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May 25, 2012
Playoff Preview
San Antonio-Oklahoma City

by Kevin Pelton

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Since the start of the postseason, observers have been anticipating a showdown between the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the top two seeds in the Western Conference. Such a matchup was never really in doubt as the two teams combined to go 16-1 over the first two rounds of the playoffs, with the lone loss (Oklahoma City at the L.A. Lakers) by a narrow three-point margin.

That's not to say the Spurs and Thunder have made identical playoff runs. While San Antonio has crushed inferior competition, winning by an average of 13.7 points per game, Oklahoma City has utilized a series of close victories and fourth-quarter escapes to get to this point. Still, the Thunder's average margin of +8.1 points per game ranks second in the NBA. Adjusting for quality of opposition, the Spurs have played 16.2 points per 100 possessions better than an average team in the postseason. Oklahoma City has been 11.6 points better than average per 100 possessions, which ranks third in the league with the Miami Heat in the middle.

Though I still scouted the regular-season matchups between these two teams using MySynergySports.com, they provide less information here than usual. When these teams last met on March 16 in OKC, James Anderson, DeJuan Blair and Royal Ivey all played key roles. Both teams have made important acquisitions since the trade deadline--Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson for the Spurs and Derek Fisher for the Thunder. Additionally, Manu Ginobili did not play in any of the three head-to-head meetings, which did not stop San Antonio from taking two of the three games.

WHEN SAN ANTONIO HAS THE BALL

Pace: 91.3 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (8th NBA), 89.8 playoffs (2nd)
San Antonio Offensive Rating: 113.1 points per 100 possessions regular season (1st NBA), 114.2 playoffs (2nd)
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 104.1 points per 100 possessions regular season (9th NBA), 103.9 playoffs (9th)

Without Ginobili, and with relatively limited contributions from Tim Duncan, the Spurs still put up 111.6 points per 100 possessions against Oklahoma City this season, which would have tied for the second-best Offensive Rating in the league over the course of the year behind only San Antonio's league-leading attack. The key figure, naturally, was Tony Parker.

Parker was terrific from midrange in the head-to-head matchups, knocking down eight of 13 shots from 15-19 feet, per NBA.com/Stats. The Thunder had more success against Parker inside of five feet, where he made just 36.8 percent of his shot attempts (7-19) and had five shots swatted away. That strongly suggests that Oklahoma City's best matchup for Parker is Serge Ibaka. Parker will have to figure out over the course of the series how to neutralize Ibaka's wingspan and leaping ability around the rim. Mostly, Parker worked against counterpart Russell Westbrook. Ivey had the defensive assignment during the fourth quarter of the most recent matchup, as the Thunder rallied late, but Ivey has played 13 minutes in the postseason and is unlikely to be seen in this series except as a defensive replacement at the end of quarters.

The most interesting matchup when the Spurs have the ball might be Ginobili against his Oklahoma City doppelganger, James Harden. The two sixth men, both southpaw shooting guards, are likely to spend most of their time on the floor together because of their usage patterns. During the regular season, Harden's defensive effort was inconsistent at best, but he met the challenge of defending Kobe Bryant during the Thunder's win over the Lakers. Harden could get help from Kevin Durant at times, and stopper Thabo Sefolosha will surely match up with Ginobili at times, particularly if both teams go small down the stretch.

During the last head-to-head meeting, Oklahoma City played Durant at power forward for the entire fourth quarter. In turn, that means sliding Ibaka to over center and asking him to defend Duncan. Ordinarily, Kendrick Perkins will match up with Duncan, allowing the Thunder to feel comfortable defending the post. Duncan averaged 13.3 points and shot just 35.7 percent against Oklahoma City this season. The matchup with Ibaka is far more favorable for Duncan, who can overpower the younger All-Defensive First Team pick. During the 4:01 they played each other on March 16, Ibaka picked up three fouls before Scott Brooks replaced him with Nick Collison.

Having Ibaka as the lone big man on the floor also puts tremendous pressure on Duncan to rebound because of Ibaka's tendency to take himself out of rebounding position as he looks to alter shots. San Antonio was successful against the Thunder on the offensive glass, including 15 offensive boards the last time the teams met. Blair led that effort, coming up with 22 points and 11 rebounds, six of them offensive. He averaged 11.3 points on 65.2 percent shooting and 6.0 rebounds in the three games. Blair has largely been mothballed during the postseason in favor of a four-player rotation of Duncan, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter, but this series might present an opportunity for Gregg Popovich to put him back on the floor.

WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL

Pace: 91.8 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (6th NBA), 87.9 (6th) playoffs
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions regular season (2nd NBA), 114.4 (1st) playoffs
San Antonio Defensive Rating: 104.8 points per 100 possessions regular season (11th NBA), 98.8 playoffs (3rd)

Based on the regular-season numbers, the Thunder should have the clear advantage at this end of the floor. However, San Antonio has been much improved defensively during the postseason, allowing opponents less than a point per possession. Adjust for the quality of opposition and the Spurs have actually been the NBA's best defense in the playoffs, holding the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers an average of 10.1 points per 100 possessions below their usual output. San Antonio benefited from playing a hobbled Chris Paul, but Gregg Popovich has clearly tightened things up at the defensive end. How much the Spurs can maintain that improvement will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this series.

Oklahoma City didn't lose two of the three meetings for a lack of production from its stars. Durant, Harden and Westbrook combined to average 64.3 points per game against San Antonio. The Spurs did hold Durant (22.7 ppg) well below his usual output (a league-leading 28.0 a night). Physically, San Antonio rookie Kawhi Leonard is about as close a match for Durant's length and athleticism as exists in the league. He did a terrific job staying with Durant on the perimeter and being close at the point of the catch on curls, allowing him to contest Durant's shots. The Thunder had more success against Leonard using Durant as a big man. Leonard misplayed one pick-and-roll where Durant screened for Westbrook, and Durant was also able to overpower Leonard in the post. Watch for this, especially when both teams go small.

The Spurs played Russell Westbrook for his jumper with mixed results. According to NBA.com/Stats, Westbrook made six of his 11 shot attempts from 15-23 feet against San Antonio. His pull-up jumper from this distance has become a consistent weapon late in the regular season and into the postseason. Still, a Westbrook pull-up may be the lesser of two evils compared to letting him get into the paint. Oklahoma City's trio of perimeter stars will make it difficult for the Spurs to put the bigger Danny Green on Westbrook when Harden is on the floor. That changes if the teams go small, since Parker could defend Fisher or Sefolosha while Green matches up with Westbrook (assuming Popovich doesn't prefer Green defending Harden).

This could be a big series for Harden, who averaged 19.3 points on 59.4 percent shooting against San Antonio during the regular season. Ginobili will be a better defensive option against Harden. Still, the Thunder's sixth man is well positioned to take advantage of the Spurs' poor pick-and-roll defense, something that has yet to be exploited in the playoffs. San Antonio was able to control Paul by trapping side pick-and-rolls, but Harden prefers to operate at the top of the key, especially when he's playing with Oklahoma City's second unit as a lead ballhandler. Because Harden can both penetrate and shoot off the dribble, the Spurs' best option might be aggressively trapping him toward the half-court line, but that's a dangerous strategy that can turn into open shots for the rest of the Thunder's players.

Ibaka gave Oklahoma City a fourth scorer against San Antonio, averaging 10.7 points in the three games, but beyond that the Thunder had few reliable scoring threats. Perkins had just two points in the head-to-head meetings, shooting 1-of-7 from the field. Any scoring Oklahoma City gets from him will be a bonus, and Perkins' lack of production is one reason Brooks may opt for smaller lineups.

PREDICTION

As this series unfolds, I think there are a couple of interesting storylines to watch. The first, as sprinkled throughout the scouting analysis, is how much smallball we see. The Thunder rallied behind a smaller lineup the last time these teams played, but the Spurs should be better equipped to match up small with Ginobili in the lineup. On March 16, Popovich stuck with Matt Bonner at power forward, which meant a tough defensive matchup for Bonner. In this series, Popovich can play Ginobili with San Antonio's starting wings and get three capable defenders and shooters on the floor around Parker and Duncan. Will Brooks then go away from Durant at power forward? If so, will Popovich force the issue by taking a big man off the floor?

A second key factor is how both coaches manage the size of their rotations. Extending Durant's minutes has often gone along with playing him at power forward,, as was the case in the last regular-season meeting. Durant and Westbrook both played the entire second half of Games 4 and 5 against the Lakers. How frequently can Brooks push them beyond 40 minutes? Will Popovich be compelled to respond by relying more on his starters, or will he stick with the 10-man rotation that has served the Spurs so well all season?

Given the regular-season results, and the dominant playoff run to date, I'm tempted to predict that San Antonio can finish this series in five games, which would be depressing given how well these matchups should be played. Ultimately I think Oklahoma City is too talented not to take this series the distance, but the Spurs are the better team.

San Antonio in 7

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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