Even the consummate professionals on the San Antonio Spurs must be seeing visions of their 2012 postseason collapse dancing before their eyes. That year, Tim Duncan and Co. took a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals over the Oklahoma City Thunder and had not lost a single postseason game. Then OKC won four straight and headed to the NBA Finals.
Two years later, the Spurs once again seized a 2-0 series lead but dropped two in a row in Oklahoma City. With a chance for deja vu all over again out West, each team has two keys to victory which can lead them to the next round and a shot at a title.
Thunder Keys to Victory
1. Westbrook Stays Efficient and Remembers He's a Point Guard
Russell Westbrook is fresh off perhaps the best performance of his career. In Game 4, he dropped 40 points, 10 assists, five steals and five rebounds in the 105-92, series-tying victory. The only other player to record such stats in the postseason was a guy called Michael Jordan.
The game became so lopsided that Gregg Popovich treated his starters like a struggling NHL goalkeeper, pulling them for good midway through the third quarter. As a result, Westbrook personally finished with more points, assists and steals than all five Spurs starters combined. He also played 45 minutes of the game, despite OKC enjoying a double-digit lead throughout the second half.
Westbrook has a very high ceiling as one of the best guards in the NBA, but his inconsistency is often the only constant. He scored those 40 points on 24 shots and a dozen makes, but he is also prone to jacking up 30 shots to get 30 points and forgetting to distribute the ball. One stupendous game must not persuade Russ that he is capable of anything close to that on a nightly basis.
Westbrook should take what the defense gives him, but he has to remember the words of Chris Paul's ancestor in the State Farm commercial: "Pass the ball!" The Spurs will make adjustments to prevent another takeover like that.
2. Ibaka Remains Healthy Enough to Play
The Thunder traded James Harden because they opted to re-sign Serge Ibaka, their help-defender extraordinaire. Since then, Ibaka has honed his mid-range shooting and increased his scoring average from 9.1 points per game in 2011-12 to 15.1 this season. He also enjoyed his best rebounding season yet, pulling down 8.8 per game.
Ibaka serves as a vital counterpoint to Kevin Durant and Westbrook, and the Thunder have a 6-0 record against the Spurs this season when the "Serge Protector" plays. When he sat out the first two games with a calf injury that had reportedly ended his season, the Thunder lost those contests by an average of 26 points.
Without Ibaka, the Spurs collapsed on the paint and forced all of OKC's shots to the perimeter. With only two legitimate scoring threats, San Antonio could focus all their attention on Durant and Westbrook. The other three starters scored a grand total of nine points during Games 1 and 2.
Of course, Ibaka's ability as a rim-protector also impacted the Spurs noticeably. Tony Parker could no longer drive to the rim with regularity for easy layups and floaters. Ibaka illustrated his potency just a couple of minutes into Game 4, rejecting a Tiago Splitter jump hook, then running the length of the floor and converting the layup off an assist from Durant.
Ibaka's ability to turn defense into offense helped the Thunder to a domineering 21-0 advantage in fast-break points as they evened the series in Game 4. With him on the floor, the team dynamic looks drastically different, and it opens up more opportunities for OKC to exploit the slower Spurs.
As Thunder coach Scott Brooks told the Associated Press' Cliff Brunt after Game 4, "We just play well with Serge. We can do things with Serge in the lineup that we can't do with other guys."
However, if Ibaka's calf injury becomes aggravated further and he is unable to continue, OKC will lose that crucial dimension once again.
Spurs Keys to Victory
1. Remember Their Identity
In 2012, the Thunder had Harden at their disposal when they beat the Spurs. While that is no longer the case, Durant has developed his game over the last two years, and he's fresh off his fourth scoring title and first MVP honor, after elevating his play to new heights.
When Westbrook plays as well as he did in Game 4, the Thunder are just about unbeatable, but such excellence is not possible every night. The Spurs must remain disciplined and focused while making one or the other OKC star beat them.
They can win if Durant or Westbrook have a great game. It's not possible when both play at a high level, and Durant turned in 31 points, five assists and three steals behind Westbrook in the Game 4 win.
Dedicated defense can contain Durant or Westbrook, and if you catch either one on a bad shooting night, the Thunder have little else to offer.
For example, in Game 4 against the Memphis Grizzlies earlier in the postseason, the third of four straight games that went to overtime, the Thunder should have been toast thanks to 30 points on 45 shots for Durant and Westbrook. Fortunately for them, backup point guard Reggie Jackson dropped a career-high 32 points and led a late charge in the overtime win.
Jackson sustained an ankle injury late in Game 4 of the conference finals, and if he is limited by that, it leaves the Thunder with paltry bench scoring. Caron Butler has averaged just 5.4 points per game in the series.
Starting small forward Kawhi Leonard offered a troubling quote about the Spurs play after Game 4, telling the AP: "We were just not focused coming out. We're not playing consistently throughout the whole game. We're playing in spurts or increments."
Not focused? Not consistent? In the conference finals? That sounds very un-Spurslike. They must re-dedicate themselves to the yeoman's work of executing Popovich's game plan with ruthless efficiency and consistency. After dominating the paint in the first two games, Ibaka had flipped the script on them. San Antonio must return to their fundamentals.
Let Westbrook launch all the contested 20-footers that he wants and hope he regresses back to the mean, focus on Durant and limit OKC on the fast break.
2. Move the Ball Like a Hot Potato
When they went to Oklahoma and lost two games, the Spurs shot below 40 percent both nights. Tony Parker struggled in those games, averaging 11.5 points, four assists and 3.5 turnovers. He also did not attempt a free throw, a symptom of his passivity near the paint.
Not only did Parker miss nine of his 13 shots in Game 3, but Boris Diaw finished as the team leader in assists with six—off the bench. Though San Antonio has a good amount of reserve depth, the starters always drive the bus.
In Game 3, Spurs starters combined for eight assists; in Game 4, nine. They averaged 16.5 per game in the two victories over OKC.
The Spurs have always thrived on ball movement to create high-percentage offensive chances. They led the league in team assists this season and last season. In fact, Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who was a longtime assistant with the Spurs, installed a similar offensive scheme and saw his team finish second in assists per game.
The return of Ibaka has had a butterfly effect on every aspect of the Spurs offense, and if they can't solve that puzzle, home-court advantage will not be sufficient to carry them to the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Spurs in 7