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No. 1 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder
"Life is a constant battle between the heart and the brain. But guess who wins. The skeleton."
The remarkable resurgence of Spurs centerpiece Tim Duncan — he of the Frank Castle knee brace and the skel-toe adidas — has been a story worth marveling over this postseason. The 36-year-old looked off-the-vine fresh during the Spurs' straight-sets wins over the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in the first two rounds, averaging 19.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists per 36 minutes of playoff burn, hitting 54 percent of his field goals and just under 80 percent of his free throws, and generally seeming about as sharp and dominant and as he has since San Antonio's last title run, way back in 2007.
It's tempting to suggest that, with Duncan playing at this level, there isn't a front line in the world that can slow him down. That, however, would ignore the yeoman's work that Thunder bigs Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka did against the two-time MVP on the defensive end this season.
Both Ibaka and Perkins held Duncan well below his per-minute season marks in scoring and field-goal percentage during the three Spurs-Thunder contests this season, of which San Antonio won two. While it's tough to use those matchups as an accurate predictor of how the series writ large will unfold — San Antonio was without Manu Ginobili for all three games, started long-since-jettisoned Richard Jefferson in the first two and didn't get now-integral substitutes Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson into the fold until after the teams' season series ended — it's worth noting that in one area in which the principals will remain the same, Duncan struggled to a 15-of-42 (35.7 percent) shooting mark in 86 total minutes.
That includes a particularly bad 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) mark at the rim in the three games combined, about 20 percent below Duncan's season-average conversion rate on up-close tries, according to Hoopdata's shot-location statistics, and significantly behind the bounty he got against the Jazz and Clippers (22-of-34, 64.7 percent). More than any other team left in the postseason (and perhaps more than any other team in the league), the Thunder are equipped to limit Duncan's scoring effectiveness.
The problem is, the Spurs don't really need Duncan to score to win. Duncan has scored 15 points or less 31 times this season; San Antonio is 23-8 in those games. It's happened nine times since St. Patrick's Day — sort of an unofficial division point in the Spurs' season, since the March 17 loss to the Dallas Mavericks marked the first time they played with both Jackson and Ginobili back in the lineup — and they're 8-1. Part of that has to do with the brilliance of Tony Parker, who averaged 17.3 points and 6.7 assists per game in Duncan's sub-15 performances this year, who has been an absolute killer during the Spurs' lengthy winning streak, and who frequently seems capable of penetrating at will and putting defenses at the mercy of an offensive system that so often responds to defensive answers by changing the questions.
As Zach Lowe of SI.com's The Point Forward blog noted in a great breakdown of Parker's play against the Thunder defense this season, Oklahoma City has seemed to want to cut off Parker's angles of penetration in the Spurs' bread-and-butter pick-and-roll, conceding semi-contested perimeter jumpers by San Antonio's shooters off outside dishes rather than allowing Parker to get into the teeth of their defense, compromise its integrity and allow wide-open jumpers by San Antonio's shooters off his drive-and-kick game. Within that framework, Parker has been able to get his own offense, averaging 23.7 points per game against OKC this year (including a big 42-point explosion at the beginning of April) while still handing out 7.7 assists per contest.
Russell Westbrook is an amazing player who will work his backside off on defense in this series. And if he gets in trouble, Thunder coach Scott Brooks can switch some more size onto Parker — defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha, Sixth Man of the Year James Harden or scoring champ Kevin Durant, the trio that combined to harass Kobe Bryant in Oklahoma City's second-round win over the Los Angeles Lakers. But Parker's shown an ability to beat whatever defense OKC, and anyone else, has devised for him this year, whether with a bucket of his own or a dish to a teammate.
If Parker can continue to operate roughly as he has been, creating for himself or for Pop's seemingly endless ranks of shooters, then it's hard to see a way that Oklahoma City can slow San Antonio down enough to win four times in seven games, so long as Duncan is still able to hold down the myriad defensive tasks he performs so well. And he has been against Oklahoma City this season, rebounding like crazy and anchoring a defensive unit that has locked the Thunder down to a sub-Bobcats offensive rating (number of points scored per 100 possessions) while he's on the floor, as detailed by Aaron McGuire at Spurs blog 48 Minutes of Hell. Yes, the Thunder have allowed a tick under 101 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end this postseason, which would have been fifth-best in the NBA over the course of the regular season, but they've played nine games against Dallas' No. 22-ranked offense and the Lakers' No. 10-ranked offense; now, they're facing the best in the business, and that matters.
That said, I don't think the Spurs are going to shut the Thunder down, either.
Oklahoma City stars Durant (22.7 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting), Westbrook (22.3 points on 44.8 percent shooting) and Harden (19.3 points on 59.4 percent shooting) have all scored well against San Antonio this year, and I expect them to get theirs again here. The Thunder will undoubtedly pose more offensive problems for the Spurs than either of their first two opponents did. San Antonio's difficulties defending the pick-and-roll game, which they snuffed out well against the Clippers, could rear their ugly head — they're still not a great pick-and-roll defensive team, and the Thunder were even better at generating points there than a healthy Chris Paul's Clips were during the regular season. And while defenders like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard will do their level best to make life difficult for the Thunder's dominant wings, San Antonio doesn't have enough excellent perimeter stoppers to extinguish OKC's fire-starters entirely. (Not many teams do.)
But I think Pop would live with that level of productivity from Durant, Westbrook and Harden if no one else is really getting off — Ibaka's ability to provide a pressure release on pick-and-pop mid-range jumpers could be huge for Brooks' offense — and I think San Antonio can make that happen. While I'll allow that the Spurs' recent improvement on the defensive end has come at the expense of an unremarkable Jazz side and a hobbled Clippers team, the improvement has still been ridiculous; they've held two top-10 regular-season offenses to 95.3 points per 100 possessions over the past eight games, and the tightening of defensive screws hasn't prevented San Antonio from punishing their opponents' bottom-third-of-the-league defenses, posting a sterling 110.1-per-100 offensive rating in the playoffs.
Oklahoma City will be much better than what San Antonio has faced, but will they create enough problems for a legitimately improved defense to generate enough points to outstrip a rollicking offense four times in seven games? I just don't see it. The Spurs will lose during this series for the first time in nearly seven weeks, but they won't lose four times. The skeleton might not be the series' most valuable player, but the skeleton's not alone; this time around, he's got an army, and all the hearts and brains in Oklahoma City won't be able to turn back the horde.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 6.