Spurs vs. Thunder: Complete Western Conference Finals Breakdown

Rob Mahoney@RobMahoneyNBA Lead WriterMay 23, 2012

Spurs vs. Thunder: Complete Western Conference Finals Breakdown

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    While the Eastern Conference playoff picture has been decimated by injuries, the West's postseason outlook has more or less gone according to plan. The Western Conference Finals pits the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs against the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, as both of the West's finest dispatched their first two opponents with the expected ease. There were no significant injuries or serious roadblocks to deal with; just the process of extinguishing the fire of lesser teams, be they the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, the ever-plucky Utah Jazz, the all-too-malleable Los Angeles Clippers or the too highly-trumpeted Los Angeles Lakers.

    Now, both of these highly effective teams will have their work cut out for them; this may yet prove to be the most competitive series of the entire postseason, and considering just how limited some of the teams in the East are—due to either injury or overall construction—these Western Conference Finals may very well determine the eventual NBA champion.

    In order to break down the performance of both teams and examine their potential in this particular series, we now turn to Dean Oliver's "Four Factors," the pillars of basketball. According to Oliver, the winners and losers of basketball games (and series) are determined by four areas of statistical performance, as they relate to both the offensive and defensive ends: shooting (eFG%), turnovers (TOV%), free throws (FTR) and rebounding (OREB%).

Western Conference Finals Preview: Shooting (eFG%)

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    Oklahoma City Thunder:

    Effective field goal percentage (eFG%): 0.516 (third)
    Opponent's eFG%: 0.465 (fourth)

    San Antonio Spurs:

    Effective field goal percentage (eFG%): 0.528 (first)
    Opponent's eFG%: 0.489 (15th)

    There is no singular act in basketball more important than creating shots. Whether against staunch defense or a disinterested lot, teams must be able to manufacture points through sustainable, replicable offense. Some choose to do that by establishing post players, some look to the pick and roll and others drive from the outside in.

    Both the Thunder and the Spurs work a combination of all three of those methods and are remarkable in virtually all capacities. Oklahoma City may lack a conventional post-up threat, but Russell Westbrook has developed a useful back-to-the-basket game that can be turned to when need be, and Kevin Durant has found some success down low by way of his length and soft touch. Yet Oklahoma City's greater strength lies in the ability to create from the perimeter; Durant, Westbrook and James Harden all share in the ability to shoot from the outside or get to the rim, and it's that dual effectiveness that drives the Thunder offense.

    By having multiple threats with such wide scoring ranges, OKC is incredibly difficult to stop; after all, who does an opponent designate their best perimeter defender to guard, and even then, what answer is there to a wheeling, drive-and-kick offense predicated on three elite scorers playing off of one another?

    Perhaps the Spurs have the answer. San Antonio is skilled in finding an opponent's offensive weaknesses and exploiting them, and the Thunder in particular are limited by the presence of unthreatening offensive players. If San Antonio is able to cheat off of Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha in order to clog the lane and put extra pressure on OKC's scorers, it should be able to overpower the Thunder with their own elite offense. San Antonio's offensive movement is too much for almost any opponent to properly keep track of, and unless Oklahoma City displays some incredible defensive discipline, they'll likely see themselves outscored by a Spurs offense that's much more empowered by its general system than the Thunder are by their stars.

    Advantage: Spurs

Western Conference Finals Preview: Turnovers (TOV%)

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    Oklahoma City Thunder:

    Turnover rate (TOV%): 0.152 (30th)
    Opponent's TOV%: 0.127 (24th)

    San Antonio Spurs:

    Turnover rate (TOV%): 0.128 (third)
    Opponent's TOV%: 0.130 (22nd)

    The Thunder were fortunate in the second round to play against an opponent utterly disinterested in forcing turnovers, and they're fortunate again to face off against a team with a similarly conservative defensive style. The San Antonio Spurs ranked 24th in the league during the regular season in opponent's turnover rate, and though their exact statistical mark is still far better than that of the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio remains unlikely to force Oklahoma City into all that many miscues.

    That said, what's interesting about the Thunder's defensive profile is that they don't gamble nearly as much as their reputation—or their opponents—suggest. There are certainly times where Serge Ibaka leaves his man to chase a block or Russell Westbrook jumps into a passing lane on a hunch, but overall, it's not as if OKC forces all that many turnovers. They merely capitalize in the post-turnover mayhem more effectively than pretty much any other team out there and accentuate each of their turnovers with a fantastic transition play. We remember the steal that leads to the fast-break dunk, even if the Thunder don't actually succeed in forcing that many turnovers.

    This element of the Western Conference Finals will come down to a team accustomed to taking care of and a team afforded an unusual safety in their possessions. As we saw in the conference semifinals, Russell Westbrook is an absolute terror when he keeps his turnovers in check, and considering the overall defensive style of the San Antonio Spurs, he could be granted that same operational freedom once again.

    That said, the Spurs' ball control is still ultimately the most dependable; it's highly possible that San Antonio could look to apply more on-ball pressure against Westbrook and Durant given the Thunder's capacity for miscues, while even at their most aggressive, the Thunder leave themselves open to exploitation via ball movement.

    Advantage: Spurs

Western Conference Finals Preview: Free Throws (FTR)

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    Oklahoma City Thunder:

    Free-throw rate (FTR): 0.269 (first)
    Opponent's FTR: 0.207 (16th)

    San Antonio Spurs:

    Free-throw rate (FTR): 0.195 (19th)
    Opponent's FTR: 0.168 (second)

    This should make for a bit of intrigue: What happens when a foul-drawing juggernaut faces off against one of the most foul-averse defense in the NBA? 

    Gregg Popovich's team doesn't shy away from fouling when it gives the defense a strategic advantage, but otherwise, the Spurs are fantastic about contesting without making contact. At the heart of that effectiveness is Tim Duncan, a big man who can challenge most shots around the basket without even leaving his feet, but it's just as much a credit to the pesky D of Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who do fantastic work on the perimeter without warranting a whistle.

    That said, even the Spurs' careful defensive approach may not be game enough to avoid gifting Kevin Durant and company free throws galore. It's hard work keeping track of Durant, Westbrook and Harden at the same time without losing sight of the Thunder bigs that lurk around the basket; too much attention paid to Durant only opens up Harden on the weak side, and rotating the defense to face Harden only allows him to reverse the ball to a cutting Westbrook.

    The Thunder offense doesn't always move in such harmony, but considering that each of the team's three stars draws fouls at an elite rate, I'm doubtful that even the highly-disciplined Spurs will be able to avoid foul trouble for too long. 

    Advantage: Thunder

Western Conference Finals Preview: Rebounding (OREB%)

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    Oklahoma City Thunder:

    Offensive rebounding rate (OREB%): 0.278 (11th)
    Opponent's OREB%: 0.279 (23rd)

    San Antonio Spurs:

    Offensive rebounding rate (OREB%): 0.251 (24th)
    Opponent's OREB%: 0.240 (first)

    San Antonio's exceptional ability to secure defensive rebounds helps to establish its early offense; by walling off opponents from grabbing offensive boards and loading the court with ball-handlers (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, etc.), the Spurs have the capacity to turn a heavy rebounding emphasis into a fast-break-fueling enterprise. That's pretty rare, but through sound technique and a solid understanding of on-court role, the Spurs are able to walk the line and protect against offensive rebounds without sacrificing their transition game.

    The Thunder, on the other hand, will play against their third consecutive opponent that ranked in the top 10 in defensive rebounding. Dallas earned a place in those ranks through balance, and Los Angeles through size, but the Spurs have both; not only is Duncan a top defensive rebounder, but the Spurs' wings—particularly Kawhi Leonard—are fairly exceptional in that aspect of their games.

    If the Thunder, who are normally a solid offensive rebounding team, could find a way to attack the offensive glass with any kind of consistent success, they could give themselves a considerable advantage. It's going to be hard enough for OKC to stop San Antonio's half-court offense, so if the Thunder could eliminate the Spurs' opportunities for easy buckets via fast-break offense, they'd be doing themselves a rather huge favor.

    Of course, that in itself seems rather unlikely considering how the Thunder fared on the offensive glass in their previous two series. Now, the Spurs will be pushing them even harder on the glass, and if the Thunder couldn't thwart the defensive rebounding excellence of either the Mavs or Lakers, I'm not quite sure why they would be expected to do so against a versatile Spurs team that ranked tops in the league in defensive board work.

    Advantage: Spurs

Western Conference Finals Preview: Final Word

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    We should expect most every game of this series to be highly competitive, as the Thunder's profoundly strange, triangled (but not that triangle) offense looks to upset and overwhelm the Spurs' ordered sensibilities. It's well within the power of both clubs to take this series and earn a trip to the NBA Finals, but I'm taking the Spurs in six games.

    San Antonio's offense just seems too smooth to cave at the moment, and although the Spurs' defensive work isn't quite perfect, it's improved to an acceptable level over the course of the season and is fresh off of a nice test in the routing of the Los Angeles Clippers.

    The Thunder, on the other hand, have a tendency to play elite basketball for long stretches before wilting suddenly and damningly; it takes a highly effective, well-disciplined club to take advantage of an opponent as talented as the Thunder, but unfortunately for OKC, the Spurs are just such an opponent. It'll be fascinating to see these two amazing teams play off of one another as the series progresses, but the smart money is on the Spurs to take it and to remain the title favorites regardless of Eastern Conference opponent.