Position by Position: Spurs vs. Thunder
Media and fans alike have been raving about how exciting these playoffs have been. However, when all was said and done, the Western Conference Finals pits together the number one seed San Antonio Spurs against the number two seed Oklahoma City Thunder, just as most people expected. The stage is a set for a rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
Much has been documented about the Spurs struggles against the Thunder this season. The Thunder swept the season series 4-0. However, that isn’t the biggest storyline heading into the series. Rather, the Serge Ibaka calf injury that takes him out of the rest of the playoffs alters the entire dynamic of the series. That 4-0 season series doesn’t mean a whole lot now.
OKC: Russell Westbrook – 21.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 6.9 APG, 1.91 SPG, 0.15 BPG, 3.8 TOPG, .437 FG%, .318 3P%,
Much has been said about Russell Westbrook. He truly is a bona fide scorer. His speed is tremendous slashing toward the basket. Chris Paul truly could not keep up with him. During the Clippers series, half of Westbrook’s shot attempts came right near the restricted area.
On the flip side, Westbrook has been known for being a ball hog and taking ill-advised shots. His three-point percentage is worst than every regular rotation player (ones that actually shoot threes) except Thabo Sefolosha. However, he attempts the second most. While he has his positives and negatives, Westbrook truly is one of the top three point guards in the entire NBA, and can take over games by himself.
SAS: Tony Parker – 16.7 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 0.53 SPG, 0.13 BPG, 2.2 TOPG, .499 FG%, .373 3P%
How healthy will Tony Parker be? That’s the only question going through the minds of Spurs fans right now. Before leaving Game Five with the hamstring injury, Parker was kicking it up a notch in this postseason. Since Game Seven of the Dallas series, Parker was averaging 24.8 points per game. Reports say Parker would have been ready if there was a Game Six. That being said, if he is at close to full strength, Parker should have a field day in the paint without a legitimate shot blocker on the Thunder roster now that Ibaka is out.
If Parker hadn’t have injured himself in Game Five, this one would be even. The fact of the matter is that we just don’t know. On top of that, Westbrook is just too good and too athletic not to get the nod. This will be the most exciting matchup in the series. Westbrook and Parker, however, may not defend the other very much. Sefolosha has had success defending Parker in the past, and the longer, more athletic Danny Green would be logical to put on Westbrook.
OKC: Thabo Sefolosha – 6.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.30 SPG, 0.28 BPG, 0.9 TOPG, .415 FG%, .316 3P%
Sefolosha’s numbers, especially his shooting percentages, have dropped from last season. He will not create his own shot. He will not take over basketball games. What he will do is knock down threes when the defense is drawn in to help defend Durant and/or Westbrook. He is also their best perimeter defender and will most likely be assigned Tony Parker, as he had success defending him in the 2012 Western Conference Finals.
SAS: Danny Green – 9.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.96 SPG, 0.90 BPG, 1.1 TOPG, .432 FG%, .415 3P%
After ending the Dallas series on a hot note, Green struggled to begin the Portland series. Toward the end, he found his groove again, dropping 22 points on 69% shooting. For the Spurs to be successful, Green needs to be hot to begin this series as well. He can’t afford to come out of the gates slowly. Green will probably defend a lot of Westbrook, but will also see some Sefolosha or Reggie Jackson.
Essentially, these two shooting guards have the same type of role and they are the same type of player. It’s very easily comparable. Green is a better shooter so he gets the nod here.
OKC: Kevin Durant – 32.0 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 5.5 APG, 1.27 SPG, 0.73 BPG, 3.5 TOPG, .503 FG%, .391 3P%
Kevin Durant is the NBA MVP. That’s pretty much all you need to know to realize how good he is. His averages on the season are a bit lower when he faces the Spurs, and one would have to think that has a lot to do with Kawhi Leonard. Nobody is going to stop Durant. It’s just simply not going to happen. He will get his and most likely lead the Thunder to a win or two on his own.
SAS: Kawhi Leonard – 12.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.73 SPG, 0.76 BPG, 1.2 TOPG, .522 FG%, .379 P%
Kawhi Leonard only played in 66 games this season. One of those was a game where he left early due to injury against the Thunder. He also missed another game against OKC. So, essentially, he has played against the Thunder twice this season. In those contests, Leonard is averaging 15.5 points and six rebounds a game. Leonard needs to put up those numbers and continue to knock down threes like he did against the Blazers, all while attempting to slow down Durant. Yeah, he has his hands full.
Leonard is a promising young talent, and very skilled player. But, come on, is this even a question? Durant is the MVP, scoring champion, and second best player in the league behind LeBron James.
OKC: Nick Collison – 4.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.37 SPG, 0.35 BPG, 0.9 TOPG, .556 FG%, .235 3P%
This is not Scott Brooks writing. Who knows what he is going to do in the wake of Ibaka’s injury. The most likely scenario here is starting veteran Nick Collison at the four. Collison, one of two former Sonics still on the roster (Durant), does the Thunder’s dirty work. He has a knack for finding the rebound, and shoots at a very high percentage, because he does not force anything. He is a very, very smart player which has kept him in the league all these years. That being said, there are other options Brooks could choose to go to here. When Ibaka missed his one game during the regular season, Perry Jones was the one to get the starting nod. That’s a small ball look. More unlikely could be Steven Adams starting, showing the Spurs a dual center look. Lastly, Caron Butler could start, moving Durant down to this four spot, resulting in an even smaller lineup. Nobody knows for sure, but Collison is the most likely option.
SAS: Tim Duncan- 15.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.58 SPG, 1.88 BPG, 2.1 TOPG, .490 FG%, .000 3P%
Tim Duncan was in no way dominant against Portland, but did his job on the offensive end and defensive end, just as he has done for years and years and years and years. Against the Thunder, Duncan will be needed stopping Westbrook in the lane. On top of that, with Ibaka out, Duncan will most likely become more a focal point on offense.
Regardless of whether Ibaka was playing or not, Duncan would have had the advantage. Collison is a serviceable role player, at best, and is nowhere near the 4-time NBA Champion.
OKC: Kendrick Perkins – 3.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.1 APG, 0.42 SPG, 0.52 BPG, 1.5 TOPG, .451 FG%, .000 3P%
Kendrick Perkins is making a career mostly on reputation now. In fact, the argument can be made that the Thunder are actually better when he’s not on the floor. The numbers sort of back that up. In his 20 minutes per game average, Perkins is only averaging +0.7 on the plus/minus scale. Considering he starts, so he plays most of his minutes with Durant and Westbrook, that number is absurdly low. The Thunder, based on their record and scoring talent, should be outscoring teams way more than that. Perkins also owns a Player Efficiency Rating of 6.3. For comparison’s sake, first round opponent Samuel Dalembert, who is in no way an all-star, had a PER of 16.9. Perkins defense is still respectable, but he will be forced to play given Ibaka’s injury and the lack of depth of OKC’s frontline.
SAS: Tiago Splitter – 8.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 0.49 SPG, 0.53 BPG, 1.3 TOPG, .523 FG%, .000 3P%
Tiago Splitter has been a defensive monster this postseason. His play on Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge have been duly noted. This series, his defense will be more in a help role. Perkins and Collison aren’t scoring threats, so Splitter will be used to help on Durant and Westbrook coming down the lane. The pick-n-roll game on offense, once again, will be where Splitter is most efficient.
Splitter has arguably been the best big man next to Duncan since Mr. Robinson. His play this postseason has been superb. Like stated above, Perkins is far, far from the best player around, so the direction this matchup should go is pretty clear.
OKC: Reggie Jackson – 13.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.06 SPG, 0.11 BPG, 2.1 TOPG, .440 FG%, .339 3P%
OKC: Derek Fisher – 5.2 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.86 SPG, 0.04 BPG, 0.6 TOPG, .391 FG%, .384 3P%
Reggie Jackson averaged 13.1 points per game during the regular season. Against the Spurs, Jackson averaged 21.25 points. On top of that, Jackson shot over 70 percent three times, and never lower than 57 percent. So to say Jackson loves playing against the Spurs is an understatement. Now, with Ibaka out, Jackson will be rewarded with more shot attempts. The Spurs have to game plan for him, especially if he continues to never miss against them. Green, Ginobili, Mills, and maybe even Parker will be tasked with defending him. As for Fisher, a word of advice. Be prepared to be frustrated beyond belief when he goes 3-for-3 and his clutch three nearly hits the roof. It’s going to happen. Just be ready for it, and try not to rip a pillow in half.
SAS: Manu Ginobili – 12.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.03 SPG, 0.25 BPG, 2.0 TOPG, .469 FG%, .349 3P%
SAS: Marco Belinelli – 11.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.63 SPG, 0.09 BPG, 1.2 TOPG, .485 FG%, .430 3P%
SAS: Patty Mills – 10.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.84 SPG, 0.11 BPG, 0.8 TOPG, .464 FG%, .425 3P%
Belinelli returned to the fold once the second round started. He struggled mightily in the first round, but improved his shooting 14 percentage points and improved his +/- rating 13.4 points. His shooting will play a vital role, just like always. Ginobili struggled with his shot, which really wasn’t falling in any of the five games versus the Blazers. He is on record saying he knows he has to play better, and has to make plays, especially if Parker were to miss any time. Mills was fantastic against Portland on the offensive end, and needs to translate that over, and pick up his defense against a stellar Thunder backcourt.
If Reggie Jackson continues to play the way he has against the Spurs, he is the best player off the bench from both teams. Even with his regular averages, he is close to the top as well. Fisher will make his shots, but the Spurs have the playmakers. This could very well be the difference in the series.
OKC: Steven Adams – 3.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 0.5 APG, 0.49 SPG, 0.70 BPG, 0.9 TOPG, .503 FG%, .000 3P%
OKC: Caron Butler – 9.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.09 SPG, 0.27 BPG, 0.4 TOPG, .409 FG%, .441 3P%
Perry Jones is left off the list, because there is no guarantee he takes Ibaka’s minutes and he has yet to really play in the postseason. Steven Adams will get under your skin. Ask Zach Randolph. Just in his rookie season, Adams has taken his fair share of elbows and punches from opposing players. He hustles and irritates, but will play big minutes with Ibaka out. Caron Butler is shooting better from three land than he is overall. Butler will hit his threes and play some small ball 4, or the 3 when Durant plays the 4.
SAS: Boris Diaw – 9.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.8 APG, 0.56 SPG, 0.41 BPG, 1.5 TOPG, .521 FG%, .402 3P%
Again, Baynes and Bonner may get spot minutes, but it’s unlikely. If either do, this series makes more sense for Bonner to play and stretch out the floor. Diaw will play a ton at the four, because the Thunder will play quite a bit of small ball. We may even see some Diaw at center if the matchups pan out that way. Diaw will probably see some time on Durant if Leonard gets in foul troubles or needs a rest. That’s a huge task.
The do-it-all ability of Diaw is superior to Butler hitting threes and Adams energy. Diaw can hit threes and make plays. The only positive here is Adams on the boards, something the Spurs will have to pay attention to.
Scott Brooks has been catching some flak lately for his coaching. If they would have lost to Memphis or the Clippers, there’s a good chance he would have been gone. Popovich has outcoached great coaches Carlisle and Stotts so far, and is expected to do the same against Brooks.
Game One is set for Monday night at 8 PM CST.
(stats and graphics via NBA.com)