The Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs are fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference and look to be on a collision course for a matchup in the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, it seems OKC has the Spurs' number, as the Spurs have lost the three matchups this season by a combined 22 points, with two of the losses taking place at home. And who can forget the Thunder taking four straight in the 2012 Western Conference Finals?
A Spur for every event of All-Star Weekend
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There are caveats, of course. Kawhi Leonard remains sidelined due to an injured hand, and the Spurs recently got Danny Green and Tiago Splitter back from their respective injuries. There was quite a lengthy stint in which three of their starters were not in the lineup, which makes it hard to really gauge how good the team can be at full force. What we do know is that if Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter aren't healthy when the playoffs roll around, there is no chance of beating the Thunder.
OKC hasn't been immune to injuries. They are currently without their superstar point guard Russell Westbrook due to complications from last year's surgery on his knee. He is rumored to be back on the court later this month, which should only bolster a Thunder offense that has been more than the Spurs' D can handle. But the Thunder's dominance over the Spurs is not only rooted in their stellar offense, their defense has been a huge part of their success. The Thunder rank 7th in the league, and the changes Brooks has installed seem tailor-made to counter San Antonio's strengths.
The Thunder have players with ridiculous wingspans. Reggie Jackson has a 7'0" wingspan despite only standing at 6'3", Jeremy Lamb's measured at 6'11", and Kevin Durant's is 7'4.5". Though their measurements aren't listed, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha also possess some serious length.
Brooks utilizes this length by employing a swarm-and-trap defense, beginning with the Thunder forcing the ball into the corners. They consistently trap any player who is near a sideline or baseline, often leading to turnovers which then fuel their offense. Over 14 percent of the Thunder's points come via fast break -- most of those come off perimeter turnovers -- and it all starts with the perimeter length of guys like Westbrook, Jackson and Sefolosha.
Their perimeter players can afford to gamble because they rely on the world-class weak-side help of Serge Ibaka. With him ready to contest every close shot and Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams keeping centers honest, it's tough to score inside on OKC. There are no two ways about it: the Thunder defense presents some tough challenges for the Spurs.
Some possible solutions
OKC puts a lot of pressure on their opponent's perimeter playmakers, forcing them to either give up the ball or risk a turnover. The way to avoid that problem is to start plays with Tim Duncan at the top of the key instead of having Parker handling the ball while the offense sets up. Duncan is one of the best passing big men in the NBA and the Spurs can use Horns or "motion weak" sets to have him set up teammates. While he has the ball at the free-throw line, weak side screens and cuts can be better executed, which would allow the guards and forwards to get open while avoiding the threat of those perimeter turnovers.
Another advantage to giving Timmy the ball is the attention he demands from defenders, forcing them to contest the potential jump shot. This allows the middle of the paint to open up more for better looks at the basket by a cutting Kawhi Leonard or posted-up Tiago Splitter.
Obviously, there is no way Tim Duncan can occupy the ball on every play, so another option here is to push for more weak side pick-and-rolls with Parker as the ball-handler. A staple in the Popovich offense, P&Rs coming off "motion weak" sets are one of the most effective and versatile plays in the NBA.
Depending on who is on the floor, it can start with Tony Parker getting the ball to a player on the wing, which will usually be Kawhi Leonard once he's healthy. Kawhi can swing it to Tiago Splitter at the three-point line. Tony can pop up to the strong side three-point line where to receive the ball from the center. A Duncan screen for Parker would then initiate the cutting motion with Duncan trailing. While Tony drives and Tim dives, there are a number of options setting up on the weak side. Tiago will typically screen for the best three point shooter on the court to free him beyond the arc.
This play opens up a lot options for the San Antonio offense. The big guarding Duncan will be forced to leave the paint. If he decides to stay back, it becomes an easy jump shot for Tony Parker. Once Tony drives, a simple bounce pass allows for an easy layup by Tim Duncan or a kick-out can result in an open outside shot. And hitting those outside shots will be key.
With one of the best three-point shooters in the league in Marco Belinelli – and other competent shooters in Mills, Ginobili, Green and Leonard – the Spurs can consistently knock those shots down. Hitting those threes helps open up the floor for more looks for the offense. After all, overloading doesn't work if you have hot three-point shooters who can't be left open.
All the fundamental offensive principles San Antonio's offense relies will still be important. Proper spacing and quick extra passes will still be required to give the Spurs a better chance of beating OKC. But making those adjustments and prioritizing those sets could help the Spurs get a leg up on a Thunder defense that has made scoring difficult for the Spurs.
A potential Western Conference Finals matchup between the Spurs and Thunder is every NBA junkies' dream, as it could easily be one of the best series in recent history. The Spurs may be the only team in the Western Conference that can take down the Oklahoma City Thunder in a seven-game series. While these tweaks can't guarantee San Antonio success, applying them could help them make it much tougher for the Thunder to get back to the Finals.