Amidst some significant injuries this week to Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and Stephen Curry, somewhat dampening the mood of the Western Conference playoff scope, alas, on Saturday afternoon we begin a new chapter of the titanic Thunder-Spurs saga.
This conference semifinal series goes one of two ways — either the Thunder eclipse the proverbial hump of beating the Spurs in a playoff series and prove their elitism is NBA championship caliber or San Antonio makes a resounding statement of evolved belief with LaMarcus Aldridge in the mix beside Kawhi Leonard. Therein lies your overarching implication for each team in this series (if you’re not emotionally tied to it, you probably wouldn’t mind seeing either play out). Most of all, this Goliath match up pits the two most capable teams of challenging the defending champs against each other, almost as a deliberate test to prove who should earn the right.
As far as the matchup goes, we’re still asking the same question from when the Thunder and Spurs faced each other in the Western Conference Finals in 2012 and 2014: Can the talent of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant outweigh the collective execution and depth of the Spurs?
Much like the Clippers had success doing in the first round against the Spurs last season, the Thunder have to emphasize their athletic advantage. That shouldn’t be a problem the way Russell Westbrook is playing, and as always Westbrook has a huge responsibility in this series when it comes to decision-making and dictating tempo going up against the league’s top-rated defense. When the Thunder last met the Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference Finals, Westbrook averaged over 26 points with five rebounds and seven assists, but only shot 40 percent from the field and turned it over four times per game. Westbrook’s balance and efficiency will be more important than his prolific production for Oklahoma City.
I’ll actually start with Danny Green. He’ll have to take on as much Westbrook duty as possible, because Kawhi Leonard should be plenty occupied with Kevin Durant. This matchup is screaming series determinant. It’s probably the most anticipated individual battle so far in the playoffs.
Kawhi has the presence to force Durant into low percentage shots. Durant will get his points, but like Westbrook, his volume and efficiency will be important. We also now have to consider the impact of Kawhi on the offensive end. Leonard might need
Fun facts: Against the Spurs this season, Durant is shooting 39.5 percent when Leonard is on the floor, compared to 57.7 percent when he’s off, according to NBA.com. His three-point shooting percentage drops from 62.5 percent to 20 percent when Leonard is involved. On contrary, Kawhi’s shooting percentage drops from 54.1 percent to 44.8 percent with Durant on the floor, per NBA.com.
These match ups are important because the Spurs now have LaMarcus Aldridge, and in 2014 the Thunder had to face the Spurs without Serge Ibaka, who can really look to prove his worth against Aldridge in this series. David West is a new piece for the Spurs and Enes Kanter for the Thunder. The new front court members are all slated to be difference makers in this series, especially considering the superior versatility and depth on the Spurs side. Ibaka/Aldridge is the bright spot.
Theme for the Spurs
Dynamic belief – maintain the evolution you’ve shown all season and maximize the ability of your horses (Kawhi, Aldridge) along with the versatility of your roster. Play the percentages defensively and be super aggressive offensively, especially in the passing game.
Theme for the Thunder
Situational heroism – If you want to win this series, there have to be moments where Steven Adams, Dion Waiters, Randy Foye, Andre Roberson, and Enes Kanter need to emerge as situational heroes, even if only for a handful of plays in the entire series. Difference makers not named Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will win you this series.
Spurs in 7. With both teams fully loaded this one should be to the death.