San Antonio Spurs @ Oklahoma City Thunder
The Spurs' mid-April loss to the New Orleans Pelicans not only sealed their fate as a sixth seed (and an ill-fated first-round matchup against the Clippers); it also pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the postseason picture entirely. After winning 45 games in spite of Kevin Durant's foot, Serge Ibaka's knee, and Russell Westbrook's face, OKC could only watch as New Orleans was swept by the future-champion Warriors.
That's how the Hobbesian Western Conference works: destiny flirts with caprice, and weakness, however temporary, is punished nastily and brutishly. While Spurs fans might deliberate what could've happened had they finished a number-two seed last season, there's enough revisionist history for Thunder fans to fill a college course syllabus with, from the James Harden trade to a slew of ill-timed injuries throughout Scott Brooks' tenure.
Brooks is out this year and former University of Florida coach Billy Donovan is in, inheriting a team with elite talent and a small window to synthesize it into a deep postseason run. The roster (and, most importantly, Durant) is whole again, which is bad news for the rest of the league. Even with Donovan tinkering with the offensive system and Dion Waiters potentially stewing on the bench, a healthy Thunder team should coast to 55-plus wins, as KD and Westbrook belt out Starship duets in the locker room. Curses be damned.
Tonight is the first of four regular-season tilts against the Thunder. The teams are familiar enough with each other at this point, but both sides will be showcasing a new wrinkle or two in the season opener.
For the Spurs, it begins with their new big-man rotation, which'll be getting its first real-world test against the Thunder's own deep frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge, fresh off his best performance in a Spurs jersey, will see plenty of Serge Ibaka, leaving Tim Duncan at the mercy of the zesty play (and stache) of Steven Adams. Ibaka and Aldridge will draw each other out to near the three-point line with their ability to shoot, opening up lanes for both sides. The battle among the bench bigs is also interesting, as Boris Diaw and David West will mix it up with Enes Kanter, Mitch McGary and Nick Collison.
Speaking of Kanter, the young Turk's defensive metrics were widely panned last year (teams scored at a Clippers-like rate against them when he was on the floor). But his advocates would remind you that the numbers don't reflect him playing with a full squad. We'll see if he's able to hold up any better against pick and rolls this season (for what it's worth, he had a net rating of plus 26.6 in the preseason) and he's still a formidable offensive player who will give OKC's second unit a punch it'd been lacking.
I blame familiarity for the fact that I've gotten this far without mentioning Durant and Westbrook's impact but, really, what don't you already know about them? Westbrook is still the most electric player in the NBA, almost to a fault, and the difference between him being good and great tonight might hinge on how many of those springy, pull-up jumpers he's able to knock down tonight. Meanwhile, Durant appears ready to make up for lost time.
It's up to Donovan to take advantage of the individual attention each player gets by catching defenses sleeping or concentrating too much on one or the other, and we can expect to see glimpses of that tonight (H/T Welcome to Loud City):
Fortunately, the Spurs have two of the league's best wing defenders to try and slow them down and the team was excellent in limiting Westbrook amid his end-of-year statistical rampage (in two games, he was held to 33 points on 12 of 32 shooting).
SA can also hide Tony Parker on the offensively-limited Andre Roberson, and we'll see what kind of impact he'll be able to have on the other end as his role in the offense is reduced. He'll benefit from the attention Aldridge and Kawhi get, but his days as the primary creator are sadly behind him as more of the attack is set to revolve around the two forwards.
The Thunder under Brooks were a risk-taking defense that often relied on their length and routinely left opponents open to shoot from the perimeter. Donovan might be looking to improve at closing out on shooters, and it'll be worth seeing how well they do against guys like Green and Patty Mills.
If the Spurs can keep this game in the half court and regularly get back in transition, the style of play should suit a San Antonio win. If they let the tempo get away from them and lose the bench battle, it's not hard seeing them leaving OKC with a loss to start the year.
Matchup to watch: Aldridge versus Ibaka. An ever-improving Kawhi Leonard against a healthy Kevin Durant definitely commands attention, but despite the year hiatus separating their last matchup I think we all know what to expect more or less: Kawhi will do his best to stifle the former MVP and go at him at the other end, while Durant's length and brilliance should still lead to plenty of buckets. But all eyes should be on the new Spur and how well he can score on (and draw away from the basket) one of the NBA's best shot-blockers. Recently, Pop's choice of who would face Ibaka has been Diaw, Bonner or Splitter, with the big trade-off being defensive ability versus stretching the defense on the other side. Theoretically LMA should present a superior alternative.
|Spurs at Thunder|
|October 28, 2015|
|Cheapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, OK|
|7:00 pm CST|
|Tony Parker||PG||Russell Westbrook|
|Danny Green||SG||Andre Roberson|
|Kawhi Leonard||SF||Kevin Durant|
|LaMarcus Aldridge||PF||Serge Ibaka|
|Tim Duncan||C||Enes Kanter|
The Thunder fans' perspective can be found at Welcome to Loud City.
Game Prediction: Spurs by 3.
As always Tony must dominate Fisher.