Game 1 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder @ San Antonio Spurs

Steve Dykes

After eliminating the Portland Trail Blazers in five games, the Spurs will next face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Oklahoma City Thunder @ San Antonio Spurs

AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
May 19, 2014, 8:00 PM Spurs Time
TV: TNT - RADIO: 1200 AM WOAI

In Round 1, the Dallas Mavericks forced the Spurs into playoff mode. It took seven games, but by the time the Spurs entered Round 2, they were playing elite basketball and the Blazers were caught off-guard. The Spurs easily eliminated the Blazers in five games, which is important because after their seven game series with Dallas, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were already wearing down. Hopefully, their four days off will allow them to heal and play at 100% in Game 1, because the Thunder will do everything they can to steal this first one.

As I'm sure you are aware, Serge Ibaka injured his calf and will miss the remainder of the playoffs. To me, this dramatically increases the importance of the first two games. For this to be a competitive series, the Thunder will need a split heading back to OKC. Gregg Popovich will figure out how to exploit the absence of Serge Ibaka with time and film. I think the Spurs will get better as the series progresses because of this. So, if the Thunder are not able to win one of the first two, it's going to get much more difficult for them as Pop and his team get more film to study on this new Thunder team.

Specifically for the Spurs, Serge Ibaka was a perfect compliment to OKC's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. His athleticism allowed the Thunder to reach scary levels defensively. He's one of the few players in the NBA that is quick enough to switch onto the smaller guards in the league yet big enough to block shots when in help defense position. He allowed the Thunder to play small with him at the 5 and Durant at the 4, and was flexible enough to keep their defense solid while being undersized.

His deadly intermediate jump shot is exactly what the Thunder needed to keep the Spurs honest. It's not a secret that the Thunder offense lacks, well, offense. It's just a series of isolation plays. Ibaka's presence kept the floor spaced just enough for Durant and Westbrook to be effective in the halfcourt, even though everyone in the building always knows the play before the Thunder run it.

Without Ibaka's defensive athleticism and offensive floor spacing, this Thunder team is going to struggle. I say this because people like Bill Simmons apparently think that Ibaka doesn't really change much in this series. I think that's absurd. Scott Brooks is in trouble. Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams are serviceable big men in limited minutes, but a lot of their success is predicated on limited minutes. Brooks has to find 34 minutes from those guys, or play small for longer stretches.

But even small ball isn't going to be a familiar tactic, because their scariest small ball lineup featured Ibaka at the 5. The intermediate jump shot is going to be a critical factor in this series. The Spurs will pack the paint, even more so than usual with Ibaka's absence. The Spurs will dare Collison, Perkins and Adams to shoot the midrange shot. Collison is really the only big man they have that can make it, and he's pretty shaky.

With the floor spacing all wrong, I think this will mean lots of contested jumpers for Westbrook and Durant. While Durant is good enough to be efficient with the midrange shot, Westbrook is not. If Westbrook is able to make 9 of his 10 midrange shots in this series, it will be interesting. But if he misses at his normal rate, I'm just not sure how the Thunder will be able to manufacture enough points to stay in games.

The Thunder will need to push the ball at every opportunity. They will need those easy, efficient transition points because their lives in the halfcourt will be extremely difficult without Ibaka. This means, as always, the Spurs will need to take care of the ball in this series. Without Ibaka on the floor to out-athlete everyone around him, I think turnovers will be very much in the Spurs' control. Normally, the Thunder could force turnovers. I think that's also lessened with Ibaka's absence.

I have not mentioned the regular season series yet, the Thunder won all four games, because it's completely moot now that Ibaka is out. It was already a silly thing to point to because Kawhi completely ruined the measuring stick. The first game, which was played November 27th, is really the only one that wasn't ruined by Kawhi. He missed the second meeting, because of a dental procedure. Remember that? I think he had his wisdom teeth out and he needed an extra day to feel right.

He injured himself after just 15 minutes of action in the third meeting, so throw that one out. Then, in the final game of the regular season series, Kawhi was in foul trouble all game. As Travis Hale correctly pointed out, this was the game where Pop held Kawhi out for an extended period of time, basically to just torture him. He made him sit and watch as the Spurs were dismantled. So even if Ibaka had not ruined what you could gather from the regular season series, it wouldn't matter because Kawhi ruined it first.

Even before this devastating injury, I thought this was the most beatable that OKC or Miami has looked in years. OKC seems to have plateaued and I think Durant knows it. He has the ability to take them to the next level, but his uncontrollable sidekick always seems to get in the way. Scott Brooks' offense is just terrible, and the basketball that they choose to play is really going to put them at a disadvantage without Ibaka in this series. Maybe Brooks will make us all look silly, but right now I'm assuming there's no way he is capable of using his 'offensive system' to create space so his stars have room to attack the basket.

Most will pick the Spurs to win in 6 or 7, so I'll pick the Spurs in 5. If the Spurs win the first two games, it'll be five. If OKC can steal one before Pop figures them out, it'll be a series. Pay attention to Nick Collison's shot early on. It's not pretty, but if he can make the midrange jumper consistently, it means that OKC's offense will not be as affected by Ibaka's absence as we thought. However, defensively they will not be the same, and that has to be the scariest part of the injury's impact if you're rooting for OKC. If OKC can't slow the Spurs down, they will get blown out of these games, and that's what I'm expecting in Game 1.

Game 1, Western Conference Finals, 2014 NBA Playoffs
@
Regular Season: 59-23 (25-16 road)
Playoffs: 8-5 (4-2 road)

Regular Season: 62-20 (32-9 home)
Playoffs: 8-4 (6-1 home)
May 19, 2014
AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
8:00 pm CST
TV: TNT - Radio: 1200 WOAI
Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Tony Parker
Thabo Sefolosha SG Danny Green
Kevin Durant SF Kawhi Leonard
Nick Collison PF Tim Duncan
Kendrick Perkins C Tiago Splitter
Advanced Stats
95.4 (9th) Pace 95.0 (10th)
110.5 (6th) ORtg 110.4 (7th)
103.9 (6th) DRtg 102.4 (3rd)

For the Thunder's perspective visit Welcome to Loud City.

Game Prediction: Spurs by 12.

Line in Vegas: Spurs by 5.5.

As always Tony must dominate Fisher, and you can get your San Antonio Spurs tickets from Daniel Farias with Spurs Sports & Entertainment:

Tel: 210-444-5607 | dfarias@attcenter.com

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