The NBA season that almost wasn’t will soon be the NBA season that just ended. Oklahoma City has played 57 of the scheduled 66 games (86%) and has already clinched the Northwest Division along the home court advantage that status guarantees in the first round of the playoffs. If the Thunder get some combination of wins or Laker losses that sum up to two over the next three weeks, they will also be assured more home games in the event of advancing to the second round. That seems pretty likely.
Thanks to an incredible hot streak by the San Antonio Spurs and the Thunder’s first three game slide of the season, the status of best record in the Western Conference is suddenly a toss-up. As of this morning, OKC has a one game advantage over the Spurs (who have played two fewer games). San Antonio only has to aim for a tie, however, because they won the regular season series with the Thunder (2-1). Of course, of the other teams who might face the Thunder in the post season, San Antonio is the team they most need the advantage of playing at home against.
Even that may not be enough. Over the past two season, the Thunder have won only once in six games versus the Spurs. In several of those, the outcome was never in doubt. Despite the Spurs historical success, it is surprising that the Thunder have struggled so much against them. From a match-up standpoint, one might expect Oklahoma City to be the dominant team.
San Antonio puts a similar line-up on the floor. Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook are basically the same player and should theoretically cancel each other out. Each team has a future hall of famer in Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant. They both even have a spark plug sixth man who most other teams would build their team around. The difference is that the Spurs players are so old their coach strategically rests them rather than risk injuring his decaying stars.
Yet, with the advantage of young legs, the Thunder fail to make these head-to-head games competitive. Why?
Tim Duncan terrifies the big men
Remember that ABC game of the week where the Thunder annihilated the Miami Heat at home. In that game, the Heat attempted to take Kevin Durant out of the game by sending extra defenders at him whenever he touched the ball. To combat that, Durant zinged passes inside to Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka who were wide open for easy dunks.
Technically, this should work in most games because most teams give extra attention to Durant. The reason it worked so well against Miami is that those two guys caught the ball. Later in the week, the Thunder played Miami on the road and those two fumbled easy passes out of bounds. Miami won that time.
Against San Antonio, this problem always occurs. The reason is most likely the presence of Tim Duncan. He looms around just enough that Ibaka and Perkins are always thinking about him swatting their shot. The numbers back this up. When Duncan is on the floor against OKC, the team shoots a measly 46% in the restricted area (meaning dunk and lay-up attempts). This is below their season average of 52%, but even worse is that when Duncan is on the bench and they are playing San Antonio, they team shoots 74% from that range. My guess is that the variance is caused by the players being too distracted by Duncan’s whining at the referees to finish their dunk.
DeJuan Blair grabs all of the rebounds
San Antonio’s starting center is a 6’6″ kneeless wildebeast named DeJuan Blair. Blair absolutely destroys the Thunder on the boards. When he is on the floor, OKC grabs on 45% of missed shots. When Blair is on the bench, they get their normal 51%. This plays out because he’s built like a bull and somehow gets away with shoving players who have displayed proper blockout technique into the stands. Beyond that, he saves his best games for the Thunder. As a rookie, he scored 28 points and grabbed 21 rebounds in a one point win for the Spurs.
Westbrook does not cancel out Parker
Tony Parker is one of those players who is lightning fast and loses no speed when he has possession of the ball. The same can be said of Russell Westbrook except Westbrook is also built like a tank. That said, one would think that Westbrook would be able to outplay Parker, and that happened once this season. Parker scored four points the Westbrook’s thirteen in Oklahoma City’s lone victory over the past two seasons. Otherwise, Parker has roasted his counterpart, including a 42 point (his season high), 9 assist demolition on February 4th.
San Antonio shoots lights out against the Thunder
Over the past two season, the Spurs have shot 51% on three point attempts against the Thunder. And despite the success, they actually don’t fall in love with the shot against OKC, and take fewer attempts than average. That makes the Thunder stay vigilant about the threat in the paint and freeing their shooters to take open jumpers.
How can the Thunder overcome these obstacles?
Actually, in spurts, the Thunder have shown they can outplay San Antonio. They just have to sustain the good things they do. For instance, Scott Brooks inserted Royal Ivey in with his starters in the 4th quarter of their last game. Ivey guarded Parker and absoultely frustrated the hell out of the Spur point guard. He started turning over the ball and forcing bad shots and OKC was able to get within one possession on a couple of occassions. That was before Thabo Sefolosha was healthy. If they meet up in the playoffs, Thabo can be assigned to Parker from the beginning, hopefully getting the team out of rhythm from the start.
Meanwhile, Blair has become less of a factor since the addition of Kendrick Perkins, and Perkins does frustrate Duncan on the defensive end. Some work on pass catching certainly wouldn’t hurt, though.
Where the prayer will come in handy is the three point shooting. Based on math, there is no way the Spurs should be able to keep up their red hot shooting…red hot shooting that has lasted two years and six games against the Thunder. One way Thunder coach Scott Brooks could be proactive in trying to get the Spurs outside shooting to come to Earth (they make 34% in total compared to 51% against OKC) is to be more willing to make line up tweaks. When San Antonio plays Matt Bonner at center, go small. Use Kevin Durant to guard Bonner (who once made seven three point shots in seven attempts against OKC). When Serge is asked to guard perimeter players, he always leaves them alone so he can try to block a shot. At that point he is more of a liability than an asset.
Finally, the Thunder can hope that someone else beats San Antonio first. You know, just like Memphis did in the first round last year.
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