So, as all of you know by now, the Spurs' opponent in the Western Conference Finals will be the Oklahoma City Thunder. And while the matchup has been relatively one sided in recent years(8-2 in favor of the Spurs), our frenemies from the wrong side of the Red River will likely prove to be an extremely formidable oppenent. This is going to be a much tougher series than the Spurs had in the previous two rounds, so let's talk about some of the things the Spurs need to do in order to get back to the NBA Finals.
Source note: All regular season and playoff stats used are from basketball-reference.com.
Obviously, the Spurs' greatest strength all season long has been their league-best offense, which was made even deadlier by the addition of Boris Diaw. So, I'll start with what I think the Spurs need to do offensively to punish the Thunder.
Offensive Key #1: Attack the rim constantly
The Thunder have a very good field-goal defense. They allowed the lowest field goal percentage in the West in the regular season, and have continued to do so in the playoffs (though the Spurs are extremely close to them in the playoffs). But the reason the Spurs DRtg is so much better in the playoffs than the Thunder is that OKC can't keep themselves from giving away free throws. They've allowed a higher free throw rate than any playoff team besides Denver. San Antonio has lots of perimeter slashers/cutters who can draw fouls, and the deadliest pick-and-roll attack in the league. The Spurs offense should create plenty of opportunities going towards the rim, and those should result in either a field goal, or free throw opportunities. This has the bonus effect of likely getting their starting bigs in foul trouble. Even though the bench bigs for OKC are servicable.
Offensive Key #2: Keep Ibaka and Collison on the perimeter
This one is very simple: Have either Bonner or Diaw in the game at all times, floating around the three point line on offense. Perkins or Mohammad will have to guard Duncan, Tiago, or Blair (who plays well against OKC) inside, forcing the other Thunder big man to guard Diaw or Bonner on the 3-point line. This is important, because Collison is one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league, and Ibaka is the best weakside "help" defender and shotblocker in the league. If you take those guys out of the paint, you compromise the Thunder's best defensive lineups. Once San Antonio starts eating them alive with this strategy, Brooks may be forced to go small. That opens up a whole new possibility...
Offensive Key #3: Ball and player movement in small-ball lineups
If Brooks decides to go small, with Durant at the 4, the Spurs will still have the advantage. The Spurs can field four offensive threats on the perimeter at all times, while Durant, Harden, and Westbrook are the only real three point threats the Thunder have. While those three are undeniably great offensive players, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha are... not. Fisher in particular can be exploited by faster (read: younger) players making quick, decisive cuts to the basket. Harden is also prone to defensive lapses. While the Thunder might be able to score quite a bit when they go small, the Spurs would have an even greater advantage as long as they keep up their usual great movement and spacing on offense. The more the Spurs move, the more OKC must try to recover, and the more out of postion the defense ends up. This concept works against almost any defense, and going with smaller, faster players makes it even harder for the defense to keep up.
As we are well aware of, the Spurs' offense is less of a concern than their defense. While the team has improved over the course of the season in their own end, they are now facing what is undoubtedly their biggest challenge of the playoffs. The Thunder finished the season #2 in offensive efficiency, and in the postseason they're #1.
Defensive Key #1: Cover the 3-point line
The Thunder are an above-average 3-point shooting team, making just under 36% in both the regular season and postseason. They were slightly better than the Clippers, who lit us up from 3 in the conference semifinals, during the regular season, so this needs to be priority #1. I can live with OKC shooting a high percentage from deep as long as they don't get more than 10 opportunities per game. Durant, Harden, and Westbrook can all get hot from three point land, so those guys should never be given space to get off a shot behind the arc, lest they go S-Jax-in-Milwaukee on us. If Thabo beats us, so be it, but the Spurs can't let their main guys get hot from 3, or it will open up their entire offense.
Defensive Key #2: Cut off penetration
OK, so this one is obviously a huge priority given the players on OKC's roster. If the Thunder's "big 3" perimeter guys are regularly getting to the rim, the Spurs will lose. The good thing is, OKC uses a lot more isolation in their offense than the Spurs (or, most teams, even), so they usually don't have secondary options if you cut off the guard penetration. That means they'll be forced to take the most inefficient shot in basketball - the mid-range jumper - or reset the offense completely. These first two bullet points are really Fundamental Defense 101, but should be especially effective against the Thunder. If they're taking mid-range jumpers, they have a lot less chance of success than they will with open threes or shots at the rim. Stopping penetration is also a big factor in making sure the Spurs can meet the challenge presented by our final defensive key.
Defensive key #3: Avoid shooting fouls
While the Thunder defense is one of the worst in the league at preventing free throws for their opponent, they are THE best free-throw shooting team in the league. As in, they get to the line more than any other team besides the Nuggets, and they have the highest team free throw percentage in the league. This means that they got 1,406 points at the line during the regular season, or 21.3 points per game. That number has further balooned to 24.6 points per game from freebies in the postseason, despite the Thunder's latest opponent (Lakers) having been this year's the league best defense at preventing free throws. So, obviously, keeping the Thunder off the line is a very difficult task, but one that I think the Spurs are up to. Challenging shots without fouling is one of the things our guys know how to do, and I can only hope they will continue that in this series.
So there you have it. Obviously, they are many other factors that go into winning or losing this series, but these are the things that concern me the most. If the Spurs can do all these things, they should continue their recent domination of the Thunder. If they can't, our dreams of the Finals will probably remain just that: dreams.
Here's to a good series, and hopefully a long-overdue fifth trip to the NBA Finals.