By Anthony Macri
The San Antonio Spurs are, in a word, rolling. Winners of 29 of their last 31 games (and 18 in a row), including playoffs, the Spurs look as dominant as any team in the past decade. After dispatching the Utah Jazz in four games, they took out the Los Angeles Clippers in convincing fashion, defeating their two playoff opponents by an average of 13.8 points per game. Second in the league during the regular season in points scored, their offense was the most efficient, while their defensive efficiency was in the top third of the league. The three-headed monster of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are the core of the team, but the real story is in their reserves, where the Spurs are a legitimate 12 deep, with seven of their top 10 achieving a PER over the league average during the playoffs.
Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, and proved they were on the way to success by making the conference finals before bowing out to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. With only one postseason loss this year, OKC looks every bit like the team poised to actualize the potential shown last season. The second most efficient team on the offensive end (to San Antonio), the Thunder are also just behind the Spurs in defensive rating as well. Oklahoma City plays its top eight players a lion’s share of the minutes available, and of those eight, only four are over the league average in PER during the playoffs. Those four, however, are pretty good: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
During the regular season, these teams matched up three times, with the Spurs victorious in two of those contests. The most recent matchup was back in mid-March, however, and both teams have matured since then. It is interesting to note that Oklahoma City gave up more points to the Spurs than any other opponent this season (save the Minnesota Timberwolves), as the games were hard-fought and high-scoring.
Five keys to the Western Conference finals
1. Experience vs. exuberance
Although they have made a concerted effort to “go younger,” the Spurs are still a veteran group, with an average of seven years NBA experience in their top 10 players and six players who have at least seven years of NBA experience under their belts. The Thunder, by contrast, only have three players with more than six years of NBA experience in their top eight (Derek Fisher, 15; Kendrick Perkins, 8; and Nick Collison, 7).
What Oklahoma City lacks in experience, however, it makes up for in enthusiasm. The Thunder's passion for the game is on display throughout, and it allows them to ignore when things go wrong and focus on what's going right. This was on display against the Lakers: It did not matter to the Thunder how many times Kobe made a tough shot or that it looked like they were going to lose in the closing minutes. Their attitude carried them through these situations, borne from an obvious self-confidence.
That kind of exuberance will need to work in overdrive against the Spurs, a team that is efficient and ruthless on the offensive end. For the Thunder to win the series, there will be at least two games they will need to pull a win from the jaws of defeat, and it is their youthfulness and ebullience that might allow them to do just that.
2. Assists-per-made-shots ratio
Calling this matchup a clash in styles is probably an understatement. The Spurs were fourth in the league in total assists in the regular season, while the Thunder were dead last. But both teams were among the league’s most efficient and productive offenses, and some may view this game as an indicator of general offensive trends.
One statistic that rarely gets mentioned is assists-to-field goals made. This stat is a measure of what percentage of a team’s made field goals are the result of passes and what percentage come from one-on-one play. San Antonio assisted on 58.5 percent of its made field goals this season, which is a strong indicator of the way they play the game (59 percent would be considered extremely high for the entire season).
By contrast, Oklahoma City assisted on 49.7 percent of its made field goals this season -- an extremely strong indicator of individual-oriented play. In fact, this mark is even lower than last season, when the Thunder assisted on 54.5 percent of their made field goals.
Over the course of the season, San Antonio’s defense has done a good job forcing teams out of their standard offensive flow, as their opponents assisted on just 51.7 percent of made field goals. But given the Thunder’s propensity for making big plays out of individual situations anyway, it seems likely that one tale of this series will be the inability for either team to stop the other.
3. X factor: Kawhi Leonard
The Spurs have done it again. By acquiring Kawhi Leonard on draft night, RC Buford and Gregg Popovich had once again found a player who fits in with their team chemistry, fills a need, and is able to contribute immediately.
No one expected Leonard to have this kind on an impact from behind the 3-point line, though. While he shot 37.6 percent from long distance during the regular season, Leonard has been lights out in the playoffs, hitting on 45.5 percent of his 3-point attempts.
During the regular season against Oklahoma City, Leonard averaged 14.3 points and seven rebounds, and shot 6-for-7 from 3-point land. The Thunder cannot allow Leonard to be the unsung hero again.
4. Take risks or play it safe?
That leads to the next key: How are the Thunder going to defend the spread-it-out-and-share-it attack of the Spurs? That system is what gives guys like Leonard the opportunity to knock down open shots because it feasts off of opponents who over-extend defensively.
The Thunder, by nature, are a team that likes to gamble and over-extend. They thrive off it. In fact, their ability to create points off of turnovers is a central reason they are able to survive without really sharing the basketball all that well. Against the Spurs, though, this is an even more dangerous strategy. Even the slightest case of poor positioning becomes amplified against a team with great shooters who are also willing and able passers.
There are two options here for OKC: live with the potential consequences of doing what it does, or commit to a more conservative approach, at least during certain stretches this series. The riskier approach means not changing anything, which may burn the Thunder on occasion but overall suits the way they want to play. But the conservative approach, where players would not be allowed to shoot through passing lanes but simply be called on to stay solid, might be the way to go. However, doing so may affect their tempo on offense.
5. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook
The only reason Oklahoma City’s unorthodox attack has been successful this season is because of an agreement between their young stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant seems willing to spend long stretches of games as a diversion while Westbrook is the focal point. Then, seemingly without any real obvious indicators, Durant impacts the game in a direct and sometimes overwhelming way.
Durant’s sacrifice is completely underestimated. It gives Westbrook the space he needs to be as dominant as he can throughout most of the game and gives James Harden the green light to find cracks to exploit in the paint.
It is as if the Thunder have found the perfect balance for how to play a hero-ball style as a base offense. Will this approach stand the test of time in this playoff series? It’s hard to know. The Spurs do not really have the individual defenders to guard the big three for Oklahoma City (does anyone?).
San Antonio’s plan, then, cannot be to rely exclusively on their matchups. Expect to see a variety of approaches tried against the Thunder, from standard and specialized zones to switching and trapping man-to-man. This multi-faceted game plan is designed a single purpose: to frustrate the Thunder and create division and discord between Durant and Westbrook where there is currently unity. San Antonio’s level of success in this task will ultimately be the biggest deciding factor of them all.
Prediction: Spurs in six.
Anthony Macri is a consultant for the ASEAN Basketball League. Follow him on Twitter, @AnthonyLMacri.