Tim Duncan Poised to Expose Soft Oklahoma City Thunder Defense

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2014

Someone ought to tell Tim Duncan that 38-year-old big men shouldn't be torching opposing defenses the way he can.

It won't do anything, of course. The San Antonio Spurs star is too freaking consistent and dominant. But it should be pointed out, just so he and everyone else know how ridiculous it is.

The Oklahoma City Thunder sure understand. Duncan carved them up for 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting during San Antonio's 122-105 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. He did all his damage in under 30 minutes, because that's who he is—an efficient scorer who needs little time to set opposing defenses ablaze.

And because of who he is, he's not going to stop. Not now. Not against the Thunder.

Not even a little bit.


Game 1 Bonanza

Everything he could have possibly done on offense in Game 1, Duncan did.

Using a variety of spot-up jumpers, pick-and-roll looks and cuts to the basket, The Big Fundamental went off. There was even some transition flair that makes you wonder if the Spurs are, in fact, inoculated against the rigors of age.

Look at his shot chart from Game 1:

Glorious, isn't it?

Duncan couldn't get it going outside the paint, but he didn't need to. He shot 10-of-14 inside, proving to be unstoppable.

Attribute his excellence to Serge Ibaka's absence if you're feeling cruel, but most of this was the Spurs and Duncan. They moved the ball enough—like always—and Duncan moved off the ball enough—like always—to get him good looks.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili's dribble penetration was hugeagain, like always. The Spurs ran pick-and-rolls to perfection and kept the Thunder on their toes with a steady dose of up-fakes followed by rim attacks.

All of that benefited Duncan. Every time a defense is forced to collapse on a ball-handler, he's going to be lurking nearby, looking for an easy opportunity once his man is forced to send help.

That's just what he did Monday night, though the word "easy" might be an injustice.

According to NBA.com, 17 of Duncan's 19 shot attempts were contested. He drilled 10 of them. That actually happened.

How do you defend against that?

Turns out you can't.


Ibaka Factor

Scoring for Duncan won't always come as easily as it did in Game 1.

Sometimes, it's going to be easier.

No, his performance Monday night wasn't the byproduct of Ibaka's absence. However, it sure didn't hurt.

Sans Ibaka, the Thunder don't have an elite rim protector.

Some of us—myself included—give Ibaka a lot of flak for chasing the flashy defensive stat lines (blocks). He also doesn't close out on shooters too frequently, preferring to chase the rebound. His help on ball-handlers—specifically within pick-and-rolls–is iffy too. 

At the same time, Oklahoma City's defense needs Ibaka to be successful. It wouldn't have ranked fifth in defensive efficiency during the regular season without him.

Consider what he's also done for the team during the postseason. When he's on the floor, the Thunder defense is allowing 105.0 points per 100 possession, which isn't great. Frankly, it's bad. It would have been the equivalent of a bottom-12 mark during the regular season.

When he's been off the floor, though, the Thunder are even worse. Opposing offenses are dropping 107.9 points per 100 possessions. Yuck.

Worse still, Ibaka was a big reason why the Thunder went 4-0 against San Antonio during the regular season. Never mind his offense. That was great, but it was his defense that made up the bulk of his contributions.

Through four regular-season contests against the Thunder, Duncan shot just 42.9 percent from the floor with Ibaka in the game. This from a guy who connected on 49 percent of his shots overall in 2013-14 and is shooting over 50 percent from the field for his career. 

Once Ibaka sat down, the Thunder were in trouble. Duncan hit 50 percent of his shots with Ibaka on the bench.

Game 1 was an extension of this. Ibaka was nowhere to be found, so Duncan went off. Get used to it, because Ibaka isn't coming back.

"Look, Serge is not going to be here," Kevin Durant told ESPN.com's Royce Young. "He's injured for the rest of the postseason, so we've got to move past that and just keep playing as a team."

Too bad.

Ibaka allows the Thunder to take more chances. Big men like Duncan cannot blow by him, and he has the reach and athleticism to contest shots on the perimeter. There's less of a need for interior double-teams with him, freeing the Thunder up to focus on the perimeter and play the passing lanes.

Losing that comes as a blow against a Spurs team that is already good at creating separation and inciting confusion with their clean, crisp, threading-the-needle passes. Defensive maneuverability is paramount against the Spurs. Ibaka would have at least provided the ability to move and change directions on a whim. 

The Thunder aren't armed to the teeth with especially mobile bigs. Kendrick Perkins isn't the answer. Nick Collison is an advanced-stat darling, but he's no Speedy Gonzales. Meanwhile, Steven Adams doesn't have a shot against the intellectually seasoned Duncan.

To have any sort of chance at stopping Timmy D, the Thunder need the one player they can't have.


Duncan's Going to Be Duncan

Duncan is going to be Duncan no matter what, and that's bad news for the Thunder.

We don't want to overstate Ibaka's importance, but without him, the Spurs are built to destroy Oklahoma City's defense, as Young goes on to explain:

We overstate the importance of blocked shots, as it's often a meaningless padded stat that attempts to represent defense, but really just shows a guy is tall, has timing and can jump high. But with the way the Spurs attacked the cup fearlessly, never once glancing back at who may be coming for their shot, it's obvious that blocks matter. Not in just the raw statistical sense, but more in that human nature is to worry about your shot getting fed back to you. The Spurs were worry-free in Game 1. They didn't have to double clutch, pump fake, adjust in midair or jump pass. They just went right at the heart of the Thunder's defense and scored with a freedom they've never experienced against OKC.

The Spurs scored 66 points in the paint during Game 1. Sixty-six. That doesn't happen if Ibaka is playing. Forget the actual blocks, his intimidation factor is monstrous.

Offenses cannot journey into the paint carefree when he's in the game, when there is a legitimate shot-blocker patrolling the paint and protecting the rim. They think twice. Dribble penetration stops. They settle for jump shots.

San Antonio doesn't have to worry about any of that. Neither does Duncan.

Of Oklahoma City's three primary towers now—Adams, Perkins and Collison—not one of them cracked 24 minutes on Monday. They don't have the staying power Ibaka does.

Beyond them, the Thunder don't have many options. Durant has the height, length and quickness necessary to defend Duncan, but he lacks the bulk to guard down low.

Sending help won't mean much either. Duncan is a skilled passer—three assists in Game 1—and the Spurs have an accurate stable of shooters waiting to capitalize on double- and triple-teams.

Moreover, the Thunder don't have the depth necessary to play that brand of defense. They can't have two guys chasing Duncan all over the place, because then they're forced to chase four other guys all over the place off passes.

Russell Westbrook and Durant are already guaranteed to flirt, if not surpass, the 40-minute mark every night. Think of what a rotation-heavy defense will do to them. Their stamina will be obliterated, their offensive potency handicapped.

There will clearly be nights when Duncan doesn't approach 60 percent shooting or score 20-plus points. Some of his performances will be less spectacular than others. However, with the way Oklahoma City's defense is set up now, he doesn't have to over-exert himself. The game, shots and points will come to him.

"They were able to get anything they wanted,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks told the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald after Game 1.

For Duncan, there's a chance that won't change for the rest of this series.


Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.


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