Fraternizing with the Enemy: Who is going to be #1?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Who is the best in the West? Who is going to emerge as the #1 seed? Only a handful of games left to play and we still don't know. Tonight the Spurs play their fourth game in five nights against the Thunder in OKC.

This is it. Arguably the most important game left on the schedule. This game will probably determine the #1 seed. And for a game of such magnitude, it seems appropriate that we get some insight from on the opposition. Who better to provide that than J.A. Sherman of our sister blog, Welcome to Loud City. You can find his excellent answers to my questions below, and my answers to his questions can be found here.

SpursFanTN

The first half of the season, the Spurs and Thunder often seemed dominant, playing even with the occasional tough opponent and occasionally just failing to show up. The Spurs have looked tired of late, and have dropped some games they could have easily won. The Thunder have also dropped a few games lately that they could have won, and maybe should have won. So what's going on with them?

J.A. Sherman

It's maddening, isn't it? I'm sure I'm being completely ignorant in my non-NBA playing experience, but how teams like the Thunder and Spurs can lose games that they should win is an incredibly frustrating experience.

The reality is though, this is a long, long season. Over the course of the season, even the best teams are going to lose to some of the worst. This year alone, OKC has dropped games to the Wizards, Cavaliers, and the Timberwolves (twice!). It's a given that this will happen.

What I have a harder time understanding though is how it could happen at this juncture of the season. Last Friday night, OKC dropped a very winnable game to a Wolves team that is missing their best player in Kevin Love. This loss came at a time where they were desperately trying to make up ground against the Spurs, so to lose a game against the 2nd worst team in the West is simply baffling.

I really don't know how each team will treat tonight's matchup. I would hope that the Thunder recognize that they may only have this one chance left to grab the #1 seed; if they lose to the Spurs again, that pursuit is over. More importantly though, I just want to see the Thunder play well in a big game, something that they have not done much this year.

SFTN:

In last year's WCF, Harden was a difference maker, especially late in games. Do you feel like the team has accounted for his absence, made the appropriate adjustments, so that he won't be missed? Or is there any worry that come June, the Thunder and their fans will be sitting at home thinking, "We shouldn't have let James Harden go?"

JAS:

The thing about losing Harden this year is that it made it necessary in a very fundamental way for the Thunder to change who they were. Last season, the Thunder's recipe for success was a lot of elite-level 1-on-1 play between Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. The formula, simplistic as it was, did work. The reason it worked is because when Harden was playing with the 2nd unit, he was far and away the best player on the court and rarely did another team have a bench guy who could equal his production. When Harden played with the starters at games' end, it worked because the defense could not double up on any one of those guys for the fear of leaving another lethal scorer open.

This year, without Harden, the Thunder have been forced to become a more complete basketball team, relying on a better offensive system, execution, passing, and planning for what a defense might do against them. This latter scenario is by far a better one because it gives the Thunder greater adaptability and the ability to dictate match-ups better. When the Thunder play this way, they are better than they were last year.

However...when the Thunder aren't playing good intellectual basketball, they fall back into last year's ISO-heavy, "you go, now I go, now you go" style of offense. The problem is, they don't have the personnel anymore to run that offense because neither Kevin Martin nor Serge Ibaka can fill that ISO role. Therefore, a great test for tonight and going forward is to watch and see whether OKC sticks with a better team oriented approach to their offense, or if they fall back into bad habits that might work some of the time against mediocre opponents but will undoubtedly fail against playoff opponents.

SFTN:

In one WCF game last year, I believe it was Game 4, Ibaka and Perkins absolutely killed us from mid-range. That is typically the least efficient shot in the game, but it won that game for you guys. To me, Ibaka seems to be a much better player this year. How are those two guys looking to you, and do you ever see Ibaka being mentioned with KD and Westbrook as a big three?

JAS:

In Game 4 (box score) of last year's playoffs, we got a very unexpected surprise. Kendrick Perkins was an actual offensive threat, shooting 7-9 from the floor. We Thunder fans never ever expect that kind of production and we know that it tends to be more a byproduct of other players making good offensive decisions to get Perk in open space more than anything else.

Ibaka's game however is something that we not only expect but actually need. To be sure in that Game 4 Ibaka had a bit of a career night, shooting 11-11 from the floor, most on those mid-range jumpers. What the Thunder do need from Ibaka is to be a constant threat on the floor.

Ibaka still has a tendency to drift at times on the court. He's added a corner-3 point shot to his arsenal, and that's great, but I'm not a huge fan of the Thunder pulling their best offensive rebounder 23 feet away from the rim. He is much more dangerous and productive when he is working about 18 feet and in, especially at the top of the key. He's as athletic as anybody on the court, and if he can't make the Spurs' front line have to work a little bit, it makes things that much harder to keep the Spurs' defense off of Durant and Westbrook.

On top of that, the loss of Harden means that some of the scoring load has to fall on a 3rd player. Durant and Westbrook have carried a great deal of the load this season, but just like a portfolio of investments, if you're not diversified enough, one bad apple can sink the whole thing. OKC must continue to encourage and challenge Ibaka to be a threat on offense if they are to get max production out of their superstars.

SFTN:

Seeding is starting to come together for the playoffs, but a lot of stuff is still up in the air. You guys could be number 1 or 2. Golden State and Houston seem to be battling for 6 and 7. Utah, LAL, and Dallas are all fighting for the last spot. So potentially, you guys could see any one of those teams in the first round. There doesn't really seem to be any pushover team in the west, but as a Thunder fan, who would you MOST like to meet in the first round out of those 5 teams and why?

JAS:

I would most like to see the Rockets in the 1st round for a variety of reasons. The first is that it would be James Harden's homecoming. While that may be tough to see as a Thunder fan, as an NBA fan that's a fantastic story to see play out. Aside from Harden himself, the Rockets are a great big ball of excitement to watch and we'd be in for some really fun games watching Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Jeremy Lin running up and down the court. That might be the most-watched 1st round series of the playoffs.

That said, the Thunder would probably win comfortably in 4 or 5 games. The reason is, the Rockets' defense is pretty awful, allowing over 102 points per game. While the Thunder and Rockets' offenses are comparable, the defensive disparity makes it a lopsided match-up. The Rockets are a team of the future, but if they face the Thunder (or Spurs) they will be in for a harsh lesson on the importance of playoff-level defense.

The team I'd least like to see is the Mavericks. Even though they're probably not going to be able to jump the Lakers and the Thunder are actually 11-1 against them over the past 2 years, there is still something about the way the Mavs know how to make the Thunder work hard to earn their wins that is disconcerting. Despite the talent disparity, every Thunder-Mavs game makes me nervous. Plus, Beard Dirk looks like an extra in the Evil Dead movies.

SFTN:

Its only been a few weeks since these two teams last matched up. We didn't have Parker, but the rest of the cast was healthy, we'd had a couple of days rest, were at home, and we won. This time Parker is in the lineup, but doesn't seem to quite be who he was before he went down. Spurs are going to be on the 4th game in 5 nights, and are nursing some injuries. Thunder had a few days rest and home court advantage. The odds seem to favor the Thunder. Who wins this game, how is it won, and is it close, or a blowout?

JAS:

If the odds favor the Thunder, then the odds are I'm even more nervous than I was before. I thought that the odds were in OKC's favor in the last game sans Parker, and we saw what happened there. Or in the case of the Thunder's offense, what DIDN'T happen there.

Here is what makes me most nervous about playing the Spurs this year. Actually, there are 2 elements:

1) The Thunder are not defending Tiago Splitter well. In the last game especially, Splitter was rolling to the rim at will and shooting lay-ups and it looked like OKC had no idea what to do with him. With both Duncan and Splitter playing a high-low game against OKC, it really challenges the Thunder's ability to play intellectual defense.

Most of the time the Thunder can rely on Perkins' post-defense experience and Ibaka's athleticism. The two go hand-in-hand very well. However, when both of those guys must play top-notch position defense to keep the Spurs' bigs from going where they want to go, breakdowns occur.

2) Kawhi Leonard has taken a huge step forward playing Durant. I'm sure you guys still have nightmares about the scoring runs that Durant was pulling off in last year's playoffs. San Antonio simply had nobody who could keep Durant from getting to the spots he wanted.

However, this season it seems a bit different. Leonard has a much better understanding of Durant's tendencies, can stay with him step-for-step, and is strong enough to challenge Durant's spots on the court. I was actually disappointed in how Durant approached Leonard this season, way too passively instead of being more intentional. As a result, Durant has committed 13 turnovers against the Spurs this season.

If the Thunder can do better in these two areas, then I would give them the nod tonight in OKC and wouldn't be surprised if the game turns into a delayed blowout (the kind where Pop cedes the loss and the score becomes disproportionate). However, if the Spurs can keep things close and make it a possession-by-possession game, the Spurs have shown they are better at finishing this year. Lastly, I'm sure that the Spurs would like nothing better than to remind OKC that they got lucky in the playoffs last year and it won't happen again. Right???

*****

Great insights from J.A. Sherman giving us some things to watch for during the game. Check out Welcome to Loud City for the Thunder fans' perspective.

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