You know in The Matrix when Neo finally realizes he’s The One? Agent Smith has kicked his butt the whole movie but finally, he gets whatever it is he needs to get, starts seeing in binary code or whatever and wins the fight. He was always good, but for whatever reason, it all clicked for him there.
After he kicked Agent Smith in the chest and sent him flying, it was obvious — this isn’t the same guy. He had grown, evolved. He was becoming what he was supposed to be.
I think you can see where this is going.
The Thunder are making a return trip to the Western Conference Finals, this time drawing the other Texas giant. It’s been an interesting development because the Spurs have subverted everyone and quietly become the favorite to win it all. When the season began, nobody was talking San Antonio. The Thunder were one of a few favorites, and it appeared that the West was opening wide up.
It all went according to plan. The Mavs slipped back to the pack, the Grizzlies weren’t as good as advertised, the Lakers were the same and the Nuggets’ team ball didn’t pan out. If not for those pesky Spurs, OKC would be on cruise control towards The Finals. Instead, the Thunder get a group that have won 18 straight, 28 of 30 and are 8-0 in the playoffs.
The Spurs have played big brother to the Thunder the past three years. The Spurs are everything OKC has ever wanted to be. The similarities are striking, not just from the way the organization operates, but even down to roster structure. It’s impossible not to notice how Durant is the Duncan, the quiet star, the unspoken alpha dog that everyone falls in step behind. How Westbrook is the Parker, the relentless scoring point man that can own the floor in his own right. And Harden being Manu Ginobili, but with a beard.
The Spurs aren’t just big bro only because the Thunder are clearly trying to copy the successful Spurs model of long term, sustained success though. But also because San Antonio always seems to find a win against OKC. In the last three years, the Thunder are 2-8 against the Spurs and have lost those eight games by an average of 9.6 points. If there was ever an appropriate team to get past en route to The Finals, it’s the Spurs. It’s the ultimate passing of the torch.
But this isn’t some kind of mismatch. There’s been so much drooling over the Spurs lately — and rightfully so, mind you — that it seems some re overlooking the fact the Thunder are very, very good. This isn’t some David vs. Goliath matchup. It’s the West’s clear top two teams counting off steps and squaring off. Most feel it’s a de facto Finals matchup, with the winner likely set to be the eventual NBA champ.
Some Thunder fans seem to greatly fear the Spurs, for good reason, but in a way to try and prepare for disappointment. Anxiety runs high and now with the Thunder playing a truly great team, the expectation of advancing has simmered. Instead of bustling confidence, now I’m getting emails and tweets saying, “How can we beat the Spurs?” I understand the fear, I really do. I’ll say this though: Believe in your Thunder. They’re damn good. They really are. If they bring their best and it’s not good enough, so be it. But they have what it takes.
Four games for the next step. Four games to move on in the process. Four games for a shot at glory.
San Antonio took the season series 2-1 over the Thunder. Here’s how those games played out:
Thunder 108, Spurs 96: On the third night of a back-to-back-to-back, the Thunder smoked the Spurs holding Tony Parker to only four points on 1-8 shooting.
Spurs 107, Thunder 96: Behind 42 from Parker, the Spurs handled the Thunder with ease in San Antonio. OKC had to two possessions a few times in the fourth, but couldn’t come up with enough stops.
Spurs 114, Thunder 105: The Spurs built up a huge lead but a massive Thunder run closed it down in the fourth quarter. Danny Green hit a couple big late 3-pointers to put OKC away.
RELEVANT SEASON STATS
Offensive rating: Spurs 110.9 (1st), Thunder 109.8 (2nd)
Defensive ratings: Spurs 103.2 (10th), Thunder 103.2 (11th)
Pace: Spurs 92.9 (7th), 93.0 (6th)
FIVE BIG THINGS
1. Pace vs. Pace. One of the more interesting things about this series is that neither team is going to try and control style of play. There won’t be any talk about tempo or controlling the pace. The Lakers and Mavs wanted to slow OKC down and make the Thunder play their style. The Spurs want to go. The Thunder want to go. Halfcourt sets will be huge and transition opportunities might be limited, but this isn’t going to be a series where one side imposes their style on the other. It’s just going to be about who does it better.
2. Smallball. Obviously this is kind of the hook. The Spurs don’t have a true big outside of Tim Duncan. They ‘re versatile inside, but like the play Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner at the 4. Which clearly opens things up for Durant to play a whole lot at the 4. A wise move from Scott Brooks would be to go small, but not with the Fisher-Westbrook backcourt. Instead, use Westbrook, Harden, Thabo, Durant and a big. More length, more athleticism, more ability to defend the perimeter. There’s simply not a lot of value in playing Ibaka and Perk at the same time.
What I fear is a little of that old classic Scott Brooks stubbornness is going to show. I wouldn’t expect him to change his starting five, because that’s just not what he does. But he has to be free flowing with the way he handles his big man rotation. Perk deserves his minutes and will have some value, but maintaining the same rotations that were there during the season isn’t wise.
3. The paths we take. A lot has been made about how dominant the Spurs have been this postseason. And they surely have. But they might’ve had the easiest path to the Conference Finals out of any team. (Maybe the Celtics). They swept probably the worst team in the playoffs in the Jazz, then dismantled a beat up Clippers team that really wasn’t as good as its fourth place finish. Obviously impressive to handle business like that, but the Thunder went through the defending champs and a quality Laker team, and did it in nine total games.
4. Can the Spurs defend Durant? One of the more underrated things about this series, at least for me, is getting to cover Coach Pop for two weeks. Which will be awesome. Anyway, the reason I bring that up is because before the last game in OKC against the Spurs, Pop said if Kawhi Leonard could hold KD under 50, he’d slap him on the butt and say good job. Obviously Pop was exaggerating a bit, but the point is, the Spurs don’t really have a high quality defender to throw at Durant. No Shawn Marion. No Metta World Peace. It’s a rookie in Leonard and Stephen Jackson. You’ve got to think that’s a substantial advantage for the Thunder.
The best defender the Spurs probably have for Durant is Pop’s brain, because with five days to prepare, you know he’s going to come up with something.
5. How much will blowing home court hurt? We all tried to downplay the significance of it when it was happening because there was no guarantee the Thunder would even meet the Spurs in the Western Finals. Well, here it is. And the Thunder blew it. Instead of staying home for a week, practicing here and waiting for the Spurs to make a trip north, the Thunder have to travel to San Antonio and pull the whole hopefully-steal-one-of-the-first-two act.
The Thunder are an exceptional home team, as are the Spurs. Winning on the road isn’t foreign to the Thunder, but having the first two games at The Peake with a charged home crowd could’ve been big in establishing an early edge in the series.
FOUR POTENTIAL X-FACTORS
1. Could Royal Ivey be the Thunder’s secret weapon? With the Spurs whipping the Thunder in the pick-and-roll in OKC during the last meeting of the season, Scott Brooks went to his bench. He called upon the man they call “Smoke” and put him on Parker. The result? Parker finished the game 2-4 for six points in the fourth quarter. Ivey fights through screens harder than anyone on the team, contests shots and understands exactly why he’s on the floor. Granted, it was eight minutes of a regular season game and you can’t make a big rotational decision based solely on that, but if Parker is torching Westbrook, would Brooks try playing this card?
2. Derek Fisher. Good to have just in case OKC needs one of these.
3. Danny Green. Not only did Green put in his name to become a starter on the All-Thunder Killer team with his last performance against OKC, but he could potentially be the top option for the Spurs in defending Westbrook. San Antonio switched Green to Chris Paul late in games in the Clipper series as Green used his length to try and take away Paul’s jumper. That same tactic could be coming against Westbrook. Westbrook is quicker than Paul as well as bigger and stronger, so Green might not be able to take away Westbrook’s driving option, but he certainly can contest the midrange game.
4. Nick Collison. Consider this: With Collison on the bench, the Spurs were a +13.7 per 48.With Collison on the floor, a -11.4 per 48. The Thunder are going to play a lot of smallball in the series, but the question is, who is the preferred 5? Perk? Ibaka? Or Collison? More than likely Brooks will let that decision play out by feel game to game, but Collison certainly has the strongest case. He defends the pick-and-roll better than any OKC big (and as well as any big in the league), has enough size to contest Duncan and is strong on the glass. He can’t protect the rim from the weakside like Ibaka which is why Brooks might prefer his shotblocker, but Collison should make an impression on this series.
THREE LINGERING THOUGHTS
1. The regular season series might not be the best indicator. The Spurs took it 2-1, but both teams don’t have the same look now. San Antonio dumped Richard Jefferson, brought in Jackson and promoted Leonard. The Thunder didn’t have their top perimeter defender in Thabo Sefolosha for one of the games. And Manu Ginobili didn’t play in any of the three. What to make of that? I have no idea.
2. How do you stop Tony Parker? He smoked OKC for 42 in one of the meetings, and it really seemed more like 72. He got anything he wanted in the pick-and-roll, didn’t meet much resistance to the basket and controlled the game throughout. Simply put: Russell Westbrook needs to grow up as a defender. The Thunder have some options here and there with Ivey, Thabo and maybe even Durant (I’m serious), but the responsibility rests with Westbrook. He can defend Parker. He’s just got to do it.
3. OKC has more talent. But I think the Spurs might be a better team. It’s kind of complex. Let me put it this way: If the Thunder played their ideal game on the same night the Spurs played theirs, I think OKC would win. The difference between the teams though is, the Spurs come closer to that ideal game far more consistently than the Thunder. OKC has a smaller margin for error because of the Spurs’ consistency and experience, but if things click the way they can, the Thunder could get to rolling. San Antonio is going to welcome the Thunder to play their favored style of game. It’s just a matter of who does it best.
The pick: Thunder in seven. It’s a return to a scene of disappointment for the Thunder. But a year ago against the Mavericks this was a bright-eyed bunch, though they wouldn’t admit it, were just kind of happy to be there. The Western Finals were a gift as it were and anything beyond, a blessing. Still, they were right there, potentially two fourth quarters away from punching a ticket to the NBA Finals. The writing was on the wall with that team though. Against Memphis, there were struggles. And the Mavs exposed it all.
Similar to last season, OKC gets a seemingly destined team. A group playing its best basketball at the right time. The Thunder start on the road, aiming to steal a game and bring it to OKC tied up. They play a Texas team that’s one of the West’s old guards, a club the Thunder need to topple before they can seize control.
Other than the name and colors on the jersey of the opponent, everything in this series appears to be nearly the same.
Except this Thunder team isn’t.