming off another blowout victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, held a 2-0 lead in the series, and were looking completely unstoppable. The Thunder were thought to be the worst match-up possible for the Spurs. A team that had beaten the Spurs 10 out of the last 12 times they had played, to include the 2012 Western Conference Finals. But the Thunder were without their best defensive player and without one of the main components of their offense in Serge Ibaka. A lot like the Russell Westbrook injury from last season, the Thunder were not very familiar with life without their athletic power forward. In the past 4 seasons, Ibaka has only missed 3 games total, none in the playoffs. As is  the case with most other changes, there was an adjustment period to get used to. And it showed in the first two games of the series.

The Thunder were unathletic and slow. They couldn’t defend the paint, and when they overcompensated, they were punished from the 3-point line. The Spurs averaged a blistering 60 points in the paint in those first 2 games and made 9 threes in each of those games. The Thunder offense was unimaginative and stagnant. Without the release valve that is Ibaka, the offense was left in the hands of Kevin Durant and Westbrook (and Reggie Jackson, but his production can be inconsistent at times). While great, those 3 players aren’t enough, especially for a great defensive unit that is keying in on them. And so, the media was already writing out the Thunder’s obituary on the 2013-14 NBA season: A great season that was marred by injuries at the wrong times.

parker perkins ibaka thunder spurs wcf

But then came word that Ibaka’s calf was responding to treatment a lot better than expected. The swelling had subsided to the point where the team changed his status from OUT to DTD (day to day). His only obstacle would be his ability to play through the pain. If you know Ibaka’s story, you know that physical pain is the least of his worries. The question was never whether Ibaka would play. With little to no risk of compounding the injury, the only worry was in reinjury. And with an entire offseason ahead, Ibaka could easily rehab a strained calf muscle during the summer. The question was how effective would he be. Would he be the dominant defensive player that we’ve all come to know in the past 4 seasons or would he be a shell of himself?

That question was answered emphatically in the first three minutes of Game 3, in which Ibaka had 6 points on 3-3 shooting, 1 rebound, and 1 block. Even though he limped noticeably at times during the game, an Ibaka at 80% is a whole lot better than no Ibaka at all. The Thunder took control of the game in the 2nd quarter and kept the Spurs at bay the rest of the game. The end result was a 106-97 victory for the Thunder and a proverbial pendulum that had possibly reached it’s maximum height.

After that Game 3 victory, the same media members who were writing the Thunder off just days before, started to feign the other way. Could the Thunder repeat what they had accomplished in the 2012 Western Conference Finals? If you remember, the Spurs also held the home court advantage in that series and went up 2-0. Of course, those first two game were a lot more competitive than the first two games this year. But the results were still the same: San Antonio leads 2-0. The series switched over to OKC and the Thunder won their two at home. Tie series. The Thunder then won a close one in Game 5 in San Antonio and closed the series out in 6. Gentleman’s sweep. Could it happen again?

Spurs Thunder Basketball

If anything, Game 4 was the biggest game of the series for the Spurs. Win that one and you not only kill any of the momentum built by the Thunder from Game 3, but you also kill any of the ghosts from the 2012 series. Lose Game 4, and the Spurs all the sudden turn into the speeding driver looking in his rear view mirror after he passes a police officer. The Spurs looked like they were all business, opening up Game 4 on an 8-0 run. From there, the Thunder went on to outscore the Spurs 58-35 in the first two quarters and the rest of the game was but a mere formality.

Pendulum completely in full swing the opposite direction and the Spurs nervously looking in the rear view mirror. It was all just a week ago. But that has been the theme these entire playoffs. Every game has been a narrative in and of itself. And Game 5 will be no different. Can the Spurs recover mentally from the PTSD-like nightmare that may be haunting them? What is Reggie Jackson’s condition and will he be effective? So many questions that will be answered on Thursday. Pendulums could swing again and rear view mirrors may become obsolete after tonight.

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs Western Conference Finals preview

durant jackson ginobili parker thunder spurs

A running theme for me these playoffs has been fate. It was fate for us to face the Grizzlies in the first round to exorcise the demons from last season. It was fate for us to face the Clippers in the second round, as they have players that are interwoven into Oklahoma’s history. And again, I believe it is fate for the Thunder to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs are the model by which the Thunder are built. A sort of big brother, if you will. Many of the main components on the Thunder come from the Spurs organization, from the owner to the GM. Over the past three seasons, the Thunder and Spurs have been the best two teams in the conference and this is something of a rubber match.

Unfortunately, Serge Ibaka won’t be participating in this series. A Grade 2 calf strain will cause the power forward to miss the rest of this postseason. While both teams won’t be at full strength, this has never stopped this series from being competitive and fun.

Regular Season Series

Even since the Thunder did a gentlemen’s sweep of the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder have dominated the Spurs in the regular season. They’ve won 6 of their last 8 meetings, including all four this season.

duncan perkins spurs thunder

 

In the first meeting of the season, the Thunder ended an 11 game winning streak by the Spurs, upending them 94-88, behind a big third quarter (25-15). In that game, Ibaka (sad face) dominated inside with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks. In the second game, the Thunder used a big game from Russell Westbrook (31 points and 8 assists) and a big 2nd quarter (40-29) to defeat the Spurs 113-100. In the 3rd meeting of the season, the Thunder won 111-105 behind monster games from Kevin Durant (33 pts, 7 rebs, 5 asts) and Reggie Jackson (27 pts and 8 asts). The 4th meeting of the year, also known as the annual “if we win this game we might catch the Spurs in the standings” game, saw good performances by the Thunder’s top 4 players, leading to a 106-94 victory.

Series Schedule

  • Game 1 – Monday, 19 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)
  • Game 2 – Wednesday, 21 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)
  • Game 3 – Sunday, 25 May 2014 at 7:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 4 – Tuesday, 27 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)
  • Game 5 – Thursday, 29 May 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)*
  • Game 6 – Saturday, 31 May 2014 at 7:30 PM CST (Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK)*
  • Game 7 – Monday, 02 June 2014 at 8:00 PM CST (AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX)*

* If Necessary

Probable Starting Line-Up

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Kawhi Leonard
  • PF – Tim Duncan
  • C – Tiago Splitter

 

  • Bench Depth – Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Perry Jones
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

 

  • Bench Depth – Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Caron Butler, Derek Fisher

3 Keys to the Series

1. 75/30 – With Ibaka out, the scoring onus continues to fall on Durant, Westbrook, and Jackson. Ibaka is probably the most consistent scorer in the leauge, always scoring between 13-17 points. To make up for that, the big 3 for the Thunder will probably have to average about 75 points per game, while the other players will have to somehow come up with 30 points. Can it be done? Of course. But the margin of error will go down with the loss of Ibaka.

2. Perimeter Defense – The Spurs have 6 players that are shooting at least 38% from 3-point land in the playoffs, with noted Thunder-killer Ginobili pitching in 31% from deep. The Thunder have had measured success in the defending the 3-point line because they have been able to keep Parker in front of them and out of the lane. Unfortunately, when Parker does get into the lane now, Ibaka will not be there to erase any of the Thunder’s perimeter mistakes.

reggie jackson duncan spurs thunder

 

3. Bench – If ever there was a series for Butler, Fisher, and Jackson to consistently hit shots, this would be it. The Spurs bench is leading the remaining playoff teams in scoring at 41.3 points per game. The Thunder bench averages just under 29 points per game in the playoffs. While the Thunder is top heavy, with 2 of the top 5 scorers in the playoffs, they will still need their bench to spell them during games.

X-factors

For the Spurs – Rebounding – With Ibaka out, the Spurs, not known for their rebounding, will have more opportunity to grab offensive rebounds and get more scoring opportunities. On the other end, the Spurs have the opportunity to limit the Thunder to just one shot.

Another X-factor for the Spurs is the health of Parker’s hamstring. He was taken out of Game 5 of the Portland series and has not practiced with the team. Maybe something to watch as he tries to defend Westbrook throughout the series.

Oklahoma City Thunder v San Antonio Spurs -Game Two

For the Thunder – Transition opportunities – The Thunder do a good job of forcing the Spurs into turnovers. That may be a bit muted now with Ibaka out in the series. Without the shot blocker in the paint, the Thunder have less leeway to gamble on steal opportunities.

Prediction

Spurs in 6

I love my team, but the loss of Ibaka may be too difficult to get over in this series. Ibaka puts a lot of pressure on opposing offenses that live on dribble penetration. The Spurs’ guards would have second thoughts of taking the ball inside with Ibaka patrolling the paint. Now, the defense will have to help out more and that may open up the 3-point shooting for the Spurs. Can the Thunder win it? Of course. But they have to play close to perfect basketball on the defensive end for the full 48 minutes. Unfortunately, that has never been their greatest strength.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 74 of 82)

westbrook ginobili thunder spurs

  • When: Thursday, 03 April 2014 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Here’s a list of things that have happened since the Thunder last took the court:

  • The baseball season started and most teams have played at least 3 games.
  • Chile has been hit by two earthquakes that have measured over 7.5 on the Richter scale.
  • There was another shooting on Fort Hood.
  • HIMYM ended.
  • The Malaysian flight still hasn’t been found.
  • And the Spurs still haven’t lost a game in over a month.

As the Thunder head into the stretch run of the season, I think they sit pretty comfortably where they currently are. Would they like the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference? Of course. But the Thunder/Spurs dynamic is weird because the Spurs give everyone else fits (yes, even Miami), but we’re just about the team that gives the Spurs fits. It’s almost like we unlocked a cheat code when we beat them four straight games in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. Since that series, the Thunder have won 5 of 7 in the last two seasons, to include going 3 of 3 this season.

The Opponent

perkins diaw leonard green duncan thunder spurs

The Spurs currently find themselves at 59-16, atop the entire league in terms of record. They haven’t lost a game since February 21st (19 straight) and have been beating opponents by an average of 16.8 ppg during the streak. The streak has coincided with the Spurs getting healthier as the season has progressed. After losing Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter for parts of the season, the Spurs have regrouped and this streak has been the result. The constants this season, as has been the case every season for the past decade have been Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and head coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs system is predicated on the defense collapsing on penetrators (Parker or Ginobili) or post players (Duncan) and kicking the ball out to a bevy of shooters who all shoot over 37.5% from 3-point territory. The bench is one of the stronger ones in the league with vets like Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, Ginobili, and Patty Mills all contributing starter minutes.

Probable Starting Line-Ups

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Kawhi Leonard
  • PF – Tim Duncan
  • C – Tiago Splitter

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Andre Roberson
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Steven Adams

3 Keys to the Game

1. Preparedness – There’s a reason the Starting Line-ups section of this preview comes with the word Probable in front of it. When it comes to the regular season, you never know what Gregg Popovich is going to do. Mentally, you have to be prepared for anything. Many teams make the mistake of easing off the gas pedal when they see that Pop is resting a couple starters. The Spurs’ bench players are great in spurts and can make a team pay if they don’t bring their A game.

2. Perimeter defense – The Spurs have 7 players that average at least 18.5 minutes per game and shoot at least 34.3% from the 3-point line. As a team, they shoot nearly 40% (39.9) from the arc. To say the 3-point shot is a big part of San Antonio’s offense, would be a gross understatement. It will be interesting to see who starts out on Parker defensively. It’s usually Thabo Sefolosha, but with him out, will Westbrook remain disciplined and stay in front of Parker the entire game?

jackson ginobili thunder spurs

 

3. Reggie Jackson – Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will give you what they usually give you. But the Spurs killer of late has been Jackson. If he can take charge of the game when the bench is in the game, he could be the difference in the game.

Growing Pains: The Thunder’s young bench

jeremy lamb reggie jackson thunder

Injuries are an inevitability in sports. When you have bodies constantly in motion, there are going to come times when those bodies either collide or move in ways that cause injury. It’s the reason team sports have reserve players. In the wake of injuries, a team should have a healthy balance of veteran players and young, developing players. It’s the line that allows teams to sustain success while also building for the future. Have too much of either on the bench, and a team risks cutting into their current success or into their future success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have always had a decent balance of veterans and young players on the bench. But with the James Harden trade, they decided to rely on youth instead of looking for veteran help in free agency. At the time of that trade, they received rookie SG Jeremy Lamb, a lottery pick from the Toronto Raptors (that eventually turned into Steven Adams), and an early 2nd rounder from the Charlotte Bobcats (that eventually turned into Spanish guard Alex Abrines, a Euro-stash). Along with that, the Thunder already had 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson and rookie Perry Jones III in tow. In essence, the Thunder have been grooming this new bench mob for the past season and a half.

kevin martin hasheem thabeet eric maynor thunder

Another addition to the Harden trade was veteran guard Kevin Martin, who slid into the 6th man role that Harden occupied. Last season’s bench was veteran-laden with Martin, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and Hasheem Thabeet getting the lion’s share of the reserve minutes. About a third into the season, Maynor was replaced by Jackson and Derek Fisher joined the team after the All-Star break. The problem with our veteran bench last season was two-fold: there wasn’t any offensive versatility to it and it was inconsistent defensively. The scoring was either coming from Martin or it wasn’t coming at all. As his efficiency declined in the second half of the season, so did the bench’s offensive effectiveness. It got to the point where either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook had to be on the floor with the bench unit for it to be effective. Defensively, the bench struggled to match the athleticism of other younger benches.

On paper, the bench last season was a good mix of veterans and young players. But most of the young players spent their time in Tulsa and never got to test their mettle against NBA competition. Last season, Lamb spent 801 minutes (regular season and postseason combined) in the D-League and only 147 regular season minutes with the Thunder. Perry Jones spent 588 total minutes in the D-League and only 280 regular season minutes (plus 5 playoff minutes) with the Thunder.

perry jones thunder

 

Now, those two players, along with Jackson and Adams, are being asked to carry the second unit for a title contender. Veterans Derek Fisher and Nick Collison still play a prominent role off the bench, but the team is dependent on the young players to provide the team what the bench couldn’t provide last season, which was offensive versatility and defensive consistency. For the most part, the bench was starting to become one of the top benches in the league, before the Westbrook injury. After, though, it has been more inconsistent. And therein lies the problem with depending on such a young bench.

When the San Antonio Spurs suffer injuries to their starters, they can depend on veterans Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, and Patty Mills to come in and step up until those injured players get back. The same goes for the Miami Heat. When their line-up needs to be shuffled, they know they can fall back on the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Rashard Lewis. Veterans that not only know their roles, but also have championship experience to boot. These players know how to work through slumps and how to affect games in ways other than scoring. These young Thunder players are just now learning how to do these things.

steven adams griffin thunder clippers

There are positive signs though. The last time the Thunder played the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder were down for most of the game and Lamb was having a miserable game, shooting 2-7 FG with 2 turnovers. But he found ways to affect the game via his rebounding and defense, and made the plays necessary in the 4th quarter to help the Thunder win the game. Perry Jones has affected numerous games with his defense and ability to hit 3-point shots. And Jackson is showing signs of being a good combo guard, similar to Eric Bledsoe.

Reggie Jackson got his baptism by fire in the playoffs last season after Westbrook went down with his knee injury. But other than him, and 5 minutes of Perry Jones in Game 1 of the Houston series, none of the young bench players have any playoff experience. Could that come back to bite the Thunder in the rear during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals? It could, but nothing teaches quite like experience. Here’s hoping that the growing pains of the regular season turn into the epiphanies of the post season.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 13 of 82)

Perkins duncan diaw leonard spurs thunder

  • When: Wednesday, 27 November 2013 at 7:00 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

The San Antonio Spurs have been the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chief rivals for the Western Conference crown for the past 2 seasons and that does not appear to be changing any time soon. After battling it out in a great 6-game series in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, and going toe to toe for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference last season, these two teams seem to be on the same collision course this season. Yes, there are a couple other teams, like the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, and Golden State Warrior, that are trying to throw their hats into the fray. But the teams they are trying to catch are still the Spurs and the Thunder.

This is the first of four meeting this season between these two rivals. The team split the season series 2-2 last season, as the Thunder won the last game between them to eventually get the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference heading into the playoffs. The Spurs come into the game having won 11 in a row, while the Thunder have reeled off 4 straight. Each of these games are usually highly competitive affairs that almost always come down to a couple of possessions at the end of the game.

The Opponent

Los Angeles Clippers v San Antonio Spurs - Game One

Every year we keep wondering when the Spurs will finally act their age (old) and every year we are met with defiance from Gregg Popovich’s team. While the Indiana Pacers are running away with the media-driven “best record in the NBA” talk, the Spurs, as usual, find themselves tied with the Pacers (13-1), but with much less fanfare. The Spurs are 10th in the league in scoring at 102.1 points per game, but only give up 90.1 points per game on defense (good for 2nd in the league). They are a lot like the Thunder in that they have a consistent core of players and then have specialists around that core. The Spurs’ attack, which consists of a lot of penetration and 3-point shooting, is spear-headed by point guard Tony Parker. The Spurs have 7 players that average at least 10 minutes per game and shoot over 35.7% from 3-point land. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard man the wings and are 2 of the 7 players who are very adept at shooting the 3. Even though his numbers are down across the board, Tim Duncan still commands a modicum of respect, while Tiago Splitter is grabbing rebounds at a career high clip of 7.2 a game. The Spurs aren’t afraid to use anyone and everyone off of their bench, but the mainstays are Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills. Continue reading San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 13 of 82)

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder preview (Game 75 of 82)

Spurs-Thunder-Basketball

  • When: Thursday, 04 April 2013 at 8:30 PM CST
  • Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

Finally, after such a long wait, we have the first game of the season. Oklahoma City versus San Antonio. After waitin…huh? What? It’s not the first game of the season? It’s only been 4 days since the last Thunder game? Really? Then I really need some help because I’ve gone through the 12 levels of grief, twice!, since the last time the Thunder played. That’s how long it has been. But, thankfully, for the sake of my health and sanity, the Thunder will lace them up tonight in what will probably be one of the most important games of the season.

The fight for the number one seed in the Western Conference probably hinges on what happens tonight. If the Thunder lose, they will be 2.5 games back with 7 to play. Those aren’t insurmountable odds, but the veteran Spurs will figure out ways to rest their starters and win the necessary games to keep the Thunder at bay. If the Thunder win, though, they’ll only be 0.5 games with an opportunity to take the conference lead the next night in Indianapolis. The Thunder, literally, control their own destiny. Not only do the Thunder split the season series between the two teams if they win, but they also own the tie breaker if both teams finish with the same record (W-L record within the conference).

The game is probably of more importance to the Thunder than it is to the Spurs. Even though Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals last season as a lower seed, the dynamics of the team have completely changed since then. The James Harden trade in the beginning of the season completely overhauled one of the strengths of the Thunder, their bench. Though the Thunder’s bench has become increasingly effective as the season has progressed, the ability to play, not only a Game 7, but also the first two games of the series at home can do wonders for the players that come off the bench.

Probable Starting Line-ups

San Antonio Spurs

  • PG – Tony Parker
  • SG – Danny Green
  • SF – Kawhi Leonard
  • PF – Tim Duncan
  • C – Tiago Splitter

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • PG – Russell Westbrook
  • SG – Thabo Sefolosha
  • SF – Kevin Durant
  • PF – Serge Ibaka
  • C – Kendrick Perkins

3 Keys to the Game

1. Weather the runs – San Antonio is one of those teams where a 10 point lead is not large enough unless there are less than 30 seconds left in the game. In the last meeting between these two teams, the Spurs used a 26-8 run in the 2nd quarter that turned an 11 point deficit into a 7 point halftime lead. The Thunder never recovered after that. The Spurs’ 3-point shooting can become infectious, leading to big runs. Using their time outs wisely (Scott Brooks, I’m looking at you) and finding ways to score during these runs will be key to winning this game.

parker

2. Stop Parker’s dribble penetration – I know, easier said than done. But stopping Parker from attacking the paint is key to containing their 3-point shooting. If Parker gets past the first line of defense, then the entire defense sinks into the lane, opening up space for the shooters. It would probably be a good decision to start Thabo Sefolosha on Parker.

spurs-thunder

3. Bench play – One of the Spurs’ biggest strengths is their bench. While injuries to Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili may make the bench less effective, the players that remain, Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Nando de Colo, etc, are crafty, efficient players that find ways to score. Look for Ronnie Brewer to play some 2nd quarter minutes to negate the effect of the Spurs’ bench a bit.

Top NBA Teams and Senior-itis

Ahh, yes. April. That time of year where the memories of Spring Break start to fade, and the doldrums of the final quarter of school starts to set in. This is when high school seniors start to really feel the effects of senior-itis. It’s this same disease that is beginning to affect some of the better teams in the NBA. For those teams that have already sewn up spots to the NBA’s Big Dance, this affliction is making them act like 8 years olds on a road trip. “Are we there yet?”

When it comes to this time of years, teams are in one of 4 modes. They are either completely out of the playoff hunt, fighting (realistically) for a playoff spot, fighting to move up in the playoff standings, or fighting off boredom from having clinched a playoff spot so early in the 2nd half of the season.  Of the 30 teams in the NBA:

  • 11 are completely out of the playoffs: Charlotte, Washington, New Orleans, TTFKATSK (the team formerly known as the Sacramento  Kings), Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, New Jersey, Detroit, Minnesota, and Portland.
  • 7 are realistically fighting for playoff spots: Utah, Phoenix, Milwaukee(all currently out), Philadelphia, New York, Denver,  and Houston (all currently in).
  • 8 are securely in the playoffs and jockeying for positioning: Dallas, Memphis, LA Clippers, LA Lakers, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, and Indiana.
  • 4 teams are entrenched in the playoffs and fighting for the top two spots in their respective conferences: Chicago and Miami (East) and Oklahoma City and San Antonio (West).

Of the 4 teams at the top,Chicago is trying to battle through injuries and maintain the best record in the league.San Antonio is blitzing anyone in their way and trying to take the top spot in the West. And apparently, OKC and Miami (to the enjoyment of all the fans not in Chicago or San Antonio) are ready to meet in the Finals, and are acting like it’s a forgone conclusion. But, honestly, for these four teams, is there anything to worry about besides injuries at this point in the season?

These four teams are treading water at this point in the season. Chicago is 4-3 since April started. Miami and OKC are both 5-4. And San Antonio, riding the hot hand, is 6-2. Are these records indicative of any shortcomings that decided to pop up in the final month of the season?

In Chicago’s losses this month, it is quite apparent that they need Derrick Rose to be completely healthy for their playoff run. But, perhaps, more importantly, the health of Rip Hamilton is of great importance to the offense. While Rose is the end all, be all of the offense, Hamilton provides a great release valve if the defense collapses too much on Rose. Getting those two healthy at this point of the season is the best thing that could have happened to the team. It’s almost like they got a trade deadline acquisition in Hamilton, who is just now starting to pay dividends on the team. The greatest positive to come out of the injury plagued seasons of Rose and Hamilton, is that the bench players have had to contribute and have done so in above average fashion.

In Miami’s losses this month, a lot of the problems that surfaced last season are starting to resurface this season. It’s the Big 3 and no one else on that team. The Big 3 moniker has taken a bit of a hit this season with injuries to Dwayne Wade, but the production from the role players that was so evident in the beginning of the season, has begun to decline to the detriment of the team. The size issue that was a problem last season is still a problem for the Heat. They got Ronny Turiaf after the trading deadline, and while it is a slight improvement over Joel Anthony, the move didn’t really register too much on the Richter scale. The big man rotation of Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Anthony, and Turiaf does give the Heat a bit more flexibility as compared to the big man rotation last season (Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, Bosh, Anthony, and an injury-recovering Haslem). The point guard position has been slumping for the last month and a half. Mario Chalmers has only been shooting 30% from 3-point territory since March 1st, after shooting about 48% from there in the first 2 1/2 months of the season. Norris Cole has hit the rookie wall and is not producing like he was in the beginning of the season, even being relegated to the bench in favor of James Jones, who is just now starting to find his shooting stroke. But, in the end, this team still has Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, and when those two are clicking, this team is still very difficult to defeat.

The Spurs have begun to streak after finally getting all their pieces back from injury. Its no coincidence that their 11 game win streak coincided with Manu Ginobili finally getting his rhythm back after being in and out of the lineup with a myriad of injuries for most of the season. The young players (Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green, and James Anderson) all know their roles and play them to a tee. This team is a well-oiled machine that is just now starting to hit its stride. The team still relies heavily on its trio of veterans, but Coach Popovich has made sure to limit their minutes in the regular season. The addition of veterans Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw will help during their post-season run. This, in my opinion, is probably the most dangerous team heading in the playoffs.

The Thunder’s last 10 games have exhibited the same errors that have been plaguing them the entire season. They are 6-4 in those games, but those errors become very evident in the losses. Stagnant offense always hinders this team in the beginning of games. The team even has a punt play to start nearly every game: giving the ball to Kendrick Perkins in the low post. It very rarely ends in points for the Thunder. In their 4 losses in this 10 game run, the Thunder score an average of 22.3 points in the first quarter. In the 6 wins, that number jumps up to 27. That’s nearly a 5 point difference, which, in an NBA quarter, is a huge difference. Another stat that hinders the team in their losses is the number of turnovers. In that same 10 game span, they are averaging 16.5 turnovers per game in their losses, and 14 per game in their wins. That difference of 2.5 turnovers can, hypothetically, be equated to an extra 7 points for the other team. Which, again, in the NBA, is a game-changing amount.  Defensively, the team still has trouble with the pick and roll and guard penetration.

The good news for all these teams is that there is nothing new that can be labeled a negative. The deficiencies and errors that they have been exhibiting all season, are the same things that are afflicting them now. Even with all these issues, these teams are still the top 4 teams in the league and the leading contenders to win the championship. Are there darkhorses on the fringes that could slip in? Of course. The Los Angeles Lakers are starting to show some diversity in their offense with Andrew Bynum finally taking charge in the absence of Kobe Bryant. The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the deepest teams in the league, with 2 All-star caliber post players (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph) and an All-star caliber wing (Rudy Gay). And the Boston Celtics will give it all they got for what appears to be their swan song together.

The thing about senior-itis is that, eventually, everyone graduates and moves on to the next level. In that next level is where your skills and abilities come out in full force. Some end up in college, some in a job, and some at home on the couch. In this crazy season, anything can happen. But if the playoffs play out anything like the regular season, then these 4 teams should be the cream that rises to the top.