NBA Playoffs: Spurs-Thunder Western Conference finals preview

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

More postseason coverage: Playoff schedule, results | Latest news, notes

Season series: The Oklahoma City Thunder swept the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in the regular season. Dating back to the 2012 Western Conference finals when these two teams met up, that's 10 out of the last 12 the Thunder have won in this match-up, including five straight games. Back in the 2012 Western Conference finals, the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden was just too much to handle. Harden would handle the ball, Westbrook would set a pindown screen for Durant, and he'd pop to the free throw line. There were so many variations off this play, the Thunder were unstoppable against the defensive execution of the Spurs, which was quite good but lacking the necessary athleticism to completely defend the play.

Even with Harden gone, this Thunder team still has the same athletic advantage. The Spurs beat you with ball movement and turning your defense on its side as it scrambles to recover from the previous pass, never anticipating the next pass. Except with OKC, they have the athleticism to keep up with the passing and challenge the shots. It's what they did in four straight games this season. Mostly, they turned the Spurs away at the rim. In three of the four games, the Thunder's defense was too much for the Spurs and they kept them under 44.0 percent shooting from the field. In the other win, the Spurs scored quite efficiently with their shooting but turned the ball over 17 times. Westbrook and Durant controlled the series, the Thunder controlled the paint, and San Antonio has to figure out how to counteract this.

STARTERS
SAN ANTONIO SPURSOKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Tony ParkerRussell Westbrook
Danny GreenThabo Sefolosha
Kawhi LeonardKevin Durant
Tim Duncan(Serge Ibaka out, lineup adjustment unknown)
Tiago SplitterKendrick Perkins

X-Factor(s): Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs need two things to win this series. First, they need to be able to stretch the floor as much as possible against the length and athleticism of this Thunder defense. When they can stretch the floor, it opens things up for them having the space inside to finish at the basket. Second, they need to be able to finish at the basket because then it makes the defense collapse and it leaves the shooters open. It's a symbiotic relationship that makes the Spurs so dangerous and makes their execution seem flawless. It's the Gregg Popovich way to winning basketball games and the combination of Green and Ginobili are the biggest keys to it.

Green had a phenomenal season shooting the ball, making 41.5 percent of his 3-point attempts and he's made 43.2 percent of his long distance shots this postseason. But against the Thunder this season, he struggled and struggled badly. In three games against OKC, he shot just 23.1 percent from downtown. It's a very small sample size because we're going off of 13 shots. One of those was a halfcourt heave so we shouldn't count it against him. On contested 3-point shots, he was 1-of-6 and on open 3-point shots, he was 2-of-6. They need to get him open.

You can do that by having the good Ginobili show up and wreck the defense. When he's on, he's one of the best offensive players in the game because he can shoot from outside, score at the rim, and make plays for others. When he's driving against the defense and scoring inside, it causes them to leave shooters because you need to contest at the rim. When that happens, it sets off a series of passes to get the best outside shot possible and that opens things up for guys like Green. Ginobili struggled against the Thunder with 39.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from downtown. He has to be better for everybody else to be better.

Narrative: Is execution enough for two hungry young stars looking to get back to where they feel they belong? Despite what it may have looked like at times against the Clippers in Round 2, the Thunder are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. They were fifth this season in defensive rating because they have the length and athleticism we mentioned before. This really hurt the Spurs inside in the season series. All season long, the Spurs made 64.8 percent of their shots in the restricted area, which was third best in the NBA. Against the Thunder? That percentage dropped to 50.4 percent in the restricted area. That's an astounding drop-off.

They had the fifth worst restricted area percentage against the Thunder this season and that's where the line is for this series. The Spurs are a better team and have a gigantic coaching advantage. But they don't have the length and athleticism to deter Kevin Durant, even with as good of a defender as Kawhi Leonard is. On top of that, how do you contain Westbrook without just hoping he does some bad things for team play and only looks out for himself? The discipline of the Spurs can be blown out of the water with 7'4" wingspans and 40-inch verticals. But the question is will this happen?

Prediction: All of the signs point to the Thunder being too much of a match-up problem for the Spurs because they have the skill meshed perfectly with the athleticism required to disrupt the Spurs. But the calf injury to Serge Ibaka is a huge unknown and even if it costs them one game of him being completely healthy, that may be enough. The Thunder gave up just 93.0 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka on the court (148 minutes) this season and 120.8 with him off (44 minutes). Last year, that split was 96.3 and 111.5, respectively. Without knowing whether or not Ibaka is healthy enough and even risking that the injury will be meaningless to the series, his defense may mean too much for stopping the Spurs from collapsing the defense inside, which opens up the offense outside. (Update: Ibaka is out for the season. Welp.)

SPURS IN SEVEN

Will the Thunder's athleticism be too much for the Spurs?  (USATSI)
Will the Thunder's athleticism be too much for the Spurs? (USATSI)

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