Welcome to the best series in the playoffs!
After a wildly dispiriting blowout in the first game, which gave some serious pause to all the Kevin Durant one year deal OKC homers (and my Thunder in 6 prediction), this series has more than righted itself. Three games decided by 18 points, San Antonio cycling through five different methods of guarding Russell Westbrook, and Durant giving his moms the best mother’s day gift since that absolute tear jerker of an MVP acceptance speech and we are back on serve. And now, with Golden State just chugging away 8 Curry-less games and counting, we may be on the brink of the most meaningful game 5 this postseason. A win here comes with a greater than 80% chance of taking the series outright. Let’s get into it.
San Antonio Iso Ball
For everyone who ignored the Spurs this season in favor of watching the Warriors burn down the planet, you still probably heard a little something about Kawhi Leonard chopping down Durant and Lebron James to become the best two-way wing in the league. A second defensive player of the year award, 44% shooting from deep, and a nasty bully ball that evolved from coach Popp throwing up his hands and just letting this dude go to work on the block.
What you might not have noticed, though, is the monster way in which Lamarcus Aldridge seamlessly integrated himself into the Spurs’ system by the end of the year. 18 and 9 on 52% shooting, sliding down to the 5 to spell Tim Duncan (after face-palming the Knicks who suggest he may play a few minutes at the big spot), and showing off an uncanny defensive versatility never really present in Portland, as he switched onto smaller players and helped maintain the league’s best defense. Against OKC this year, Aldridge has averaged 31 points per game on nearly 60% shooting and has made me seriously start to question whether Poppovich brought him to San Antonio just because he was the best free agent available, or because his stellar mid-range game might be the kind of unexplored market inefficiency that could put this Spurs team over the top against the Golden States and Clevelands of the world.
Okay, so it’s not particularly surprising that with two absolute studs, San Antonio has migrated somewhat away from their traditional “beautiful game”, swing the ball around the gym offensive style and more towards bruising, deliberate halfcourt sets. For the most part, it works; Durant is the best Leonard defender on the Thunder roster but needs to save his energy for the offensive end, while Aldridge’s pick-and-pop threat pulls the best OKC rim protector in Serge Ibaka 18 feet away from the basket. The only issue, though (and one that OKC should be very familiar with) is that’s it’s hyper predictable. For as athletic as the Thunder are, they’re terrible communicators and struggle mightily when they have to switch defensive assignments. Aldridge can roast them for 41 points on 75% shooting (!!!), but as long as the Spurs aren’t averaging 8 passes on every possession and Thunder defenders can keep their men in front of them, they have a good chance of stopping the league’s 2nd ranked offense.
Oklahoma City Rotations
Ahhh, the real question for Oklahoma City and any prospective coach coming after Billy Donovan’s comfy, comfy chair is how to optimize the otherworldly offensive talents of their TWO superstars. It may have taken this guy half a season to figure out how to stagger Russ and KD’s minutes, but that isn’t going to be nearly enough to beat the Spurs. Even if the two of them get up to 42 a night, the Thunder have been murdered in the minutes when one of them sits on the bench. In what looks to be an increasingly close series with the first game as an outlier, Donovan can’t afford to put together dud lineups that get outscored badly while one of his stars rests.
Surprisingly the lineup that was able to put the Spurs away on Sunday night was super large, with both Steven Adams and Enes Kanter filling out the frontcourt spots alongside Durant. It helped that Kanter was able to show off a little bit of a shooting stroke from three, and that he hasn’t been his usual trashfire self on defense in this series. It may also have helped that Duncan played very few minutes in this game, either due to foul trouble or a swollen ankle, and that the Thunder were able to blitz the Spurs on the boards. Whatever the case, Kanter may well have an important role in this series as San Antonio doesn’t look to exploit his weaknesses in pick and roll coverage.
The other big game changer might just be Dion Waiters (sorry Cam Payne). Andre Roberson has had a little bit of success guarding Kawhi Leonard, but before Sunday night he’d had 12 points in the previous five games and has hit the backboard more frequently than the rim on his corner 3 point attempts. Waiters is still a fairly garbage player (and perfect evidence of the Thunder’s absolute inability to find a decent two way shooting guard), but he at least has the speed to bother Leonard a little while being a decent threat from the outside. He hit a couple of huge buckets in game 4 and should carve out a much larger role in the games to come.
History, experience, coaching, roster strengths, and homecourt advantage all point to the Spurs winning this series. They’ve been a dominant team at home this season and have shown the potential of shutting down the Thunder offense by forcing Westbrook into ugly threes and long two pointers. Kawhi Leonard might just be the best player in this series and it’s almost impossible to imagine them losing two games in a row.
Still, there’s that part of my heart that thinks the Thunder can do this. After a rude awakening, they’ve played a superior team tight in three consecutive contests and have a nasty chip on their shoulder. Outside of Kawhi, they’re longer and more athletic at every position and might be able to give San Antonio some real problems on the boards and in hustle plays as the series goes on. And, when it all comes down to it, they have the best isolation player on the planet in Durant. Don’t count these guys out.