The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs square off in a Western Conference Finals series that promises to be the best one of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. Both teams are playing at an incredibly high level right now, with the Spurs zipping through all competition and the Thunder easily vanquishing two of the most battle-tested teams in the playoffs.
Here, the three regular-season matchups could be very instructive. The Spurs won two of them, and in general, they've had their way with the Thunder over the past three years. However, the regular-season matchups are only as meaningful as the trends that developed over those three games. Can those trends hold up?
We'll explore seven big ones to prepare for this series.
1. How many minutes will James Harden play?
During the 2011-12 season, James Harden killed a lot of teams. He's become unstoppable off the dribble, and nobody can really stay in front of him anymore. That said, he especially killed the Spurs, scoring 19 points a game on 59 percent shooting in the three regular-season games. More importantly, with Harden on the floor, the Thunder scored an average of 112 points per 100 possessions against the Spurs this year, compared to just 96.7 with him on the bench.
And yet, despite this, Harden played only 28 minutes per contest against San Antonio in the regular season. Seems kind of strange, doesn't it?
On some level, it does, but this is also the price of being a sixth man. Consider: during a playoffs that has acted as Harden's coming-out party, he's only averaging 30.3 minutes per game. Being a sixth man has plenty of benefits, but it also means you, by default, have to sit out the first 6-7 minutes of the game, then the first 6-7 minutes of the second half at a minimum. That leaves just 34-36 minutes, and that doesn't include the rest needed to avoid playing 18 straight minutes each half. If coach Scott Brooks leaves Harden as a sixth man, it's going to be very hard to get him on the court enough to maximize his success against the Spurs.
Therefore, here's a radical solution: why not start Harden?
This is something that Brooks has avoided doing in the past, but for some evidence that it could work, he could look to the other bench. While Gregg Popovich has been reluctant to start Manu Ginobili at times over the years, he has done it occasionally in the playoffs when he felt he desperately needed Ginobili to be on the court more often. Given how much of a problem Harden has been for the Spurs this year, it's something Brooks may want to consider.
There's another reason too...
2. How will the respective coaches use Danny Green and Thabo Sefolosha?
These are two players that play very important roles, especially defensively, but neither has been great in their normal role in the head-to-head matchups this year. In particular, the Spurs have feasted with Sefolosha on the court, using his defender to cheat off the non-offensive threat and apply more attention to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
However, both players will have an important purpose in this series. The Thunder need Sefolosha's defensive length to guard Manu Ginobili, who has not played well in the playoffs, but is liable to explode at any given minute. They may also need Sefolosha to guard Tony Parker for short stretches (more on that later), but mostly, they need him to guard Ginobili.
As for Green, his defensive versatility actually raises some questions for Popovich. In the series against the Clippers, Green was matched up on Chris Paul and actually did a very nice job helping to slow him. The Spurs could use a similar strategy and have Green guard Russell Westbrook, but that may leave San Antonio to cross-matches in transition, which is problematic given how much the Thunder run.
Therefore, it makes more sense to have Green spend most of his time guarding Harden. While nobody on the Spurs did much to stop Harden this season, Green fared better than anyone else. In the Clippers' series, Green demonstrated his ability to force Paul to the spot on the floor where the Spurs wanted him to go, because that was how their help defenders were aligned. You can't stop Harden unless you somehow find a way to do the same with him, and Green seems well-equipped to handle the task.
Of course, it'll require a lot of minute manipulation for Brooks and Popovich to get the matchups they want (Sefolosha on Ginobili; Green on Harden). How that plays out is worth watching.
3. Can the Spurs really guard Kevin Durant passably?
Durant was good and not great against the Spurs this season, but he still poses a huge problem for the Spurs. Rookie Kawhi Leonard is aggressive and has the size to defend Durant, but he's still a rookie in a huge spot. He'll need to do a much better job of battling Durant for position before he catches it. In watching the tape, especially from the third matchup, Durant got the ball in good spots and worked for good shots. He just missed some makeable looks.
And that's just Leonard. When he goes out of the game, the Spurs need to rely on an older Stephen Jackson to slow Durant. That's much more problematic, because Jackson, though helpful offensively, is a long way removed from slowing Dirk Nowitzki in the 2007 playoffs. The Spurs as a team have limited Durant by helping off the offensive non-threats on the Thunder (Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins, even Serge Ibaka), but if the Thunder play Durant, Westbrook and Harden at the same time, that becomes much more difficult.
Can the Spurs' perimeter defenders come up big? If they do, it'll require better work before Durant catches the ball. The Mavericks did a great job of denying him shots in last year's Western Conference Finals, but the Spurs have yet to show they can do that to Durant. Relying on Durant to miss makeable looks won't work in this series.
4. Can the Thunder really live with Tony Parker taking so many shots?
Tony Parker is averaging just under 20 shots per game in the three games against the Thunder this year, and only Philadelphia and Orlando let him take more shots per game this year. As Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe noted, Parker is also dribbling way more often against the Thunder than any other team. Watching the tape, Parker's taking a ton of shots off the dribble, even more than he usually does.
It almost makes you wonder whether the Thunder want Parker to be a scorer. Lowe dismissed this possibility, and in watching the tape, I see where he's coming from. Much of Parker's effectiveness has come on plays where, as Lowe writes, Westbrook "jumps" over a pick too early. Parker then smartly declines the screen and catches Westbrook in the wrong position, giving him and his teammates open looks.
Here are a couple examples of Parker declining the screen and using Westbrook's aggression against him.
Essentially, the Thunder seem to be trying to get the ball out of Parker's hands and are just being victimized by Westbrook's over-aggression.
On the other hand, is it that absurd to make Parker shoot over 20 times a game? Consider: when Parker is shooting, it often means the ball isn't moving as much. The Spurs' offense is truly fearsome when they penetrate into the lane and kick out to shooters. They share the ball so beautifully that no defense can catch up once the initial penetration happens. So, it needs to be said: what if Parker can't get into the lane?
This is so, so, so, so much easier said than done, but the Thunder may want to consider turning Parker into a jump shooter. Parker's very good from that range and hit exactly half of his shots from 16-23 feet against the Thunder during the regular season, but of the 59 attempts he took, only 14 (23 percent) were from 16-23 feet. The Thunder need to figure out a way to force Parker to take more of those shots and less at the rim. Twenty shots from Parker is fine, but not if only five of them are mid-range jumpers.
In other words, it's not the number of shot attempts or dribbles that Parker is taking that's worth watching, it's where he's taking and using them. It might be worth it for Brooks to play Sefolosha on Parker for stretches, instruct him to go under ball screens and use his length to contest Parker's open jumpers as much as possible. Parker will hit a lot of those shots, but it's better than him getting into the lane.
5. Can the Spurs stay on fire from three-point range?
The Spurs are a great three-point shooting team, but they were especially lethal in the three games against the Thunder, hitting 28 of their 54 attempts. They've been lethal from pretty much every spot, hitting 13-24 from the corners and 15-30 from above the break, according to NBA.com. The obvious question here: can the Spurs continue to hit threes at such a ridiculous clip?
Frankly, I don't see why not. I went back and watched every single one of those 54 attempts, and for the most part, they were really good looks. For the purposes of this discussion, let's define an "open" shot as one where the defender closing out on the shooter has at least one foot in the paint upon the shooter going into his motion. If that's the case, 30 of those 54 shots were open shots.
Here are some examples.
This is problematic for the Thunder. Also problematic: via Sebastian Pruiti, Thunder opponents are only shooting 32.3 percent on spot-up jumpers considered "open" by MySynergySports.com. That's pretty much all luck there. For example, all of these open spot-up threes missed.
The Spurs will shoot way better than 32.3 percent on those shots. If the Thunder give them up as often as they did against the Spurs during the regular season, maintaining a 50-percent conversion rate from three isn't that absurd.
6. Can the Thunder keep Tim Duncan off the glass?
The Thunder have done a nice job preventing Tim Duncan from scoring, as he shot just 35 percent in the three games in the regular season. However, they've done a horrible job keeping Duncan off the glass. Duncan averaged 13.7 rebounds per game in the three games despite playing only 28 minutes a contest, which is by far his best rebounding performance against a single team this year.
Can this be fixed? Honestly, I'm skeptical. The Thunder's defense is very good, but they finished 23rd in the league in defensive rebound rate. We discussed the reasons why in a piece back in March that continues to hold true. The Thunder's big men are so aggressive providing help defense and blocking shots that they often surrender rebounding position. Duncan is smart enough to take advantage, and I suspect that will continue to hold true in a seven-game series.
7. How much will Oklahoma City go small?
The Thunder's ace in the hole in this series is their small lineup when Durant plays power forward. During the regular season, the Thunder scored over 111 points per 100 possessions with Durant playing at this spot. Against the Spurs, the lineup was a +19 in three games. The small lineup allows the Thunder to get Harden, Westbrook and Durant in the game at the same time while removing one of their non-post up big men.
The smart money is on the Thunder using this lineup more than they did during the regular season. Unlike the Lakers, the Spurs don't have the size to punish the Thunder in the post when this lineup is on the floor. However, as noted in the previous question, rebounding is an issue for the Thunder. Going small probably won't help them there. That means it'll be imperative for Durant and Westbrook to provide more rebounding than their position requires.
If so, the Thunder will put the Spurs in a very difficult position. If not, the lineup won't do much more than trade buckets.
FINAL PREDICTION: I suspect the Thunder will play better against San Antonio than they did in the regular season, but in the end, too many of these critical questions tilt the Spurs' way. Spurs in 7.