The San Antonio Spurs look like a team with an NBA Finals score to settle. The Oklahoma City Thunder seem like a group (understandably) reeling from the loss of an indispensable piece for the second consecutive postseason.
Add both sides together and you're left with this: San Antonio's systematic 122-105 dismantling of Oklahoma City in Monday's series opener.
Down Serge Ibaka (calf), the Thunder had no counters against San Antonio's offensive machine. The Spurs racked up an insurmountable 66-32 edge on points in the paint, "the stat that told the story of this game and screamed about Ibaka's absence," ESPN.com's J.A. Adande wrote.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks has to figure out some way to stabilize his defensive interior, because that massive void proved impossible to overcome in Game 1.
The Thunder got 53 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists out of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Two different reserves (Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher) scored at least 13 points and a third (Caron Butler) chipped in with nine. OKC shot 44.4 percent from distance, 82.6 percent at the free-throw line and dropped 105 points on a Spurs defense that had surrendered triple digits just twice in its last six games.
A lot went right for the Thunder, but that one wrong was critical. It now hangs over this series like a guillotine's blade, threatening OKC's playoff existence.
Brooks needs to find an answer and fast. This problem isn't going away, and neither is Gregg Popovich's incendiary offense.
With superstars like Durant and Westbrook in the race, OKC will never fall completely out of a series before it's officially over. If the Thunder can't put up a stronger fight Wednesday, though, this might feel like it's finished already.
|Oklahoma City Thunder||San Antonio Spurs|
Time: Wednesday, May 21, 9 p.m. ET
Location: AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
Series Schedule: Game 3, Sunday, May 25, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 4, Tuesday, May 27, 9th p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5*, Thursday, May 29, 9 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 6*, Saturday, May 31, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 7*, Monday, June 2, 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
Oklahoma City Thunder
Serge Ibaka (calf) out
San Antonio Spurs
How Oklahoma City Wins
Not getting gouged for 66 points on the interior again is probably a good place to start. Despite Ibaka's wishes, the top-flight rim protector cannot swoop in to save the day. The Thunder need to form some type of resistance near the basket and do it without completing killing their own offensive attack.
Brooks' starting five (Durant, Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins) weren't horrendous defensively (105.4 defensive rating), but they were something even worse than that at the opposite end (86.4 points per 100 possessions).
With that lineup, OKC's offense devolves to a two-man attack. While it's perhaps the best two-man attack in the business, it cannot compensate for the lack of support it receives:
10 Spurs have scored tonight. Two Thunder starters have been shut out.— Beckley Mason (@BeckleyMason) May 20, 2014
Perkins was the third-most effective scorer of this lineup. Collison and Sefolosha played a combined 32 minutes and misfired on all seven of their field-goal attempts.
To paraphrase TNT analyst Charles Barkley's comments after the game, there's a difference between not being a scorer and actually not scoring a single point. Brooks doesn't need a ton of offense out of these support players, but he needs something.
Without that help, Durant and Westbrook were forced to find their offense through hero ball. Credit the pair for generating as much production as they could. Their catches were met with five sets of eyeballs and typically multiple pairs of footprints already inside the paint. Even when Brooks surrounded his stars with more scorers, San Antonio made Durant and Westbrook its defensive focal points.
Brooks tried to buy more scoring, but his defense suffered in a bad way when he went super small.
"Brooks ran out a Russ, Jackson, Fisher (!!!), Butler, Durant lineup for seven minutes at one point," Grantland's netw3rk noted. "The Spurs shot 66.7 percent against that lineup."
Brooks has some more options, and he'll need to keep exploring.
Jeremy Lamb got some rare non-garbage-time run, but he didn't fire up a shot until the contest was in hand. Perry Jones III didn't see the floor before the victory cigars were out, but he might deserve a look to give the Thunder a jolt of athleticism without sacrificing size. Collison and Steven Adams, a pair that meshed last round against the Los Angeles Clippers, never saw the floor together Monday. Expect that to change going forward.
"We're going to mix up lineups, but we've done it all year," Brooks said, via ESPN.com's Royce Young. "We've played small, we've played our normal traditional lineup all year. It's nothing new to us."
The confidence sounds good, but the truth is all of this is new. Like Westbrook's torn meniscus last postseason, Ibaka's absence has created a void the Thunder have never before needed to fill. The shot-blocking big man had missed a total of three games over the last four seasons.
Brooks need to find something that works. Whether OKC needs the stops its supersized lineup can provide or the offensive firepower of its quicker, more athletic group, Brooks has to identify which strengths are must-haves and which weaknesses he can deal with.
Beyond that, Brooks needs his hero ballers to look like, well, heroes.
"To win the series, Durant and Westbrook will likely have to turn solid and good into legendary and great," Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman wrote. "They'll need those unstoppable nights, where the duo combines for 75 points or nearly puts up dual triple-doubles. Or both."
That's the margin for error the Ibaka-less Thunder have. It's razor-thin, but it still leaves open a window for success given just how strong OKC is at the top.
How San Antonio Wins
It's all about sticking to the basics for San Antonio, playing with the same ridiculous execution that has keyed this ridiculous run of 15 consecutive 50-win seasons.
"At this point in the season you have to be who you are," Popovich said, via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "You can't change your stripes."
According to the coach, his guys weren't head-hunting against their wounded Western Conference foes. They simply took what was available to them, which just so happened to be an unending stream of point-blank chances:
"The Spurs simply went through OKC's interior like it was an all-you-can-eat buffet line and did everything but stuff a few desserts in their pockets on the way out the door," NBA.com's Fran Blinebury wrote. "If it wasn't layups, it was dunks. If it wasn't running floaters through the lane, it was little pull-up jumpers."
The Spurs knew there would be more opportunities available under the basket, but Popovich was right: This is simply how the machine works.
San Antonio's offense is built around dribble penetration. Tony Parker kick-starts the motor, typically off some pick-and-roll action, then takes whatever is available: dribble drives, kickouts to open shooters, passes to pop-out screeners.
With nothing the least bit intimidating by the basket, the Spurs simply followed the path of least resistance.
"We always want our ball movement, that's how we play — kick and pitch and stuff like that," Parker said, via Raul Dominguez of The Associated Press. "You know, obviously it's a little bit better with (Ibaka) not being in the paint, but we're still going to try to penetrate and make stuff happen."
The Spurs' offense steamrolled its way to 122 points with only one player surpassing the 20-point mark (Tim Duncan, 27). Parker nearly matched his scoring (14) with his assists (12), and he may need to get more aggressive calling his own number should the Thunder opt to go under his screens and force him to shoot.
He's more than capable of lighting the lamp (six games with 21-plus points this season), and there's another level for snipers Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli to reach (five points each). In other words, these offensive explosions are repeatable.
If there's a concern for the Spurs, it's that Durant has the kind of night only a four-time scoring champion can have. It's Kawhi Leonard's job to make sure that night never comes:
With massive mitts at the end of his condor-like wingspan and a pair of battle-scarred feet built for this stage, San Antonio's superstar stopper might be the difference between the Spurs sweeping or sweating. The role isn't new to him, and neither is the importance.
"He’s the counter to the youth and athleticism of most opposing teams, and he takes the Spurs to another level when he plays well," Matthew Tynan of 48 Minutes of Hell wrote. "...The Spurs are +8.1 when Leonard has been on the floor during the postseason, the highest mark of any individual player in the playoffs thus far."
The Spurs are in great hands, insured against even worst-case scenarios. For now at least, it seems it would take several of those to prevent San Antonio's return trip to the NBA Finals.
Expect Durant to put an MVP-style imprint on this series. The 28-point debut was nice, but he has another 10 points (at least) to add to his stat line.
Look for Westbrook to have one of his you-gotta-be-kidding-me nights, too. He flashed a gear during his 12-point third quarter Monday that the Spurs physically can not match. He'll stay on the accelerator Wednesday, and the results should be wildly entertaining.
Brooks is due to hit on some of his lineup guesses. He has film and some extra prep time to find his best five-man combinations. The Thunder have enough talent to yield something of value.
Which team will prevail in Game 2?
Ultimately, though, expect none of this to matter. Expect the Spurs' locomotive to keep plugging along toward its inevitable return to the game's greatest stage.
Oklahoma City is vulnerable, and no one better exploits a weakness than Popovich's squad. It's hard to imagine Brooks not giving something back defensively to field an offensively competent lineup, and Popovich will sniff out those sieves—if his players don't beat him to it.
Oklahoma City has bothered San Antonio with its length and athleticism in the past. This team isn't as long or nearly as athletic without Ibaka, and it wasn't winning a talent contest against the Spurs before the big man went down.
The Thunder won't go down without a fight, but they'll go down nonetheless.
Spurs 114, Thunder 106