The Thunder and Spurs will meet Thursday night to conclude their season series in what might end up as a game to decide home-court advantage should the two meet in the Western Conference finals for the second year in a row as expected. The Spurs stand a game and a half above the Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the West.
There are a million factors that go into every game between two teams this good, up to and including simple luck. But with three games under their belts this season, we're able to see a little bit in the way of how these two particular teams are shaping up. And this season, the results have been different from when the teams met last June.
The biggest differential that has led to the Spurs' 2-1 series lead this season is the Spurs' defense. San Antonio gave up a 110.4 defensive efficiency in the six-game Western Conference finals last summer, a mark that would put them last in the NBA this season. That's astronomical. This season, the Spurs have shown a superior defense after that plundering in the WCF and have the third-best defense in terms of points allowed per possession.
And against the Thunder, they've been better, even against an offense as formidable as OKC's. The Spurs are allowing just a 100.8 defensive efficiency against OKC this season.
But the offense has struggled more as well. Their offensive efficiency vs. the Thunder is down to 101.3 vs. 105.6 in the WCF. The Spurs can play better defense, but scoring has become harder for them as well. And the way they're scoring has changed. Whether that's sustainable is a pretty decent question to ask.
How exactly have the Spurs changed their offense vs. OKC?
Let's take a look. Here's an image that shows what the Spurs' offense looked like from the field in the 2012 WCF vs. this season.
You'll notice the perimeter shots have gone from green up top to yellow and from green in the left corner to red. The Spurs shot worse from 3 both above the break and corner this season and in the paint. They improved in two places -- at the rim (slightly) and from mid-range.
It's not just that the Spurs improved in terms of their shots from the mid-range against OKC this year. They're taking more of them. In the WCF last year, the Spurs averaged 18 mid-range shots per game. This year, they're taking 21 in that area. And they're making a significantly higher percentage, up to 46 percent, a stellar rate from the most inefficent area on the floor, vs. just 38 percent last year.
But, wait. This is the league's most potent offensive system. If mid-range jumpers are the most inefficient shot, why are the Spurs taking more of them?
There are three reasons. One has to do with how the Thunder defend them. Take a look at a few of these. Take a look at how low the help comes from Oklahoma City on drives.
Defensively, the Thunder have decided to make their point of attack with help defense much lower and nearer the basket than higher. In say, Tom Thibodeau's Chicago defense, the point of attack is much higher, with Joakim Noah extending to the mid-paint at times. But the Thunder are almost coaxing the Spurs into taking those shots, something a lot of teams do, because, well, no one hits them very well. If you have your druthers between a mid-range jumper and a 3-pointer or layup, you take the jumper every time.
(Unless you're Doug Collins, and then your offense is a pit of infinite sadness.)
The other reason the Spurs have taken more mid-range shots against OKC this year has to do with trying to get into their sets before OKC's defense can set. OKC's transition defense is very good; their bigs get back to defend exceptionally well.
But if you're the Spurs, who want to get a shot quickly before OKC can settle into their system, and the rim is protected, what are you going to do? You modify and go for what is maybe a less efficient shot but might be more efficient in this situation. You're going to PUJIT.
Pull-Up Jumpers in Transition.
Watch how the Spurs will run in the middle of packs and then pull up. These aren't great shots for many teams. And if the Spurs can, they want to get to the rim or find the transition three. But their shooters are so good, they're able to find a lot of success on these.
And the last reason the Spurs have taken more shots from this area and been more successful against OKC is pretty simple.
You'll see two ways the Spurs have used Duncan here. One, they create confusion with their baseline movement combined with Tony Parker's side pick and roll. When the rotations get off, Duncan has quietly slid to that sweet spot. Two, the Spurs will get him the ball for quick shots before the defense can adapt. It's a combination of Duncan and how the Thunder defend him. The result is the big man getting range shots uncovered.
If Oklahoma City wants to gain ground in the West, they're going to be faced with a tough decision. Do you adapt to what San Antonio is doing well, or do you focus on the fact that your defense has done a better job on them this season and stick to your game plan? It's not an easy one, but one that Scott Brooks' staff will have to figure out not only on Thursday night but possibly again in the playoffs.
"If she is the best on the board, I will take her," Cuban said before the Mavs' Tuesday night game against the Los Angeles Lakers. "I've thought about it. I've thought about it already. Would I do it? Right now, I'd lean toward yes, just to see if she can do it. You never know unless you give somebody a chance, and it's not like the likelihood of any late-50s draft pick has a good chance of making it."
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.