The Spurs and Thunder will meet in the West finals after being the two top teams in the conference all year long. Coming into the playoffs OKC seemed the have the upper hand after sweeping the season series. But an injury to Serge Ibaka changed everything.
The Thunder's strengths and weaknesses
The Thunder relied on their length and athleticism on defense to pack the paint and recover or funnel the perimeter players into their bigs. Both Perkins and Ibaka were a terror all season long as rim protectors, with Ibaka confirming his status as one of the most electric shot blockers in the league. That approach will probably remain the same even with Ibaka's absence because the Thunder simply don't know how to defend any other way and Collison and Adams can probably do a decent job of contesting and changing shots. Collison in particular is Splitter-esque in his ability to change shots without boasting great block numbers.
But while the Thunder have the players to downgrade the loss in interior defense from catastrophic to merely significant, Ibaka's absence has other ramifications. OKC's perimeter defense can pack the paint and then recover aggressively because they know Ibaka can cover as much ground as they and intercept anyone driving after a close out before they reach the rim even if he is on the weak side. Without him, any play in which one of the interior defenders is away could result in a wide open layup. The safety net the wings and Westbrook used to have won't be gone entirely but will not be as ever present as it has been in the past.
Something very similar happens with small ball units. It's completely different to have Perkins or Adams anchoring that lineup down low than Ibaka. They can't switch to a perimeter player and if they are involved in a pick-and-roll, Durant will instantly become the last line of defense, as they simply won't be able to help and recover. That would force the perimeter defenders to pack the paint even tighter which could then result in open three pointers. This is especially problematic because Scott Brooks relies heavily on two veterans that are not as quick or long as Westbrook, Durant or Jackson. Butler and Fisher will have to be on point possession after possession because they will be targeted.
The one-two punch provided by Durant and Westbrook is unmatched in the league. Those two are the half court offense, really. Both guys are elite individual scorers, whether they get their shots via isolations, post-ups or as pick and roll ball handlers. They are a constant match up nightmare because of their physical tools and they are experts at drawing fouls. The other players are limited but functional and simply reap the rewards of playing next to two guys that demand so much of the defense's attention.
The problem for OKC is that when one of their two main guys is not playing well, the offense stagnates and ultimately slumps. Westbrook is not a good spot up shooter, which means even if he is not connecting, he needs to have the ball in his hands. And Durant, while a much improved passer, can still see his impact limited when the defense does a good job of containing him without sending help. The secondary options then become the streaky Reggie Jackson on pick and rolls or post ups for Caron Butler. There just isn't a lot of creativity to OKC's schemes.
So how have they managed to get past those dry spells and have one of the best offenses in the league? By getting fastbreak buckets and offensive boards. Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka are a handful on the glass and as a team and OKC was one of the best in the league at turning those offensive boards into points. Russell Westbrook is not afraid to charge the offensive glass as well and Durant is so long that he gets his share as well. And their aggressive, physical style of defense leads to live ball turnovers that then result on easy transition points. But once again, Ibaka's absence will be felt.
With Ibaka out, the Thunder lose an above average offensive rebounder that turned those boards into points at a high clip (58.3%). During the regular season, the Thunder scored five more points on the break with Ibaka on the court than when he was off, which isn't surprising since his blocks often worked as outlet passes and he runs the court like a guard to either finish as the trailer or clean up after misses. OKC can still exploit those two areas for some easy points but not having Ibaka clearly hurts them there. But not as much as it does their half court spacing.
Ibaka was 19-38 on shots between 16-24 feet, one of the best marks for volume shooters from mid-range in the playoffs. The other bigs can't even come close to replicating that. Any big lineup the Thunder use will struggle keeping opponent bigs off the paint, which means perimeter defenders don't have to leave the shooters. More than ever, the Thunder offense could simply boil down to whatever Westbrook and Durant can create for themselves. They are fantastic but with limited spacing and few options to pass to, even they could have trouble scoring consistently.
How the Spurs match up with them
No one except for a sad human being would root for an injury. But the Spurs caught a huge break here, one that could tip the scales in their favor on both ends. If the Thunder start a big next to Perkins and Durant, the Spurs could have Splitter and Duncan on the court for the start of both halves and that means the paint will be heavily protected. If they go small with Durant at the four and Jones, Roberson or most likely Butler at the three, the Spurs could start Diaw and have him guard one of those guys while Leonard takes Durant. And on the other end, who guards Boris in the post?
On defense, the Thunder will continue to try and force the ball out of Parker's hands by packing the paint and recovering. Whoever guards Splitter will play off him and help. OKC has length and quickness in the perimeter, so their spot up defense will continue to be good. But the pressure to be perfect will be high. Whenever there is a crack, whenever someone is not disciplined the Spurs could challenge the bigs at the rim. And even though scoring on them won't be easy, they are extremely foul prone with Adams averaging over six fouls per 36 minutes and Perkins and Collison over five. Those are Ayres/Baynes numbers.
San Antonio will likely target Perkins on the pick-and-roll. Duncan could either take the mid-range jumper or slip the screen and take advantage of Perkins tendency to committing to soon to contain the drive. If Parker's jumper is falling and the bigs are forced to step outside, San Antonio will be hard to stop. And on the other end, containing the role players should be the priority. Durant and Westbrook can win a game or two on their own but they won't win a series.
The Thunder are still a great team, even without Ibaka and the Spurs will still have to execute to overcome a clear athletic disadvantage. But if the Spurs' shot creators can get the defense moving, some holes that weren't there before will start to appear. How the Spurs approach the clash mentally will be key. San Antonio has to be patient and smart and execute like they know how. But above all, they need to come out ready to play and at no point underestimate the opponent.
Not turning the ball over will be of extreme importance. OKC will have a hard time scoring on the half court, so the Spurs need to make sure they don't solve their problem for them. Parker will have to set the tone offensively and the bigs need to make the Thunder pay for their lack of spacing on the other end by shutting down the paint. This is a series in which the Spurs should embrace the cliches about machine-like presicion and lack of emotionality. If things go normally, the Spurs should prevail.
The Thunder will win a couple of games based on the talent of their two stars. They might even get a blowout if the Spurs play sloppy basketball. But ultimately, the injury to Ibaka will prove too much to make up for against such a well rounded team. Spurs in 6.