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Thunder vs. Spurs Game 5 preview: Is home cooking enough for San Antonio?

May 29, 2014, 12:44 PM EDT

Tony Parker, Tim Duncan Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

San Antonio doesn’t want to hear about 2012 (when it was up 2-0 on Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals and got swept the next four). The Spurs are a different team now they say, as are the Thunder. This is a different series. All of that is true.

The Spurs biggest problem for Game 5 is one they couldn’t solve in 2012:

When the Thunder players get off the plane in San Antonio, they are still going to be incredibly long and athletic. For a couple years now that advantage has not been something the Spurs have been able to overcome.

Through four games of the Western Conference Finals the home team has won in a blowout. Yet while the series may be even 2-2 but the games have not been. The Spurs owned the first two. After getting crushed on the road now the Spurs come home seeking to reassert their dominance. The Spurs need to win at home because it’s become evident through their nine-game losing streak there they can’t win in Oklahoma City.

Their Serge Ibaka is coming to Game 5, too.

Since he returned to the Heat in Game 3 from a calf injury that was allegedly going to keep him out of the playoffs (nice bit of gamesmanship by the Thunder) the Thunder have been a different team. Their offensive spacing is vastly improved, Ibaka’s threat on the pick-and-pop has opened up driving lanes for Russell Westbrook. On defense the Thunder are more aggressive in extending their pressure because Ibaka is lurking back in the paint to clean up their mistakes. The Thunder’s length and athleticism, with Ibaka back in the lineup, allows them to contest virtually everything — in Game 5 the Thunder contested 47 percent of the Spurs shots, and San Antonio shot 33 percent on those (for comparison, the Thunder shot 49 percent on contested shots in Game 5).

Gregg Popovich has had a couple of years to tinker and experiment on how to beat a healthy Oklahoma City, and as evidenced by the last two games he’s still looking for answers. His team played well for the first eight to nine minutes of Game 4 but then he said they got away from what worked and that will doom you against the Thunder.

“We didn’t play smart on a consistent basis,” Popovich said in his post game press conference broadcast on NBA TV Tuesday night. “All of a sudden we were going to see if Serge (Ibaka) could block a shot or something. I thought about passing a picture out on the bench so they’d know who Serge was. Really unwise basketball all of a sudden. Rather than hitting open people we started attacking the rim unwisely and that turns into blocked shots and turnovers.

“You got to play smarter against such great athletes. They’re talented, obviously, but their athleticism and length gives you a smaller margin for error and you better be smart the way you play. And you can’t afford to screw that up as many times as we did.”

For two games the Thunder have not only been more athletic, they have been far more aggressive and far more physical. Their ability to challenge passes on the perimeter with that athleticism (and Ibaka as a backstop to clean up problems) has the Spurs hesitating to make passes for a split second, which is allowing defenders more time to recover and contest. Tony Parker has had Russell Westbrook in his face defensively and Ibaka in the lane when he drives, taking away anything easy and clean. When Parker struggles the Spurs offense stalls.

Going home for Game 5, and realizing the desperate situation, expect to see the Spurs play harder. Play smarter. Expect the Spurs to come out with a new sense of physicality to their game.

The question is will it matter, or are these Thunder just a matchup problem Popovich and the Spurs cannot solve?

  1. azarkhan - May 29, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    The Thunder have been the best team in the Western Conference since they beat the Spurs in the WC Finals 2012. It was only the loss of Russell Westbrook last year that derailed their bid to go to the NBA Finals for a second time.

    While I hope the Spurs win, I doubt they can. With the exception of Kawhi Leonard, all of the key Spurs players are on the wrong side of 30 while all of the key Thunder players are in their early to mid-20’s. Moreover, Westbrook (25), Durant (25) and Ibaka (24) are not only young but also ranked in the top three at their respective positions in the NBA. That combination of youth and talent will be extremely difficult for the Spurs to overcome.

    • calkinsrob - May 29, 2014 at 1:43 PM

      theyve been on the wrong side of 30 for a while, come up with a new reason you think theyll lose cus thats not it .

      • azarkhan - May 29, 2014 at 1:50 PM

        You’re absolutely right, my mistake. Thanks to your insightful comment I now see Duncan, Parker and Ginobili playing championship basketball well into their 40’s.

        PS: Youth will be served.

    • antistratfordian - May 29, 2014 at 2:50 PM

      You’re being overly pessimistic. Los Spurs can beat anybody at home when their threes are falling. Anybody. And Durant doesn’t shoot as well on the road where his FG% drops from 53% to 47% and his 3PT% drops from 43% to 35% – so that makes San Antonio’s job a little bit easier.

      But I like the Spurs chances at home.

  2. aboogy123456 - May 29, 2014 at 1:24 PM

    If the Thunder win, they are basically handing the Heat an unbelievably easy path to the title. There is not one team in the league that can beat every other team, so it comes down to matchups, and unfortunately the spurs have come across the only team that can beat them right now. The Thunder will get rolled by the Heat, so I want to see the spurs win for the sake of a competitive finals.

    • antistratfordian - May 29, 2014 at 2:32 PM

      I seem to recall a Mavericks team that just went 7 against the Spurs. OKC is not the only team that can beat the Spurs right now – there are probably a 3 or 4 teams that can take them in a series.

  3. papichulo55 - May 29, 2014 at 1:38 PM

    Gotta go with the home court advantage and hall of fame players and coach. Serge is not 100% and hadn’t had the time to heal, and most of all, OKC has played its best game.

    • thomasvanek - May 29, 2014 at 4:01 PM

      There was some signs of injury in Game 3, but I saw none in Game 4. So, I don’t understand why you feel he isn’t 100%. Also, Game 4 was nowhere near OKC’s best possible game.

  4. markv00 - May 29, 2014 at 8:27 PM

    Well, you have two great teams with two distinct advantages over each other. OKC-yout & athleticism, the Spurs-experience & mental toughness. The X’s and O’s are well played out, so it’s just a matter of which team imposes their strength over the other. I’m a Spurs fan, and as such I believe in our guys they will get it done. As a fan of the game, neither team is a bad team. Winning or losing this series will not define either teams accomplishments. The Spurs have their championships and I hope they get more, but at some point, and it’s coming fast, their window will close but if will have been one hell of a run. May not be the best example, it just came to mind. It’s sort of like when the Lakers were the team the Spurs couldn’t get past then the Lakers got a little older and the youth of the Spurs finally proved too much and they finally jumped that hurdle, of course it all lined up with David, Timmy and Pop, but showtime was over. That may be what’s happening here, just a changing of the guard. I’m not ever going to go against the Spurs, I always believe in them and love their style of play. But I can’t think of any team more deserving to step in than the Thunder. Here’s to a great game and GO SPURS GO!

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