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Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

May 25, 2012, 2:54 AM EST

duncan-parker Getty Images

SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio 50-16 (1 seed)
Oklahoma City 47-19 (2 seed)

SEASON SERIES
San Antonio took the season series 2-1, however Manu Ginobili missed all of them (which might worry Thunder fans), the games were in March and earlier, bottom line these teams are different now.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)


San Antonio: offense 108.5 (1st in NBA); defense 100.6 (11th)
Oklahoma City: offense 107.1 (2nd); defense 100 (9th)

THREE KEY SPURS:

Tony Parker: He outdueled Chris Paul, so as his reward he gets Russell Westbrook. In one key regular season meeting between these teams Gregg Popovich asked Parker to attack Westbrook on offense, to wear him down and make him work at both ends, he did taking 29 shots and scoring 42 points. It worked. Expect a lot of that this series. On the other end, Parker is going to have to defend the pick-and-roll as well as he did last series (although don’t be shocked if Popovich has Parker cover Thabo Sefolosha and puts Danny Green on Westbrook for long stretches).

Tim Duncan: He has been fantastic in these playoffs, but the “old man” is about to be put to the test with the long and athletic Serge Ibaka shadowing him. Duncan and Parker (and Manu Ginobili) will keep the ball moving until the Spurs get open shots, but they have to produce themselves as well. Duncan has to get points inside against a big front line of Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.

Kawhi Leonard: He is the guy who is assigned the impossible task of guarding Kevin Durant. Nobody is stopping as good a pure scorer as there is the game, but if he can make Durant really work for his points — keep him shooting contested long jumpers — and not be efficient, it will put pressure on the Thunder to keep up with all the points the Spurs offense will score.

THREE KEY THUNDER:

Russell Westbrook: To me, Westbrook is the key to this series. San Antonio did a great job containing Chris Paul by zoning him off when he came off the pick and moved to the wing, but that’s not how Westbrook attacks off the pick-and-roll — Westbrook prefers to come off near the top of the key and dive straight down the lane to the basket. It’s harder for the Spurs to defend and if Westbrook can get into the paint he can get the Thunder the points they will need to hang in this series and win it.

On the other end of the floor, he has to make Parker work for his shots, get the ball out of his hands and contain him on the pick-and-roll. Nothing is stopping the Spurs offense, but the Thunder need to find a way to slow it.

Kevin Durant: This is obvious, but in a series where the Thunder need to put up points they will need big, efficient nights from him. That means not all pull up jumpers, he needs to get to the rim as well. Last meeting between these teams he was 8-19 shooting, he needs to be better this time around.

James Harden: Harden is the Sixth man of the Year, but the Spurs are deeper and get fantastic bench production. Harden needs to find a way to match it or come close. Also, he’s going to be the ball handler at the end of close games – and there will be close games — and his ability to make plays for others will be key.

OUTLOOK

This will get painted as a “pass the torch” series with the rising Thunder trying to take the mantle as the next great team in the West. In reality, the Thunder are going to have to rip that torch out of the Spurs hands, San Antonio isn’t done with it.

These are the two best offenses in the association and this whole series really boils down to this — which team can get more consistent stops?

It’s going to be hard for the Thunder, despite their length and athleticism. In their regular season meetings the Spurs just carved the Thunder defense up — and San Antonio is playing better now. The Spurs offense uses pressure and fantastic ball movement to get the shots they want — at the rim, the corner three, or specific jumpers like Duncan’s 15-foot bank. The Spurs are 8-0 in these playoffs and having’t lost since you were doing taxes because they get their shots on their terms. San Antonio will wait for the eager and active Thunder defense to overreact to something then in two quick passes get a good look or a matchup they want. They did it in the regular season matchups between these teams.

Another key for San Antonio and its ball movement is good look jump shots — the Spurs will take a lot of spot-up jumpers but are getting a very good 1.18 points per possession off it so far in the playoffs (via MySynergySports). Those looks are often corner threes — Oklahoma City has to rotate fast and challenge those corner threes. The Thunder have to contest everything, something they have done well in the playoffs (top field goal percentage against on spot ups in the postseason).

Spurs biggest challenge will be defending the pick-and-roll — they have done it well in the playoffs but this will be a different look and speed. Chris Paul tried to attack them from the wing, but Westbrook will attack from the top of the key, trying to turn and run down the lane and get his own points. They have to stop him out high, make him shoot jumpers, because if he gets into the lane the Spurs lack the big-man shot blocker too stop him.

This series is fascinating because of the matchup chess that will go on. In the playoffs Popovich has liked to play Parker, Danny Green and Ginobili together — will Scott Brooks counter by going big and forcing Green to try and cover Durant? Will Parker get time defending Thabo Sefolosha so the more athletic Green can go on Westbrook? Will the Thunder ignore Serge Ibaka on the pick-and-pop, and can he make them pay for it?

This series is so close. But if it becomes a chess match, you have to like Popovich against Brooks.

PREDICTION

Spurs in 7.

This could go either way and the only outcome that would surprise me is a team winning in less than six games. That said, in the end there will be too many Parker rainbow floaters over Ibaka’s arm, too many Matt Bonner corner threes, too many Boris Diaw or DeJuan Blair baseline cuts to catch a pocket pass and lay it in. Basically, too much Spurs offense. The Thunder will be close but when it comes to who can get enough stops to win, I like the Spurs. Barely, but the Spurs.

  1. lyndseymarieee - May 25, 2012 at 3:06 AM

    The Thunder is my team. It would be great to see them make it to the finals. If they beat the Spurs they are going to have a hell of a time doing it. No matter the outcome, this is the series to watch of the entire playoffs.

    • heat256 - May 25, 2012 at 10:48 AM

      That I agree. Much like CHI-MIA last year was the must see matchup of the playoffs, this one is too. Two great teams, one young and full of energy and promise, one older and more savvy and deeper. Gonna be a hell of a series. I hope it goes seven so we have something to talk about. I am not as sure the East Finals will be as dramatic.

  2. passerby23 - May 25, 2012 at 3:36 AM

    Spurs in 6. I think the big difference in this series is two things:

    1. The Thunder will not be able to keep Parker out of the paint and he is going to carve them up.
    2. The Spurs will not beat themselves with turnovers the way the Thunder do from time to time.

  3. mungman69 - May 25, 2012 at 3:55 AM

    Yes, don’t miss this series. The winner gets Miami. Don’t miss that series, either.

    • txnative61 - May 26, 2012 at 3:45 AM

      Yep, this should be a doozy. Not sure the Heat can bring the consistent effort to take either of them. Finals could be anti-climatic.

  4. congocash - May 25, 2012 at 5:02 AM

    Im gonna take okc in 6
    Leanard isnt playoff tested, Duncan wont run over ibaka or perkins like he did against the clips, westbrook is as quick as parker.
    Lakers lost To last years champs, this year is the same story.

  5. funktron2x - May 25, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    Kurt, this is an excellent preview. I love the use of metrics that discuss the finer details of how the game of basketball is played. You know the game and you aren’t afraid to talk about it on a deeper level. I am disappointed though, that the Thunder are the best team at closing out on shooters – cuz I’m a Spurs fan. But at the same time, it is good to know and does wonders to temper my enthusiasm.

  6. sellahh - May 25, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    Lakers in 6.

  7. borderline1988 - May 25, 2012 at 9:12 AM

    I think it’s more about turnovers…Can the Thunder make the Spurs turn over the ball or take bad shots and then get out and run? The Thunder are the most athletic team in the league, and they really like to use their athletiscm on the defensive end.

    San Antonio wins this series hand down if it turns out into a slower tempo, half-court game. Their half-court offensive execution is remarkable. The Thunder’s half-court game is more average… they basically give the ball to Harden or Westbrook, and ask them to create, or they have Durant running off screens and shooting or putting the ball on the floor.

    • jj871 - May 25, 2012 at 10:01 AM

      Average?

      The Thunder were the second best half court team this year. That’s far from average. The Thunder don’t move the ball as well as the Spurs, but they don’t have to. Don’t make a poor generalization about a team that you obviously don’t watch much.

      • borderline1988 - May 29, 2012 at 12:10 AM

        what do you mean by second best halfcourt team in the NBA? By what metric?
        They have a very underrated half-court defense, but I would still think that San Antonio’s half court offense is a lot better than OKC’s.

  8. rooney24 - May 25, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    I am not sure why, but I have a sneaky feeling one of the teams will sustain an injury to a key player, and that will be the reason they lose. I hope I am wrong, as that would be a bit of a buzz kill. I would love to see these two teams play it out for 6-7 games. I don’t care who wins, as long as it is a good series.

  9. waltonpa13 - May 25, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    Solid write up and have the Spurs moving on too… the system is well oiled and purring with many extra parts when needed… and I agree, Leonard and Parker are the keys offensively and defensively… but I am a little quizzical with the Dejuan Blair commentary though. From my observations, with the emergence of Diaw (great pick up!) Blair’s minutes have been minute… I can’t even recall him getting any run in the Clippers series.

  10. zblott - May 25, 2012 at 10:35 AM

    Have you seen the Spurs in the playoffs? To say the Thunder have to look out for “too many DeJuan Blair baseline cuts to catch a pocket pass and lay it in” is hilarious because Blair doesn’t play in the playoffs. He’s gotten minimal minutes at the end of blowouts; he played 23 minutes in a 31-point win over Utah in Game 2, and other than that nearly nothing. This has become par for the course for how Pops has used Blair in the playoffs for 3 years now, so I really have to wonder how that statement is part of your analysis. You should probably watch these teams play and be aware of how they play before you write these columns.

    • Kurt Helin - May 26, 2012 at 11:27 AM

      I actually watched the Spurs in person last series and got that note out of having watched two of their three regular season matchups.

  11. furio2929 - May 25, 2012 at 10:02 PM

    Spurs play -D and spurs win in 6. Great playoffs. Can’t wait. Im a Spurs fan but whoever wins this match shall take out the Heat.

  12. txnative61 - May 26, 2012 at 3:59 AM

    Go Sonics! Oh, OK make it the Spurs then—gets confusing.

    • txnative61 - May 26, 2012 at 5:32 AM

      I have lived in the Seattle area since the Sonics won their one Championship, but grew up in Texas, worked the oilfields, and know all about how Oil people operate. Thunder ownership said from the get-go “Head of ownership group formed specifically to bring pro basketball to OKC.”. The “Starbucks” types hereabouts must have never watched J R Ewing nor heard of “Hardball” in relation to business practices. It’s particularly galling that the Thunder under new ownership are better than the Sonics. I’ve always loved how the Spurs roll, top to bottom, so I’m going with them. If the Thunder were still Sonics, it would be different. So my loyalty, as I said, is “confused”.

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