Monday, May 19, 2014

Western Conference Finals Preview: (1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (2) Oklahoma City Thunder

With Serge Ibaka out of the lineup, Oklahoma City will need to find other contributors in the frontcourt.
 By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By The Numbers

San Antonio:
62-20 (32-9 Home, 30-11 Road)
PPG: 105.4 (6th); PPG Allowed: 97.6 (6th)
+7.7 Average Scoring Margin (1st)
Off Rating: 108.2 (6th); Def Rating: 100.1 (4th)
+8.1 Net Efficiency Rating (1st)

Oklahoma City:
59-23 (34-7 Home; 25-16 Road)
PPG: 106.2 (5th); PPG Allowed: 99.8 (12th)
+6.3 Average Scoring Margin (3rd)
Off Rating: 108.1 (7th); Def Rating: 101.0 (5th)
+7.1 Net Efficiency Rating (3rd)

Season Series: Oklahoma City 4-0
Oklahoma City 94, San Antonio 88 (November 27)
Oklahoma City 113, San Antonio 100 (December 21)
Oklahoma City 111, San Antonio 105 (January 22)
Oklahoma City 106, San Antonio 94 (April 3)

Players To Watch

Nick Collison

With Serge Ibaka expected to miss the remainder of the postseason with a left calf injury, suddenly Nick Collison will be thrust into a much larger role. Collison has been mostly a non-factor in this postseason, averaging just 11 minutes per game, as well as a DNP in Game 7 against Memphis, but he's the type of player that won't have much of an issue suddenly jumping up to north of 20 minutes per game. The only concern is how well he's able to replace Ibaka.

Ibaka plays a crucial role for Oklahoma City - he's their best shot blocker, their best pick-and-roll defender, and his range shooting is one of the few ways Oklahoma City has to reliably create space for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Ibaka is 239-for-504 (47.4 percent) on two-point jump shots this year (playoffs included), and is 27-for-71 (38.0 percent) from three, mostly from the left corner. He's a supremely valuable safety valve for the Thunder offense - when the defense collapses on Durant and/or Westbrook, Ibaka is normally able to float to open space and be ready to knock down a jump shot. Collison is a capable shooter from range, but even if you go back four seasons, you don't even have a sample size half the size of Ibaka's from this season alone. Since the 2010-2011 season, Collison is 93-for-203 (45.8 percent) on two-point jump shots, which is promising, but he's not as consistent as Ibaka is. Over the course of a season, there's no worry. Over the course of a seven-game series, it could be the difference between winning and losing.

Defensively, Collison is a great positional defender, but (obviously), he's not the rim protector that Ibaka is. And the Spurs get more shots around the basket than a lot of people might realize - they seem like a finesse team that scores a lot on jump shots, but they were actually 10th in the league in shot attempts in the restricted area. If Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili come barreling into the paint, Collison can step over and take a charge, but don't expect him to swat floaters out of the air.

If Collison can find his jump shot, and deter San Antonio ball-handlers away from the basket, he'll be a reasonable facsimile of Serge Ibaka and Oklahoma City will have a chance. If he can't do those things, they probably don't.

Kawhi Leonard

Guarding Kevin Durant for seven games is not exactly my idea of a picnic. That task will fall primarily to Leonard in this series. In both of the first two rounds, defenders have shown that Durant is not an unstoppable force - Tony Allen got under his skin in Round 1, and Durant shot just 37 percent from the floor from Game 2 through Game 5. In Round 2, Durant had an up-and-down series when the Clippers threw a multitude of defenders at him, and he struggled in Game 5 (6-for-22), and started 1-for-7 in Game 6. San Antonio is more likely to spend most of the series with just Leonard on Durant, although they may turn to Boris Diaw at times, like they did against LeBron in the Finals last year.

Leonard also needs to present a threat on offense, as well. In the first two rounds, Oklahoma City has been able to hide Durant on weaker offensive players - Tayshaun Prince and Allen against Memphis, Matt Barnes against Los Angeles. He was able to roam around and use his length to bother passing lanes and generally disrupt the offense. Leonard isn't exactly Bernard King, but he's developed enough of an offensive game to keep Durant honest. He'll plant himself in the corner and force Durant to stick with him - if Durant doesn't, Leonard will either have an open three, or he'll be able to drift towards the basket along the baseline and wait for a dump-off pass from a penetrating guard. In either event, Leonard needs to make Durant respect him as a scorer. If he doesn't have to do that, Durant is a 6-11 monkey wrench being thrown into San Antonio's precise offense.

The Case For Oklahoma City

In the 2012 Western Finals, the Thunder had a sudden revelation that, plain and simple, they were stronger and faster than the Spurs were, across the board. They started attacking Tony Parker on defense with a creative pin-down play that ended up with Durant posting up a smaller guard and they bludgeoned the Spurs to death with it. The difference between that series and this one was that James Harden was a huge difference maker (he averaged an 18-6-4 and shot an ungodly 61 percent from three). The other is Ibaka.

The Thunder are also 4-0 against the Spurs in the regular season this year, and it's not like those losses were the classic Spurs "let's sit all of our relevant players so that this team we expect to see in the Playoffs can't pick up our tendencies against them" games. Parker, Ginobili, Duncan, and Leonard made 14 of the possible 16 appearances in the four games (Ginobili and Leonard missed one game each). Oklahoma City legitimately beat San Antonio four times, and one of those came without Russell Westbrook. Again, the only real difference is Ibaka.

Reggie Jackson has proven to be a nightmare matchup for the Spurs, much in the way James Harden was in 2012 - in the four meetings this year, Jackson averaged 21 points per contest on an absurd 67.9 percent shooting from the floor (the four games - 6-for-8, 12-for-17, 8-for-14, 10-for-14). If Oklahoma City adjusts to Ibaka's absence by playing small more (Westbrook, Jackson, Butler, Durant, Collison), Jackson could be the key X-Factor

Best-Case Scenario: Collison's jump shot is on point, and he uses his defensive savvy to sniff out San Antonio's misdirection pick-and-rolls. Jackson plays like James Harden 2.0, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to be the most devastating 1-2 punch in the league. In a repeat of the 2012 Western Finals, the Spurs Machine looks like it will make quick work of Oklahoma City, but a few subtle adjustments turn the tide and the Thunder win in 6.

The Case For San Antonio

They haven't really had to shift into over-drive yet (unless you want to classify their Game 7 drubbing of Dallas as over-drive, and I wouldn't have a strong disagreement). They were historically deep during the regular season - nobody on the roster averaged over 30 minutes per game - and they've maintained that depth in the playoffs; Duncan is up to 33 per game, and Leonard and Parker are both around 31, but they have nine players each averaging over 15 minutes per game. Against Oklahoma City, they could start tightening their rotations and keeping Parker, Leonard, and Duncan on the floor longer to match up with the Thunder's starts.

Yes, the Thunder beat them in 2012, but Harden and Ibaka aren't available in this series. Yes, Oklahoma City swept them in the regular season, but Ibaka isn't available in this series (and Miami showed in Round 2 that getting swept in the regular season isn't too indicative of how a postseason series will play out).

Oklahoma City has come this far mostly in spite of their coach, not because of him. I thought Doc Rivers would out-coach Scott Brooks in Round 2, and he did to a certain degree. It just wasn't enough to win the series. If Gregg Popovich can't out-coach Scott Brooks and claim vengeance for his 2012 slip-up, I'd be shocked.

Best-Case Scenario: With Ibaka out, Parker and Ginobili can parade to the basket. Brooks opts to play Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams together at times, but they're too slow on defense and kill spacing on offense. Nick Collison can't find his jump shot and can't protect the rim. San Antonio's team defense is able to corral Westbrook like they did to Damian Lillard, and Kawhi Leonard hinders Kevin Durant into a forgettable series. Ibaka's absence proves far more of a hurdle than anyone anticipated, and the Spurs pull off a surprising sweep.

The Pick

Spurs in five.

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