The Western Conference finals have been a tale of two series through four games — one dominated by the San Antonio Spurs in Texas, the other controlled by the Oklahoma City Thunder on their home turf. When Scott Brooks' team heads back to the Riverwalk this time, it's bringing Serge Ibaka — and a stampeding offense, and boatloads of confidence — for a critical Game 5.
Will the young Thunder continue to rampage their way through the Spurs' veterans, or will San Antonio finally figure out a way to get back on track against Oklahoma City's swarming defense? Here are three things to keep in mind as you tune in on Thursday night.
1. Can Gregg Popovich get Serge Ibaka out of the paint?
After watching his Spurs get carved up and shut down by the Thunder in Game 4 to the point that he yanked his starters midway through the third quarter, Pop went back to the videotape in search of answers that could help turn the tide back at home in Game 5.
"There are things in the film that we think we can correct for tomorrow," Popovich told reporters on Wednesday. "We've considered a couple of tweaks here and there, just in the gameplan. I don't know exactly where that'll be, but we saw a few things that we think might warrant a little tweak here and there."
What exactly those tweaks might be remains to be seen — you'll be shocked to know that Pop didn't divulge his gameplan to the press — but Job No. 1 for the three-time coach of the year would figure to be finding some way, any way, to pull Ibaka away from the basket and open up the lane.
It's rare that series play out so neatly according to the script we write for them, but through four games, the Western Conference finals — while often thrilling thanks to the play of the participants involved — have been largely paint-by-numbers. When Ibaka was expected to be part of the Oklahoma City lineup, we expected the Thunder to give the Spurs' offense fits, as they have for much of the past three seasons and as they did throughout a four-game regular-season sweep of San Antonio. When the left calf strain made it seem like he wouldn't be participating in the series, we expected the Spurs to run roughshod over his replacements and get just about whatever they wanted offensively, which they did en route to 120 points in the paint and a pair of convincing victories in Games 1 and 2.
And when Ibaka miraculously returned for Game 3, we expected San Antonio to have a much harder time getting into the paint and generally executing offense ... which they have. San Antonio scored just 76 total points in the paint in Games 3 and 4, and saw their shooting percentage at the rim drop by more than 30 percent (77.6 percent in Games 1 and 2, 44.4 percent in Games 3 and 4) in back-to-back losses. The results have been staggering — after failing to shoot 40 percent from the floor just six times in 97 2013-14 regular- and postseason games before Game 3, the Spurs finished below that mark in Games 3 and 4.
Ibaka has seven blocks in the past two games, but he's having a major impact even when he doesn't log a rejection. San Antonio has made only nine of 26 shots (34.6 percent) taken at the basket in this series when Ibaka's been the primary defender, according to NBA.com's SportVU optical tracking data, and went just 3 for 14 on those tries in Game 4.
There have been some good tape breakdown pieces detailing the difference Ibaka makes — of recent vintage, I'd recommend this one by SB Nation's Mike Prada and this one by Grantland's Zach Lowe (which also dives back into the James Harden trade, for what it's worth). The central elements:
• Ibaka's length, quickness, athleticism and looming presence as a help defender enable Oklahoma City's wings to play extra aggressive on the perimeter, knowing they've got an eraser behind them, helping lead to the passing-lane-eliminating overplays, pokes, prods and deflections that turn into steals and get the Thunder out on the fast break, where they destroyed the Spurs to the tune of a 21-0 edge in fast-break points and 21 points off 13 turnovers in Game 4;
• Ibaka's combination of post defense and weak-side shot-blocking shakes the Spurs' big men into trying to make complicated plays with low likelihood of success on the interior rather than just going up with the ball and risking getting their shots sent packing.
As long as Ibaka is in the paint, he makes absolutely everything harder for the Spurs. So how might Pop get him out of there?
One popular suggestion: Send Tiago Splitter, who has scored seven points and has been a -27 in 38 minutes over the past two games, to the bench. As The Starters' Trey Kerby notes, the Spurs have been outscored by nearly 40 points per 100 possessions with Splitter on the floor since Game 3, with the bulk of that difference coming on the defensive end — the end where Splitter tends to do his best work (just ask Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge), but one where he's been utterly ineffective in this series.
If the Spurs are already getting gashed when playing big with Splitter alongside Tim Duncan, well, then, maybe they might as well play somebody at the four spot whom Ibaka might have to guard away from the basket. Andrew McNeill of 48 Minutes of Hell makes the case for inserting Boris Diaw — who struggled through the first three games of this series, but came alive a bit during Game 4's extended pseudo-garbage time and made some shots that helped San Antonio's reserves cut down a huge Oklahoma City lead — into the starting lineup:
When convinced to do so (and therein may lie the problem), Boris Diaw can stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting. The Spurs need something to open up their offense and create driving and passing lanes for [Tony] Parker, [Manu] Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Diaw’s catch-and-shoot ability coupled with a knack for taking players off the dribble and creating inside is enough to pull an opposing big — be it Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins — away from the basket. In the lane he’s got his ass-cheeks-and-up-fakes post game and a decent fadeaway jumper that creates a lot more separation than Splitter can.
Diaw said during San Antonio's Thursday shootaround that he's not starting, but did suggest that a greater emphasis on (and greater accuracy in) outside shooting could be a key to pulling Ibaka away from the basket and preventing him from helping.
Another possibility in that vein: Pop playing the famed Manu card, giving him his first start of this postseason, perhaps in a downshifted smaller lineup that slides Leonard to the four and Danny Green to the three, optimizing the Spurs' perimeter shooting and playmaking. It's probably something of a long-shot; Pop has only gone to that five-man unit in 14 games this season, and for just 38 total minutes. But considering how effective it's looked offensively in those minutes — 106 total points scored in those 38 minutes on 60.6 percent shooting, outscoring the opposition by 15 points in that time — it could be worth a shot as San Antonio continues its search for answers to the defensive stranglehold in which Oklahoma City's been able to put it over the past two games.
2. Can San Antonio's defense slow down the rolling Thunder?
I touched on it earlier in mentioning how rough Splitter's minutes have been — the dirty little secret for San Antonio in the past two games is that, as poor as the Spurs' offense has been since Ibaka came into the series, their defense has been even worse.
Oklahoma City torched the Spurs to the tune of 111.5 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 and 4, a rate that would've been the best in the NBA by a considerable margin over the course of the regular season. With Ibaka back on the floor to provide another strong screen-setter, a reliable pick-and-pop option and a pressure release in the Thunder's offensive sets, the number's been downright obscene — just under 120 points-per-100 scored in 64 total minutes, compared to a paltry 96.9-per-100 scored in 32 no-Ibaka minutes in Games 3 and 4.
The insertion of reserve point guard Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup has paid off huge as well, giving Oklahoma City's first five a third ball-handler and a weak-side playmaker capable of triggering secondary stuff if San Antonio shuts down the initial action, whether by looking for his own offense or by attacking the back of a loaded-up defense in the interest of trying to trigger a Spurs swarm that creates openings elsewhere. Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook-Ibaka-Kendrick Perkins-Jackson has been sensational all postseason when used, outscoring opponents by 24.3 points per 100 possessions over a span of 60 minutes; that number's up to an absurd 30.6-per-100 in Games 3 and 4.
Watching all that playmaking and shotmaking — all that athleticism, youth and vibrance — on the floor together at the same time against the Spurs' older, veteran-laden lineups, you at times got the sense that San Antonio was a weather-beaten dam facing an onrushing storm surge, just hoping to hold up, knowing leaks would eventually spring somewhere, resigned to the reality that as soon as you plugged one, another would begin to gush. Making matters worse, according to Popovich, was that the Thunder played "harder" and "more physically" than San Antonio, which sounds like it led to a pretty illuminating film session during the Spurs' day off. From Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:
“Sometimes you’re embarrassed to see what you did,” said Ginobili, who along with the starters was benched for most of the second half. “You think you’re doing your best, rotating, and you’re slow and they’re more aggressive than us. It’s painful, but it helps you learn and understand the multiple things we did wrong and can do better.
“We might even lose again playing a great game. But to look in each others’ faces to say we gave it everything we had, we played smarter, they just beat us. That’s where we have to get to, a point where we play much harder and much smarter.”
One huge area in which "harder" and "smarter" could pay dividends for the Spurs — curbing the live-ball cough-ups that have absolutely been killing them.
Lackadaisical execution — passes lobbed rather than snapped, screens that don't make contact, cuts made without intent, etc. — spell death against a Thunder defense that's all long arms, fast legs and aggressive close-outs these days.
Over the past two games, Oklahoma City has notched 19 steals and 18 blocked shots, and scored a combined 42 points off turnovers and compiling 33 fast-break points. The Thunder are shooting a crisp 57.1 percent in transition, including a 50 percent mark from 3-point land, since Game 3, averaging well over one point per possession on those plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. These points help fuel Westbrook's already raging fire, help get complementary players like Jackson and Jeremy Lamb going, and extend the Thunder runs that put San Antonio so squarely behind the 8-ball early in Game 4.
The Spurs are having a hard enough time getting over on a Thunder team that seems tailor-made to stop their offensive flow. They simply cannot give Oklahoma City easy buckets on the other end and hope to stand toe-to-toe with haymaker-throwers like Durant and Westbrook.
3. How big a factor will Reggie Jackson's sprained right ankle be?
It won't be one at all, to hear him tell it, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:
“I’ll be ready at tip-off,” Jackson said. “I’m not really worried about it. Mentally just get through it. No excuses. I’m just ready to play…When game time comes, I have no injury. That’s about as much as I can say for it. I’m going to be able to do what I normally do. I have to mentally push through it and go out there and play the way I play.”
Jackson said all the players have tried to stay off their feet as much as possible over the past two days, so his lack of activity since the injury hasn’t been out of the norm. He said he tested his ankle a bit at shootaround but other than that has rested it outside of just getting around.
As of Thursday's media availability, he was still heavily iced up:
Reggie Jackson: "When game time comes, I have no injury." - pic.twitter.com/edTCvuxWfy— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) May 29, 2014
Brooks and company will surely hope that's the case, since the Thunder have been damn near unstoppable whenever Jackson shares the floor with Durant and Westbrook — the talented trio is scoring a shade under 114 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by more than 10 points-per-100 this postseason. If it's not, though — if the ankle starts barking, if he doesn't have the lift to which he's accustomed, if he can't move as quickly and sharply defensively to stay in front of the likes of Parker, Green and Ginobili, etc. — then an awful big responsibility would figure to fall on the shoulders of young Lamb, to whom Brooks turned when Jackson couldn't go in Game 4.
The UConn product has performed well when called upon over the past three games, averaging just below nine points and nearly two steals in 16.5 minutes per game on 55 percent shooting. But going from big minutes in a pair of empty-the-tanks kind of games that the Thunder desperately needed to get back into the series to a key role in the pivotal Game 5 of a tied best-of-seven series on the road — a game where a spot in the NBA Finals could, for all intents and purposes, be decided — is another matter entirely. (And on the eve of his 22nd birthday, no less!)
"He has to keep playing with a lot of confidence and give us energy and make impact on both ends," Brooks said of Lamb after Game 4. "We expect two‑way players and we have to focus on that."
If Jackson can go, and can be relied upon, that question fades a bit. If we get a repeat of Game 4, though, it will be fascinating to see just how stern the youngster's constitution is in hostile territory.
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