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WCF Preview: Right Where They Belong

By Jeff Koch on May 18, 2014.

Both teams are back where they belong, looking to finish unfinished business. Over the last 3 years, these are the two best teams from the West, so it’s only fitting that they meet in the Western Conference Finals.

For the Spurs, this journey began moments after their crushing defeat in Game 7 of the Finals last year. Anything less than a chance for a return to the Finals would be a failure, and the team has played the entire season with a singular focus and drive, every action and decision made in service of getting back to this spot.

As I stated in my Playoffs Preview, though, this has also been a 4-year journey, a rebirth for the Spurs after being buried for what seems like the millionth time after the 2010 season. Since then, they’ve been the top seed in the West 3 of 4 years and are now playing in their third straight Western Conference Finals, a first for this highly decorated team. Think of every Western Conference team the Spurs have beaten on this ride: The Jazz, The Clippers, The Lakers, The Warriors, The Grizzlies (avenging the 2011 ouster), The Mavericks, and the Blazers. Not a single repeat…until now. Everything was set up in 2012 for the Spurs until a young and athletic Thunder team figured things out on the fly and swept us out of the playoffs. It’s fitting that our road back to the Finals intersects with Oklahoma City. Great success if often borne out of prior failures.

On the even of Game 1, let’s look at some key match-ups and story lines for this highly anticipated series.

The Calf vs. The Hamstring

The news over the weekend was bad for the Thunder: Serge Ibaka is out of the remainder of the playoffs with a severe calf strain. Tony Parker has a strained hamstring but is cleared to play; how effective he will be remains to be seen.

The Ibaka loss is gigantic for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook are better players, but no player wreaks havoc on the Spurs on both ends of the floor quite like Serge. For a detailed account of the numbers, read this excellent piece from 48MoH. Or look at this very hand graphic (h/t JR Wilco). The eye test bears these numbers out. Any Spurs fan watching the team play the Thunder should be rightfully terrified of Ibaka. He completely shuts down the lane, stopping our guard penetration and protecting the rim. Usually this is fine, because the guards kick it out to wide open shooters. But Ibaka is so effective, that the defenders can stay at home against our shooters. His presence also completely blows up our Pick and Roll game. There is no team that the Spurs offense struggles against like the Thunder, and it all starts with Ibaka’s presence. Without Ibaka, the Spurs offense should be able to keep humming along at its recent efficient clip.

Ibaka is also the prototype of the player that the Spurs’ defense has the most trouble against: sweet shooting athletic bigs. Remember 11-for-11 in Game 5 of the 2012 WCF? His ability to shoot the mid-range jump shot forces a big to come out and really stretches the D and opens up the floor for Durant and Westbrook to slash. No other Thunder big is as scary a shooter to open up the floor in a similar manner. Without his shooting, the Spurs can really pack the paint and force the Thunder to rely on shooting while still being able to  contest the shots.

Ibaka’s loss is easily the most important storyline heading into the series. While it doesn’t sink the Thunder (no team with the MVP should ever be totally sunk), it gives San Antonio the clear edge. It’s there for the taking, but it won’t be given.

Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant

As far as individual match-ups go, this is the juiciest one, the one I am most eager to watch. We only got one really good half of Leonard guarding Durant straight-up this season, and he did a wonderful job. As well as Kawhi is locked in right now, I expect his defensive effort to be ferocious against Durant. Leonard has the ability to hound a player like Tony Allen does, only he’s quite a bit taller with long arms and talon like hands. Durant will still score, for sure, but being able to guard him straight up for the majority of the game allows the defense to remain honest and in tact.

Remember how Pop said Kawhi’s minutes were going to go way up in the post-season? Well, so far they haven’t. There’s been a slight bump all around, but in general, Pop hasn’t even instituted playoff minutes yet. I fully expect Kawhi to match Durant’s minutes almost exactly. It’ll also be wonderful to see how Kawhi goes back at Durant on the other end, forcing him to play defense and perhaps wearing him down. Leonard is a bit thicker body and does have more of a post game and can bang bodies a bit.

This is going to be fun to watch.

Russell Westbrook vs. Russell Westbrook

In general, the Spurs have always defended Westbrook very well, and he tends to have some of his worst games against us. For sure, he is an explosive player who has unmatched athleticism in the league. The Spurs transition defense will be tested in every game, every possession. But Westbrook has immense self-belief, and that works against him quite a bit. He is prone to taking 18-foot jump shots in transition, or off the dribble early in the shot clock; or careening wildly to the rim and blowing lay-ups, leaving the Thunder transition D vulnerable; or taking wildly contested 3-pointers. While he is capable of converting any of these plays, they also completely shut down the Thunder offense, and, more importantly, remove Durant from the equation. Even if he’s making them, the more “Poor decision” jump shots Westbrook takes, the better.

Russell is also a gambler on defense, and the Spurs have notoriously used this against him with back cuts and back door action.

Bad Manu vs. Good Manu

We have a series of each under our belts: which Manu will show up in OKC? He often struggles against the Thunder bench and he will be greatly needed to keep the offense always attacking and to get Patty and Boris and Marco into good scoring positions. I think the rest between the series will help him. His effort and desire will never be questioned; let’s just hope he keeps the turnovers and dumb plays to a minimum.

Bench vs. Bench

The Spurs have a great bench, and on paper have a much better bench than the Thunder. With Ibaka out, that is going to force Collison or Adams into starting duty, and put more minutes on both of them and Perkins. Collison, in particular, is a wonderful player, but increased minutes often means decreased efficiency for lifelong bench players. And Adams is a rookie who could be prone to make big mistakes on the big stage. (And the Spurs are the one team that won’t let him get under their skin and react rashly in the heat of battle.)

So the Spurs bench edge seems even bigger. And yet…what has always killed the Spurs against this team is the random ‘career’ game for a role player. Ibaka and Perkins killed us in that 2012 series in Game 5. Reggie Jackson is the latest Thunder to have career highs against the Spurs. The ghost of Derek Fisher still haunts the Spurs, now wearing a Thunder jersey. Even the likes of Thabo and Collison have had great games against us. As weird as this is to say, the great fear of playing this team isn’t Westbrook and Durant: it’s everybody else. If we can slow their role players and get more production from our bench, we’ll be in solid shape, regardless of what Durant and Westbrook do. Again, this is where Ibaka’s absence will also be strongly felt.

2012 vs. 2014

If anybody mentions 2012 as a reason they are picking the Thunder, disregard their comments. Both teams are completely different. Harden is gone; Ibaka won’t be playing; Durant and Westbrook are 2 years more developed. But the Spurs side is where things are most drastically different. In 2012, Green, Leonard, and Splitter were all in their first serious playoff runs with the team and it was their first time on the big stage. They are all now playoff veterans, all having played significant roles in a team that made the Finals. Mills is playing the best ball of his life. Marco is our shooter off the bench instead of Neal. In general, the team is smarter, more connected, and all-around better.

Pop vs. Brooks

Haha. Just kidding. Pop wins, every day and twice on Sunday. If the Thunder win in this series, it’ll be because…

Execution vs. Athleticism

This match-up is the quintessential match-up of system vs. talent, execution vs. athleticism. The Spurs know who they are, know what they want to do, and every player knows his role to the best of their abilities and fulfills it. There is no panic, there is no dread. At the end of close games, they do what they’ve done a million times, trusting that every other player on the floor will be where they should be and do what they should do, having also done it a million times. They execute; they trust a system.

The Thunder, on the other hand, win on pure basketball talent and instinct, overwhelming athleticism and ability. I’ve watched the majority of their games this post-seaosn, and I’ve seen them overcome a 7-point deficit in the final minute of a game because of Durant’s shooting and Westbrook’s freakish athleticism and fearlessness. I’ve also seen them squander a double digit lead in the 4th quarter and shoot themselves into a loss with no offensive system to fall back on in the final minutes of a close game. They are utterly predictable, everything going through Durant or Westbrook. But they are so good, sometimes that works out wonderfully.

I think this is what frustrates Spurs fans so much about losing to this team. The Spurs are a better team; but the Thunder are better talents. We hate losing to Oklahoma City because it invalidates our belief that hard work and smart team-building pays off, and it shows that our system, as great as it is, can be rendered irrelevant by the right mix of talent and athleticism.

Only one team will be advancing to the 2014 Finals; let’s hope that it’s the truer team.

Go Spurs Go.

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