Now that the Western Conference Finals are set between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, fans from both sides have been asking questions and it might sound like the same ones that were asked 2 years ago when they met and the Spurs fell to the Thunder. This year is different and it’s not the obvious answer of the personnel between the clubs. This question wouldn’t even have been asked before the playoffs started this year either, which is probably why no one is asking it… until now.
“How are the Thunder going to contain Kawhi Leonard?”
That’s the question no one is asking and they should be. In past matchups including the regular season that ended just a few weeks ago, the Spurs were a much different team as was Kawhi. It took confidence and a matchup in his favor against the Dallas Mavericks in the opening round to get him on a roll that kept going against the Portland Trailblazers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The Thunder have tried to limit Tony Parker by putting Thabo Sefolosha on him and having Russell Westbrook rest on defense by guarding Danny Green. That has left Kevin Durant to guard a spot up shooting Leonard with a good deal of rest for the reigning NBA MVP. This was a matchup that could be likened to Bruce Bowen guarding Kobe Bryant in past years where the Spurs hoped Bowen’s rest on offense would help his defense and the same was said of Bryant when he was guarding Bowen in the corner.
The reason this question needs to be asked and examined (especially from a non-stastical standpoint) is because it could tilt the odds in San Antonio’s favor this series with Durant most likely guarding Leonard. These are the categories that will effect the answer to the question and the possible outcome.
Defense: This is the most obvious effected category with the Thunder defending Leonard. The likely matchup is going to be Durant guarding him. We saw the past two rounds in the playoffs that teams have tried to Leonard with smaller players that included Damian Lillard. This would make sense for a team if Leonard was a one dimensional player, but we’ve seen him post up the smaller guards and taken advantage of them with his height and long arms. One of the major consequences of this have been fouls from the smaller players and that’s something the Thunder won’t chance with Russell Westbrook. His erratic overall play on both ends of the floor would make him a ticking timebomb emotionally if calls aren’t given on his end if he was defending Leonard or if the Spurs’ starting small forward easily makes shots over him. This again will likely leave Durant to defend him one on one and it might leave him vulernable on picking up fouls without guarding this “new” Leonard on the floor. His aggressiveness on the offensive end will likely expose Durant’s man defense and weaknesses.
Offense: The offensive side of the ball will be effected by the Thunder’s strategy to contain Leonard, but not the offensive side for the Spurs. If the Thunder decide to have a one on one matchup between Leonard and Durant, it might play into San Antonio’s favor. Kawhi’s effectiveness could threaten to cancel out Durant’s points on the offensive end, but his aggressiveness may take away Durant’s legs for jump shots when the Thunder are on offense. This is especially important as Oklahoma City lean upon heavily. If Durant is chasing around and defending Leonard, it may lead to Durant having more missed shots. The same could be said of Leonard, but the Spurs have more offensive options in the starting lineup and off the bench to make up for a dip in Kawhi’s points unlike the Thunder.
Stamina: Durant is averaging 44.5mpg during the postseason compared to Leonard’s 31.8mpg. This is a huge difference between both starting small forwards, but it plays into a bigger picture that will likely play into San Antonio’s favor. There’s a reason why Kawhi Leonard’s minutes are so low compared to Durant’s and that’s the depth the Spurs have off the bench. San Antonio’s has leaned on its bench for production all season long. The huge problem for teams is that San Antonio’s bench consisting of Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Boris Diaw are extremely versatile. They can shoot, handle, and pass the ball while playing more than their natural position. The reason this is huge and expects to play in the Spurs’ favor is simple. Durant is likely to guard one of the Spurs’ main options on the floor during the start of the game and then will be forced to guard one of the Spurs’ energetic, crafty, and quick reserves. He’ll likely be guarded by them too, but Leonard is likely to wear him out in the starting unit and will have no rest off the bench. The game plan to contain Leonard at the start iwll play a huge role in Durant’s stamina for the whole series.
Oklahoma City’s defensive plan against Kawhi Leonard will likely determine the series. If they go in a man on man situation with their superstar and reigning MVP Kevin Durant, it might wear him out with Leonard’s aggressiveness and knowledge that his team is so deep talent wise that he can use up the majority of his energy and get rest between quarters and that can’t be said of the Thunder’s short rotation in the small forward position. If the Thunder can’t contain Leonard with an effective game plan that doesn’t involve Kevin Durant, it might be a short series in San Antonio’s favor. While everyone may be asking “How will the Thunder contain Tony Parker?” or any other big name Spurs player, the question no one is asking is probably the most important and that question involves Kawhi Leonard.