It’s the Western Conference finals, a rematch of 2012 and the matchup we should’ve seen last season had circumstances not intervened. Here are nine thoughts (RIP, Serge):
1. Uh oh. The loss of Serge Ibaka is devastating. We all know this.
2. Is there anything to take from the 4-0 season series sweep? With Ibaka out, no, not all that much. The Thunder frustrated the Spurs greatly with their length, speed and athleticism, cutting off passing lanes and recovering hard on all their perimeter shots. But things change so much without Ibaka because those aggressive closeouts are now dangerous without a backline rim protector waiting. It’s basically a clean slate.
3. Reggie Jackson. He’s the X-factor. If there’s a real reason to believe the Thunder can survive despite the loss of Ibaka, it’s in that Jackson has tormented the Spurs this season. In the four meetings, he’s averaging 21.3 points on 67.9 percent shooting, plus 4.5 assists. He’s played three of the best games of his career all against the Spurs, scorching them for 23 on 10-14, 21 on 8-14 and 27 on 12-17.
To expect him to replicate those kind of performances would be a little reckless, but it is pretty clear that Jackson can exploit an obvious weakness in the Spurs’ backcourt. Specifically when he and Westbrook are together, they can’t match up whatsoever. They try and funnel both to Tim Duncan, but the old guy isn’t quite the rim protector he used to be.
4. Smallball, the great equalizer. The Thunder have the option of playing small in their back pocket, but typically rely on it with Serge Ibaka as their center. With him out, it’ll be smallball lineups with Perk, Nick Collison and Steven Adams as the lone big alongside Durant. All those lineups are mostly untested this season, but the Thunder do have a unique ability to somewhat dictate the matchups in the series by going small. If Durant can guard Tiago Splitter — which he probably can — the Spurs would either have to remove one of their bigs or play mismatched on the defensive end, using Splitter on Caron Butler or Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder have never really figured out a way to exploit those mismatches, but what they do is pull a paint protecting big out, and clear driving lanes for Westbrook, Durant and Jackson.
5. Can Nick Collison save the Thunder? It’s likely he’ll be the Game 1 starting power forward and while he obviously doesn’t have basically any of the raw physical tools that Ibaka does, Collison is an extremely effective offensive and defensive player in his own way. Something people have failed to mention in comparing the loss of Westbrook last season to Ibaka’s injury this season is what the Thunder have behind each. Jackson was making the first start of his career in Game 3 against Houston last season. Collison is a season, experienced veteran with 171 career starts under his belt.
Ibaka spaced the floor for the Thunder at the elbows with his jumpshooting, and obviously was a menace on the interior with his shotblocking. Collison is a different kind of spacer in that you can run high post offense through him with a two-man action. He’s maybe the team’s best passer and has incredible feel and timing. He can knock down midrange jumpers (shot a solid 41.1 percent this season), but the problem is he doesn’t take all that many (56 total). For one, he never has been asked to because more than maybe any other player in the league, Collison understands his role, but secondly, it takes him roughly an entire shot clock to go into a full squat and wind up that jumper.
And again, as displayed in Game 6 against the Clippers, Collison is often an offensive solution to stagnant Thunder halfcourt execution. Ibaka is an excellent, efficient player, but he’s also fairly one-dimensional on the offensive end. If he’s not grabbing offensive rebounds and putting them back, it’s mostly just the pick-and-pop jumper. He can often find himself frozen out of offense as Westbrook and Durant isolate to attack one-on-one all over the court. With Collison, though, the Thunder have an unselfish, creative player that you can run offense through much in the way the Spurs do with Tim Duncan or the Bulls do with Joakim Noah. Obviously, they have to be willing to trust it and Collison has only played more than 35 minutes twice since 2009. He fouls 5.0 times per 36 minutes, which he’ll have to be attentive to.
6. Durant against the Spurs. In the four games Durant averaged 26.3 points on 45.9 percent shooting, 26.3 percent from 3 and 95.7 percent from the line. He took 21.3 shots a game, 4.8 3s a game and got to the line 5.8 times a game. He turned it over 6.0 times, and had just 3.8 assists.
Historically, the Spurs have defended Durant just about as well as anyone. They use a true team defensive scheme, rarely leaving Kawhi Leonard on an island. They attempt to funnel Durant to Duncan inside and make any kind of finish inside of 10 feet a difficult, contested shot.
7. Westbrook against the Spurs. Westbrook played three of the four games this season, averaging 21.3 points on 43.1 percent shooting, 21.4 percent from 3 and 84.6 percent from the line. He took 19.3 shots a game, 4.7 3s and got to the line 4.3 times. He turned it over 2.3 times and dished out 7.3 assists.
Westbrook has always been the primary nightmare for the Spurs, because of his attack-minded game, putting smaller guards like Tony Parker and Patty Mills on notice. The Spurs don’t have a guard that can physically match Westbrook, so a potential adjustment to watch for might be Kawhi Leonard switching over to take him, and using a smaller guard like Manu Ginobili or Danny Green on Durant, to see if that can frustrate him a la Tony Allen or Chris Paul.
8. Coaching head-to-head. It’s obviously the biggest gulf in the series. Gregg Popovich is, in my opinion, the best coach in professional sports, so really whoever he’s across from is at a significant disadvantage. But Scott Brooks has got the best of Pop before, running circles around him in the 2012 Western Finals with spot on lineup rotations and sub patterns. Popovich tried a number of different adjustments to counter, but was never able to close the gap simply because Brooks had better personnel.
Now, the playing field is far more even. Brooks has fewer options and is the one scrambling.
9. Prediction. Before Ibaka’s injury, I had the Thunder winning in six games. And I’m sticking with that. The reason is pretty simple: The Thunder still have the best two players in the series. This team has always been about Westbrook and Durant — shameless plug here — as the Thunder have basically been a Big Two and a Half rather than a Big Three. This is far more difficult a situation than it previously was, but there’s reason to hope. Durant and Westbrook can carry this team through. I’m hanging with them in six games, because despite the monumental setback, the Thunder have more talent. It’s the team and system versus the talent and individuality. Let’s see who triumphs.