Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE
In anticipation of the second meeting of the season between last season's Western Conference Finals contestants, J.A. Sherman from Welcome to Loud City and I decided to do a little exchange. We talk Harden trade, Restgate, defense and more.
PtR: Speaking of coaches, what's your opinion on Scott Brooks? Some Spurs fans would say he more than held his own against Pop in last season's series. He made adjustments that really paid off. Now he's making it work with a roster that has seen its fair share of turnover and, if the numbers are not deceiving me, is even making Hasheem Thabeet look like an actual NBA player, which might mean he's some sort of wizard. Is it a question of just having a great roster that includes two of the very best players in the league? Or is he a good coach? Can OKC win a title with him at the helm?
WTLC: Scott Brooks is both better and worse than he generally gets credit.
How is he better?
Brooks' main detractors like to look at the Thunder's basic offensive sets, their generally low (at least until this season) assist totals on made baskets, the unimaginative end of game sequences, and conclude that Brooks is simply a product of being able to coach two All-Stars, one of which is submitting a pretty good MVP-type season. What these critics miss is that Brooks is a very good coach for his team's make-up. For the team right now, perhaps the best thing that the coaching staff can do is continue to work to make the players better on the practice court and then wait for that development to manifest on the game court. The best thing Brooks does is equip and enable his best players to run the team and learn from their experiences.
How is he worse?
The flip side to that equation is that Brooks is so passionate about equipping Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka that he often forgets about the younger talent that he has sitting on the bench. This is one area where I am particularly envious of the Spurs. Popovich drafts players and is then not afraid to use them, and Kawhi Leonard is the perfect example. Brooks tends to be a bit too rigid with his rotations, and as a result OKC's draft picks Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III have had no impact at all during this winning streak. This oversight may not cost OKC today or next month, but at some point I think they're going to wish that they had a backup 3-point specialist or a scoring wing that can contribute, and up to this point Brooks has not capitalized on his full source of assets.
Next question: One of the biggest concerns for the Spurs last year, which ultimately cost them their shot at a title, was the defense regressed. How is the Spurs defense looking this season and do you think that they can give OKC more problems than in the past?
PtR: The problem I come across when trying to answer that question is health. When they were at full strength the Spurs were looking better on defense. Kawhi Leonard seemed to have progressed and was adding an element of disruption to a defense that is mostly about containment. The game against OKC was a great example of it. But then both he and Jackson fell to injury.
The defense still held, anchored by a rejuvenated Duncan and the system smarts of everyone involved. Pop calls it "corporate knowledge" and it allows a team with some mediocre individual defenders to be in the top five in defensive rating. How do the Spurs do it? They are the best team in the league at protecting the rim, if we go by filed goal percentage allowed (per Hoopdata) and are among the teams that allows less three pointers per game. Basically, the Spurs chase you off the three point line and contest everything at the rim, sometimes to a fault. They also don't foul. As you see, those are some simple concepts that every Spurs player understands and plays by and that makes the Spurs a good defensive team.
Unfortunately, those same concepts make the team susceptible to good mid-range shooting teams like the Thunder. In last year's playoffs, it was jumpers that killed the Spurs against the Thunder and that is still an area of concern, as the Spurs will often allow as many jumpers as the other team wants to take. As a strategy it makes sense, but when the opponent actually makes those shots, the Spurs can't adjust. So thinking about a match-up against the Thunder, the Spurs could have trouble with Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison on the pick and pop and with Martin, Durant and Westbrook pulling up.
My last question to you: you mentioned Brooks not trusting the young guys, which was something Pop experienced in the past. Now he's giving the young guys minutes and they are responding. Tiago Splitter has come along great and I'm sure that, for better or for worse, you'll ask yourself "who is this guy?" when you see Nando De Colo play. That infusion of youth has the Spurs playing at an even faster pace than last season, which is an even bigger departure from the championship teams.
Do the Thunder have any surprises like that in store for the Spurs or are they basically the same team that beat them in the Conference Finals minus Harden?
WTLC: I personally love how Pop has reinvented his team by infusing youth. Unfortunately that's probably not an available option for OKC since they're already young and want to run up and down the court all night. Where I'd like to see Brooks trust his young players is just in finding opportunities mid-game where a Perry Jones III has to be a screen setter or Durant is setting up Lamb for a corner 3-ball. Get them involved with the regular starters so that they're actually playing at a normal NBA pace, rather than simply running the clock out during garbage time. By doing this, yes, you would definitely see a different OKC team than you saw last spring, and quite potentially one where the Spurs coaching staff would have to worry about guys other than Westbrook and Durant.
As it is though, the personnel and rotations have not changed much; Brooks is a stickler for tradition. Harden has been replaced by Martin, so you aren't going to see unusual rotations. However, what you will see is a Thunder offense that is much closer to what the Spurs are about than in the past. Westbrook has turned into a double-double machine, making the kind of passing plays that his critics thought he'd never make. Durant notched the first triple-double of his career. Team assists have increased dramatically, and the result is that the Thunder are scoring from an unlikely spot - the power forward position - and that is opening up everything else.
Both Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are getting so many open looks because of Durant and Westbrook's playmaking abilities, and that will be the biggest emphasis I think we'll see tonight. With Ibaka as an offensive threat can the Spurs risk shifting their defense around and advertently leaving Westbrook or Durant in scoring position? This new offensive wrinkle is OKC's best bet to continue their winning streak both tonight as well as into the future of this season.
Lastly, prediction time. What's yours? For me, I think that the Thunder have been waiting for this rematch from opening night's loss (the one where Westbrook got duped out of his shoes and right out of Parker's game-winning jumper) and are going to play very focused. With the absence of Ginobili and Jackson, I think the Thunder take this one, 100-95.
PtR: I want to believe the Spurs will win. I want to remember how the Spurs bench without the Big Three, Green, Jackson and Leonard almost beat the Heat in Miami and conclude there's no reason they can't beat OKC with Parker and Duncan playing. But I can't. I think the Thunder will come out motivated and will run away with this one. Pop throws in the towel early and gets ready for the SEGABABA against the Nuggets. OKC wins, 112 - 95.