The Conference finals are here. Things are starting to get serious, as the NBA has whittled itself down to just four teams. Let’s break this down.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
The San Antonio Spurs are going to win this series. The team is too good, it has played too well and its seemingly unending supply of offensive options are eventually going to be too much for the Oklahoma City Thunder to handle. This, plus the revenge factor from 2012 and the idea that, once again, the Spurs have come too far to blow it now should put San Antonio into its second consecutive NBA Finals, looking for the fifth ring in the careers of Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.
The already oft-repeated tipping point is the (to San Antonio, dubious) absence of Thunder big man Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City has at times played very well without Ibaka, against very good teams, but the loss of his floor spacing, ability to finish inside and defense-tilting ways would seem to be too much to overcome. As well it should be.
Dismiss the Thunder at your own peril, though. Reserve Nick Collison won’t block as many shots as Ibaka, or any at all, but he’ll still be the best all-around defensive big man in this series. The Spurs don’t often fall victim to tired pick-and-roll orthodoxy, but when they do Collison will be right there to move his feet and cut off angles.
Rookie center Steven Adams is less refined – rusted-out excavators look like finishing school grads when compared to him – but his athleticism around the rim and ability to bother opponents with his strength will come in handy. Especially if Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks goes away from starting center Kendrick Perkins and plays Adams and Collison together for long stretches.
Then there is the idea of Kevin Durant, still whippet-thin even for a small forward, spending time at the four. Durant has put up fantastic numbers at the position for years, but it remains to be seen as to whether Brooks thinks extended minutes at the position will wear on the league’s MVP. We don’t think it will, but the Spurs have a way of tiring out your legs.
It’s important to remember that before the Thunder took four straight against the Spurs to win the 2012 Western Conference finals, we were saying just about the same things about San Antonio’s play on both ends. How the offense reacts so well Gregg Popovich doesn’t seem to need to draw up plays. How Tony Parker’s penetration and all-around guile gave San Antonio a game-shifting option when (or, if ever) a play broke down. How the Spurs were playing too well, against any opponent, to stop moving just yet.
Except, they did. And though the Thunder would go on to lose in that year’s Finals, they were clearly the better team in their comeback series against San Antonio. The games were close, but OKC earned that Western win.
Of course, now James Harden and Ibaka are gone. Durant’s legs may be feeling the aftereffects of having to carry the Thunder with Russell Westbrook having missed significant chunks of the regular season. Perkins has somehow gotten worse, Brooks hasn’t exactly proven he can adapt on the fly, and the Spurs don’t even resemble the team that lost all four games to Oklahoma City in the 2013-14 regular season, much less 24 months ago.
Oklahoma City will attempt to counter with the best player in the series, an element in Westbrook that can drive teams wild and enough length and grit defensively in Collison, Adams, Thabo Sefolosha and Caron Butler to possibly physically belittle the Spurs out of their sets. Assuming they run any, and aren’t just making up this beautiful basketball on the fly.
It’s a crushing blow, this Ibaka injury, but it’s one that is able to be overcome. Enough to win four games in seven tries?
Nah. Probably not.
Prediction: Spurs in 6.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
How will Scott Brooks address the loss of Serge Ibaka?
From before the start of the playoffs, when I picked the Thunder to win it all, through all the tests they've faced from the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers in the first two rounds, I've maintained Oklahoma City's best game is better than what any other contender can muster. After Friday's announcement that Ibaka will likely miss the rest of the playoffs, though, I no longer think that's true. As explosive as the Thunder's Kevin Durant-and-Russell Westbrook-led offense can be, losing one of the league's most effective defensive deterrents lowers Oklahoma City's ceiling and puts Thunder head coach Scott Brooks in the unenviable position of having to approximate the success Ibaka had at wrecking San Antonio's rhythm.
We can't write off Oklahoma City out of hand, of course. The Thunder still have the NBA's Most Valuable Player, after all, as well as an All-NBA-caliber point guard on pace to become just the third player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game during a single postseason. Still, it's hard to overstate the impact of losing a defender who made the difference between San Antonio having the best and worst offense in the league.
As I wrote Friday, when Ibaka was on the court during Oklahoma City's four regular-season wins over the Spurs, San Antonio's offense could scarcely function. Ibaka's combination of quickness, awareness and length enabled him to prevent the Spurs' guards from turning the corner on pick-and-rolls while still recovering to battle their bigs on the block, and his long arms, instincts and footwork helped interrupt the precision attack that has become the Spurs' calling card. As Spurs guard Patty Mills told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News, "Everything at the rim isn't available that usually is because of his presence."
Ibaka has become not only the NBA's premier shot-blocker, having led the league in total swats for four straight seasons, but also one of the best in the business at altering point-blank tries that he doesn't reject. Opponents shot just 43.9 percent at the rim when he was defending it, the third-lowest percentage allowed among rotation-minutes big men, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.
He helped transform the highest-percentage shots in the game into something less than a coin-flip proposition for a Spurs offense designed to create and feast off high-quality looks. San Antonio shot 64.8 percent inside the restricted area as a team this season; with Ibaka on the floor, that dropped to 48 percent. That's a massive, massive difference, and Brooks has to find replacements to make it up -- or, at least, tilt the odds enough in OKC's favor elsewhere.
Brooks declined Saturday to name which player will take Ibaka's starting spot. The most likely candidates are veteran reserve Nick Collison, who has logged 171 starts in his 10-year career, and 6-foot-11 sophomore Perry Jones III, who made seven starts this year, with one coming in the lone regular-season game Ibaka missed. No matter who starts, Brooks finds himself in relatively uncharted territory when it comes to finding full games' worth of lineups against San Antonio -- of the 43 five-man units to log at least 20 minutes of total floor time for the Thunder in the regular season, only 13 didn't feature Ibaka, and none played more than 112 total minutes (Collison-Steven Adams-Jeremy Lamb-Reggie Jackson-Derek Fisher). Brooks has even less recent tape to work off if he wants to stay big, as none of those 13 Ibaka-less lineups included starting center Kendrick Perkins.
The good news, however, is that several of those smaller units were pretty successful in their short stints:
• Collison-Durant-Fisher-Jackson-Lamb: 54 total minutes over 17 games, outscored opponents by 47 total points, 122.6 points scored per 100 possessions, 83.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, +39.2 "net rating"
• Adams-Collison-Durant-Jackson-Lamb: 51 minutes over 25 games, +35, 120.6 scored per-100, 91.5 allowed per-100, +29.2 net
• Adams-Collison-Durant-Fisher-Lamb: 75 minutes over 21 games, +23, 121.6 scored per-100, 102.3 allowed per-100, +19.3 net
• Collison-Durant-Jones-Fisher-Lamb: 33 minutes over 10 games, +14, 123.6 scored per-100, 106.3 allowed per-100, +17.3 net
You'll notice that Westbrook's name doesn't appear in those lineups. None of these groups saw significant spin after Westbrook returned from his second knee surgery of the season at the All-Star break, and after the post-buyout addition of Caron Butler largely sealed Lamb's ejection from Brooks' wing rotation. (Lamb's shooting and productivity, which tailed off precipitously in January and February, helped make Brooks' decision, too.) Westbrook will obviously play heavy minutes, but Brooks would do well to consider the success of those smaller lineups.
Putting Durant at power forward creates matchup nightmares for the likes of Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, forcing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to adjust his own lineups and defensive strategies to counter Durant's range and off-the-bounce game. Putting more athleticism and defensive versatility on the floor (perhaps via Adams, Jones and Lamb) could help the Thunder replicate at least some of paint-packing, passing-lane-disrupting, chase-them-off-the-3-point-line strategy that has proven so successful for Oklahoma City against San Antonio over the years. Getting more playmaking, dynamism and shooting on the floor could help alleviate the spacing issues that so often bog down the Thunder offense, even with Ibaka's pick-and-pop prowess in the mix.
Brooks must lean more heavily on Jackson, who destroyed the Spurs this season, averaging 21.3 points and 4.5 assists per game on 67.9 percent shooting and a shocking 72.9 percent mark from downtown. The Thunder outscored the Spurs by 43 points in the 125 minutes Jackson played against San Antonio this season, and were outscored by six points in the 67 minutes he sat; he needs to play a lot, and play exceedingly well, for Oklahoma City's offense to make up for what it's losing on the defensive end without Ibaka.
Brooks uncovered a bit of gold after Ibaka went down against the Clippers when he paired Adams and Collison with Durant, Westbrook and Jackson. That group, full of shooting, passing, toughness and smarts, had played just six minutes together during the regular season. It torched the Clippers to the tune of 42 points and a +18 mark in 15 minutes in Game 6 alone. The Spurs' bigs are more floorbound than Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but they're also far cleverer, and might pose a more formidable challenge than the more easily frustrated Clipper combo, and could wreak havoc on the foul-prone Adams and Collison. Whether he chooses that particular alignment or not, Brooks should seek every opportunity to get Durant, Westbrook and Jackson on the floor together, and to force Popovich to find three wing defenders capable of slowing them down, as he couldn't when Durant, Westbrook and James Harden ran roughshod over the Spurs in the 2012 playoffs.
There are no ideal solutions. Young players make mistakes, especially defensively, and if Brooks trusted Jones and Lamb, they wouldn't be buried on the bench. Playing Durant at the four means opening him up to beatings at the hands of the Spurs' bigs. Starting Collison means every reserve moving up a seat and assuming more responsibility on the season's biggest stage. No matter what Brooks does, he'll leave himself vulnerable to exploitation by one of the greatest tacticians in NBA history, who's got a full arsenal with which to attack.
Brooks has weapons, too, though. It will be fascinating to see whether he can deploy them skillfully enough to survive.
Prediction: Spurs in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, X-factors and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
What a difference an injury makes. When the matchup was set on Thursday night, this series looked like the best of the 2014 postseason so far. Apart from the fact that the Spurs and Thunder held the top two records of the regular season, they also figured to score a lot. Narrative-wise, the Thunder were on the cusp of a return to the NBA Finals, while the Spurs were attempting to work their way back to a rematch with (presumably) the Miami Heat after last June’s losses in Games 6 and 7. Oh, and these teams also played a terrific Western Conference Finals series in 2012, with OKC winning the last four games on the strength of their superior athleticism and three-star attack. Could Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook do the same without James Harden? Or would San Antonio prove capable of handling the challenge, perhaps due to the increased prominence of Kawhi Leonard?
The Serge Ibaka injury makes the Spurs very clear favorites in a series that looked to be a toss-up. Without Ibaka to protect the rim, the Thunder should have a much tougher time disrupting the Spurs offense. While Durant and Westbrook can’t take on any more of a scoring load, losing their top lieutenant puts even more pressure on them to perform at superstar levels in every game of the series. OKC’s margin for error just got a lot thinner, and they face the most in-form opponent in the NBA regardless of circumstances.
The good news is the series still figures to be quite watchable even if the Spurs win convincingly. Durant and Westbrook never shrink from a challenge, so they’ll either win spectacularly or go out with guns blazing. For that matter, narrative doesn’t always pay attention to circumstances, which means the Thunder as an organization figure to come under considerable scrutiny no matter what excuses they have at their disposable. Could this be the end for head coach Scott Brooks, if he’s unable to adjust the team’s game plan to account for Ibaka’s absence? Will general manager Sam Presti work harder to add another top-level talent in the offseason?
Plus, this incarnation of the Spurs can be compulsively watchable. Despite their reputation for rather dull play, San Antonio now plays an open offensive game reliant on superb ball movement and the most precise team basketball in the NBA. At its best, it looks like a bit of choreography, not an on-the-fly adjustment to the challenge at hand. In fact, the Spurs’ aesthetic high watermark came in Game 2 of that 2012 series with the Thunder, during a gorgeous second-half run that ranks among the most beautiful stretches of basketball in this generation.
The best-case scenario involves a historically great series that surprises in its competitiveness. At worst, we see the Spurs perfect their craft and watch the league’s MVP and his relentless co-star attempt to topple heavy favorites. I’ll take my chances.
Rating: 8 Isolation Sets Out of 10
Prediction: Spurs in 6
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