The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years, advancing to play the San Antonio Spurs after their victory over the Los Angeles Clippers in six tightly contested games.
The two teams had completely different matchups in the second round. After a seven game series against the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs easily dispatched a Portland Trail Blazers. They made quick work of a team that seemed to be a better version of the Mavericks with a scoring point guard, a sharpshooting big man, a stretch wing defender and a lot of perimeter sharpshooters. The Thunder needed six games, some controversial calls and multiple comebacks to take out the Clippers. The Thunder swept the four games against the Spurs in the regular season, but this looks to be a completely different series.
The biggest story coming into this series is how the two teams will adapt to their injuries. Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker appears as though he will be playing in the series, and with plenty of rest he should be up to his old antics. On the other side, the Thunder lost power forward Serge Ibaka for the rest of the postseason due to a left calf injury that he suffered in the third quarter of Game 6 against the Clippers. This is a huge blow to the Thunder, who for the second year in a row find themselves with an injured starter during the playoffs.
With the injury, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is now forced to make some lineup adjustments. In the one game that Ibaka sat this season, Perry Jones got the start. Jones has played a total of 15 minutes during this postseason, so that will probably not be Brooks’ approach. He does, however, have a few options.
Option 1: Go Small
Since this Thunder team is one that already relies heavily on forcing turnovers that can create fast break points, this option may be the most appealing. Reggie Jackson has proven throughout the season that he is an excellent guard who can run an offense or play alongside Russell Westbrook. This lineup would start Kevin Durant at the four and start Westbrook, Sefolosha and either Jackson or Caron Butler along with Kendrick Perkins down low. While enabling the Thunder to max out on speed and athleticism, it also gives up rebounding and rim protection. With Perkins’ declining athleticism, this lineup may actually be more effective when paired with Nick Collison or Steven Adams playing center.
Option 2: Stay Big
Scott Brooks has always been stubborn when it comes to adjusting his lineups to different situations, so there is still the possibility that he sticks with the conventional power forward-center combination to start. This would most likely point to Collison as the starter, since Adams and Perkins are both more conventional centers. Collison is capable of playing both the four and the five, and also runs the pick and roll extremely well. This option would enable the Thunder to still compete on the boards with Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter, who are both almost seven feet tall, but neither of them has the athleticism on the break or shot blocking skills that Ibaka provided.
It is impossible for the Thunder to replace Ibaka, especially against a Spurs offense that relies on ball movement and floor spacing. When Ibaka was healthy, he would enable the perimeter defenders to play aggressively, knowing that they had an athletic shot blocker behind at the rim to protect them if they closed out on the ball to quick or bit on a pump fake. To put it in perspective, the Spurs shot 46.6 percent from inside five feet when Ibaka was on the floor in the four meetings between the teams this season, as opposed to 63.6 percent when he was on the bench. Somebody will have to step up for the Thunder and provide that kind of rim protection during this series.
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Is Steven Adams the answer?
Will that person be Steven Adams? The rookie has seen increased playing time as the playoffs have progressed and has put that time to good use. He has averaged 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per 36 minutes in the playoffs, both superior to Ibaka’s per 36 averages. He only averages 7.3 points per 36 minutes compared to Ibaka’s 13, but considering the fact that Ibaka is an All-Star caliber player, Adams does not seem like a bad replacement.
Ibaka’s injury during Game 6 actually sparked the run that put the game away for the Thunder. Scott Brooks deployed a lineup of Westbrook, Jackson, Durant, Collison and Adams, and the impact was astounding. The tandem only played a combined six minutes during the regular season and seven minutes during the playoffs, but in the next 15 minutes of Game 6, they scored 42 points and gave up 24 points on 41 percent shooting. When those numbers are extrapolated to a per-100-possesion statistic, the lineup had a +64.3 point differential.
Now, this is an extremely small sample size, but it has to be intriguing enough for Brooks to try it out against the Spurs and see how they counter it. Jackson has shown that he can be a capable third scorer, most notably during his 32 point, 9 rebound Game 4 performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, where he outscored Westbrook and Durant combined. Along with that, the frontcourt pairing of Collison and Adams has statistically been the best lineup for Durant to score in, where he has a 68.7 true shooting percentage.
Whatever the case, the decision of the new starter is crucial for Scott Brooks since the Thunder have had a tendency for slow starts in these playoffs, and comebacks from early double-digit deficits will not happen every night. That is also why the Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker matchup will be so crucial.
Key Matchup 1: Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker
Here are Tony Parker’s stat lines from the four games against the Thunder this season:
Game 1: 16 points on 6-16 shooting
Game 2: 23 points on 6-14 shooting
Game 3: 37 points on 14-22 shooting
Game 4: 6 points on 3-10 shooting
Parker had three very inefficient games, including one that was awful by his standards. Westbrook played in and defended Parker for three of those games and sat out of the other one. Guess which one he didn’t play in.
That’s right. In the games in which Westbrook has been the primary defender on Parker, he averages 15 points on 5-13.3 shooting. Not good. With Westbrook no longer sitting out of back-to-back games, he is poised to defend Parker for the entire series. This bodes well for the Thunder, who will need all the help they can get without Ibaka to defend Parker, who at only 6’2″ is one of the league’s best low-post scorers.
Key Matchup 2: Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard
Another key defensive matchup will be how Kawhi Leonard matches up against Kevin Durant. Leonard played extremely well against the Trail Blazers and comes into the Western Conference Finals with a player efficiency rating of 18.8, good for third best on the team. Durant has shown that he can be bothered by tight defending, with Tony Allen, Matt Barnes and Chris Paul giving him trouble at times. Obviously, the Spurs stand a much better chance of advancing if their young player can neutralize the MVP. Durant has also been susceptible to turnovers during the playoffs, averaging four per game. Leonard’s long frame may be able to harass Durant and force even more.
The Spurs will win if…
This Spurs team runs at a completely different pace than they Thunder, but they are highly efficient. They surround the post play of Tim Duncan and penetration of Tony Parker with excellent perimeter shooters in Danny Green, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Leonard. The Thunder have been shelled from deep in these playoffs, with both the Grizzlies and Clippers pouring in points thanks to great three-point shooting from starters and role players alike. The Spurs also benefit from having the best coach in the league, and no Ibaka in the post means Tim Duncan has the ability to go crazy in the paint. If the Spurs can hit on 35 percent of their threes and also get Duncan going, they should have no problem advancing past the Ibaka-less Thunder.
The Thunder will win if…
The Thunder have been through adversity before, and Kevin Durant is used to picking up the slack from injured teammates. Honestly, it may be Russell Westbrook who has been the Thunder’s MVP in the postseason. If he can rediscover his three point stroke (27.9 percent in the playoffs) and cut down on his turnovers (4.5 per game), he will again be a huge factor in this series. Durant also needs to cut down his turnovers, as well as find a consistency in his shot that he had during Westbrook’s injury absence. Reggie Jackson or Caron Butler will also need to step up their scoring output to make up for the absence of Ibaka’s 12.2 per game. If these things happen and Steven Adams takes his game another step forward (which includes limiting his fouls), the Thunder will head back to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years.
Prediction: Thunder in 6
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