LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20: Tim Duncan #21 and Danny Green #4 of the San Antonio Spurs celebrate late in the fourth quarter while taking on the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 20, 2011 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
The Spurs haven't lost in 46 days, but haven't faced a challenge like a best-of-seven series against the Thunder. How can San Antonio reign supreme?
The good sir Steve Perrin gave his game plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder's quest to end the historic hot streak of the San Antonio Spurs earlier on Sunday. I'm tasked with the opposite tack: how can the Spurs beat the Thunder? Many of you will surely be saying, "Show up." San Antonio has been darn near unbeatable for a couple of months now -- the Spurs haven't lost in 46 days! They only have two losses in the last 67 days, and in one of those Gregg Popovich held out his stars for rest.
And I'm trying to explain how they can win this series?
But this series against the Thunder will be unlike any recent test the Spurs have faced. The Utah Jazz laid down pretty quickly in the first round once it became clear that San Antonio was not going to crack even a little. The L.A. Clippers lost their mojo when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin got dinged up in the first round, and clearly just didn't have the defense to keep the Spurs in range in their second-round series. But the Thunder are a legit title contender, a hungry club who will be wholly unsatisfied with a loss of any kind to the Spurs. Oklahoma City won't be contented with a good showing against San Antonio: the Thunder want desperately to win and move on to the Finals.
To assist them, they have the league's top-scoring small forward (who is also the league's three-time defending scoring champ), the league's top-scoring point guard, the league's top-scoring sixth man and the league's runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. Much of the rest of the team is made up of defensive-minded attack dogs who forced the L.A. Lakers into bad performance after bad performance in the second round, and who presented the Mavericks for slaughter in the first round. This is a team overflowing with talent and winning ingredients.
So how can the Spurs beat them, supposing that this is a much stronger challenge?
* Keep the Thunder off the offensive glass. Few elite teams are great on the offensive glass; that's typically the pride of young, mediocre teams. But the Thunder did rank No. 11 in offensive rebounding in the regular season. It will be imperative for the Spurs to close off those putback lanes and force OKC into one-and-out basketball; the Thunder offense is too good otherwise to be given extra chances to score. San Antonio was the league's best defensive rebounding team this year; in three games this season, the Spurs held the Thunder off the glass completely, save for a Serge Ibaka explosion (five offensive boards) in March. (San Antonio won that game by nine.)
* Pressure Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. You cannot take a passive stance in defending K.D. or Westbrook -- they'll pick you apart and quite possibly just decide to fly over your heads. The Thunder are so top-heavy that it's worth trying to force them to spread the ball to whoever else happens to be on the court; on the entire roster, James Harden is the only other scorer to be feared. And though no one in OKC wants to talk about it anymore, this team is prone to strings of turnovers: they had the league's highest turnover rate in the regular season. (That's what happens when you start three defensive specialists and have the league's most aggressive point guard.) You don't force turnovers by playing passive defense, even if your rotations are sound. You force turnovers by pushing back and putting pressure on the ballhandler. The Lakers failed miserably in turning over Westbrook, Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins; the Spurs need to do better. It's the one crack in OKC's offensive armor.
* Be opportunistic on the offensive glass. The Spurs have built the league's best offense despite caring little for offensive rebounds; San Antonio finished No. 24 in that category this season as the imperative instead has been rotating back on defense to prevent transition scores. Rotating back will be highly imperative against the Thunder: the wings are fleet of foot, and OKC prefers to play at a higher pace. But there will be some opportunities for the Spurs to squeeze more out of their offense by allowing DeJuan Blair and even Tim Duncan to hang out in the lane for putback attempts. In particular, when Scott Brooks goes to his bench and replaces Russ with Derek Fisher, that should be open license for Blair to attack the offensive glass -- OKC won't be running anyway. It's not the Spurs' style to focus on that, and they shouldn't. But Blair is a monster on the boards, and a couple of flipped possessions can turn a game. Keep an eye on Blair's minutes and rebound totals.
* Challenge Ibaka head on. Back in February, I went out to the gym to watch the molten-hot Thunder play the struggling Kings. It was a national TV game, and Sacramento fans were pumped up. The Kings played well throughout, but that darned Serge Ibaka kept getting enormous blocks. He had 10 in the game; I'm pretty sure every Sacramento media member with NBA award votes put Ibaka at No. 1 in the Defensive Player of the Year race just on the basis of that performance. He was a monster.
But a strange thing happened after those 10 blocks: Ibaka fouled out, and the Thunder lost. Once Ibaka was removed from the equation, the Kings continued to attack, and there was no real resistance. He's the only shot-blocker on the team; Durant, of all people, is second on the Thunder in blocks per game at just over one. If you can get Ibaka out of the game, and you can avoid careening into charge-happy Nick Collison, you can have success attacking the rim against OKC.
Of course, that Kings game was the only time Ibaka fouled out all season long. He really cut down on the whistles this season to OKC's benefit, averaging fewer than four per 36 minutes. But he did pick up five fouls in just 25 minutes in the March game against the Spurs, and Lord knows the Spurs' attackers -- Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan -- are crafty enough to draw contact. Duncan in particular can try to goad Serge into a couple of cheap ones in one-on-one situations. If San Antonio can get Ibaka off the court, the basket will look that much bigger.
It'll take more than just showing up for the Spurs to take out the Thunder. Whether they are successful or not, it figures to be an exhilarating series between the teams. Be sure to follow our full coverage as Game 1 begins at 8:30 p.m. ET on TNT on Sunday.