Finally, after a bizarre scheduling error granted the Spurs a "bye" through the opening round of the playoffs -- a period in which Gregg Popovich had them scrimmage against what I think were off-duty employees from a mail courier service-- the postseason will start in earnest for San Antonio on Saturday against the much despised Oklahoma City Thunder.
And yes, I do mean that I despise the Thunder. I loathe them. They make my blood boil. I know I wrote this infamous post a couple years back about not being a fan anymore, and Pounders give me flak for it now and again, but I feel I've pretty much stuck to the original proclamation. The best way I can explain it is that I don't root for the Spurs to win, but I don't root for them to lose, either. However, I ABSOLUTELY root for the Thunder to lose. I'm this dark twisted soul where almost nothing basketball-wise gives me more pleasure than watching OKC blow a game late, with their stars making one poor play after another.
Is it classy of me? Nope. Should I be above it? Absolutely. Do I care? Not even a lil' bit. I can't stand anything about their organization: how they stole a team from one of America's greatest cities, moving from Seattle to podunk Oklahoma City*; how their stars carry themselves; their homer writers, who never hold those stars accountable; their uniforms, especially those garish orange ones where they look like giant traffic cones (in keeping with their defense, I suppose); how their media keep bringing up bogus stats like what their record is vs. the Spurs with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka all healthy, and pretend they're relevant regardless of who San Antonio played or what the circumstances of the schedule were.
I'm pretty sure the Spurs won the 2014 Western Conference Finals, I'm pretty sure they closed out Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka in Game 6 at Chesapeake Arena, and I'm pretty sure they were without Tony Parker for the second half and overtime of that game. Here, let's watch it again in case you forgot.
Just missed. I don't know, Ibaka seemed pretty healthy to me on that block against Manu Ginobili, but I'm not a doctor.
Given how I feel about the Thunder, and given how I enjoy watching Spurs games, then by the transitive property I have no choice but to admit I'm emotionally invested in this series. There, ya happy?
Anyway, a lot has happened for both teams since then and you probably have some questions about what to expect for the series. I enlisted the help of J.R. Wilco to help come up with the most important questions facing the Spurs in this series.
Q: What's the biggest obstacle to Boban Marjanovic playing a major role against OKC?
Q: Well, besides him.
A: If there's any playoff match-up that begs for Boban, it's against the Thunder, where they just wreck people on the glass with Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Ibaka and Durant. They out-rebounded the Spurs by 21 in the two games this season where both teams played their main guys, and the Kanter match-up against the bench tandem of Boris Diaw and David West in particular terrifies me.
I wholeheartedly feel that Marjanovic would be a better option against Kanter than West and come at me bro if you disagree. Would Westbrook attack Marjanovic like a starving piranha spotting a hemophiliac sea lion? Absolutely. But he'll attack West just the same. At least Marjanovic can block the occasional shot, use his height to win rebounds and score on the defensively hopeless Kanter on the other end. West really helped the Spurs a lot this season, but I don't like this match-up for him at all.
Q: Just how much is the Spurs' coaching advantage worth in this series?
A: Not to be too much of a wiseacre, but it kind of depends on how much of an advantage they want it to be. Pop has an irksome habit of playing match-ups straight-up in opening games of the playoffs before making the adjustments we figured he'd make later on. For example, in 2013 and 2014 he started Tiago Splitter against OKC and Miami before changing it up with Diaw midway through. Or he'll have Parker guard the opponent's star point guard to start things off before switching the assignment to Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard.
This series seems to have a gift-wrapped match-up to hide Parker defensively. It's like Billy Donovan has bought Pop an early Christmas present. "Merry Christmas, Pop, I'm starting Andre Roberson."
So if we see Parker starting out on Westbrook in Game 1 or the West-Diaw tandem on Kanter, well then it won't feel very much like a coaching advantage. If he puts Green or Leonard on Westbrook from the beginning and sees to it that Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge stagger their minutes so that one center is always on the floor for the Spurs, well then I'll be more convinced. I'd especially like to see Duncan on the floor for as much of Westbrook's time as possible, because he seems to be the only guy that Russ is reluctant to challenge at the rim.
Coaching should very much come into play though. The Spurs finished third in the league in net rating (15.4) during clutch situations, according to NBA.com. The Thunder were 24th, at -8.3. The next-closest playoff team were the Indiana Pacers at 17th, and they're an Eastern seventh seed. That has to mean something, right?
(Then again, the Mavericks finished second in clutch net rating, so maybe not.)
Q: Whose future with their team is more dependent on this series: Duncan, and whether he'll retire, or Durant and whether he'll leave the Thunder as a free agent?
A: I don't think the outcome of this series (or any potential ones after this) will have any bearing on Duncan's decision. I think after winning five titles, he no longer uses that as a barometer to make his decision, if he ever did. He knows the team will be competitive and in the title mix, regardless of whether he comes back or not. It's simply a matter of if he wants to keep doing it. My guess is that this will be it.
As for Durant, I think he's gone if the Thunder lose this series, especially if it's something decisive like five games. Maybe he hangs around for one more year if they get to the conference finals. And he'd probably re-sign if they won it all.
Q: Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Dion Waiters, Cameron Payne... who among them makes the biggest impact on the series, how and why?
A: Green. His defense will be vital and the starting lineup desperately needs his shot-making from outside. I don't think Diaw will be quite the factor he was two years ago now that the Thunder play with conventional lineups full time. The bigger the opponent stays, the less valuable Diaw becomes, especially if he's not stroking the three very well. Waiters could make an impact negatively I suppose, playing so poorly to swing a game or two, but I don't imagine he'll move the needle much outside of the unintentional comedy.
Q: Do you think Westbrook and Payne will continue their elaborate pre-game dance routine, even at the AT&T Center, and how should the Spurs react to it if they do?
A: They can't stop now, they're on a roll. It's all a part of Westbrook's brand to be the villain and the anti-hero. Predictably, the Spurs all said they don't care. Me, I'd go completely the other way and just troll the hell out of them. Instead of shoving Westbrook out of the way like Charlie Villanueva did, I'd just have Duncan and Matt Bonner dance alongside them, doing the lamest dad dances possible like "The Robot," "The Sprinkler," "The Cabbage Patch" and maybe even "The Worm," if Matty is feeling limber. Heck, I'd even involve the in-stadium DJ into the process. The second you see OKC's guys preparing to start their routine, I'd crank up Madonna's "Vogue" full volume and show those guys on the video screen so everyone can cheer them on.
Come on, vogue
Let your body move to the music (move to the music)
Hey, hey, hey
Come on, vogue
Let your body go with the flow (go with the flow)
You know you can do it
All you need is your own imagination
So use it that's what it's for (that's what it's for)
Go inside, for your finest inspiration
Your dreams will open the door (open up the door)
It makes no difference if you're black or white
If you're a boy or a girl
If the music's pumping it will give you new life
You're a superstar, yes, that's what you are, you know it
You don't fight clowns, you laugh at them.
Q: Man, you really dislike Russ, don't you?
A: On the contrary, I think of him as an artist on the basketball floor. He's like Michelangelo. Or maybe Donatello. Could be Leonardo. Or perhaps Raphael.
The truth is while I don't love Westbrook's antics or his decision-making at times, I do respect that he always plays hard, with absolutely no fear. And he always gives it to you straight, even if it's unpopular. I think his running mate floats too much, gets intimidated by the moment in big games and comes off as a phony at times. If I have to pick between those two, I'm on Team Westbrook all day.
Q: Well, are there any dudes on the Thunder you like?
A: Here's how unlikable the Thunder are: Their most likable player is a goon. Like all Kiwis, Steven Adams seems like a great guy. Still a bit of a goon though, but one I'd welcome on the Spurs.
Q: True or False: Kawhi + Aldridge = Durant + Westbrook... and the balance of the series will be tipped by someone besides the top four guys?
A: False. I can't quite put Aldridge in the class of the other three, even though Leonard is a head above either Westbrook or Durant. I will say that if the Spurs duo manages to play OKC's stars to a standstill, then I think it'll be a short series. The balance I think will be decided by someone else. The Spurs can't let Kanter or Ibaka or even Adams be the fifth-best player in any game. It has to be Parker, or Duncan, or Ginobili (in Game 5 of a 2-2 series, naturally), or Green, one of their guys. It will be asking a lot of Aldridge and Leonard to match KD and Russ point for point because they won't get as many shots. The Spurs need to overcome that with their depth.
Q: So, what are the big picture things the Spurs have to do to win this?
A: Don't get crushed on second-chance points, don't be at a big disadvantage at the free-throw line, don't allow them easy transition points, outscore them by at least 15 a night on the bench and stay at least even at the three-point line. And the main thing, obviously, is to protect home court.
Q: How do you see the series going and what's your prediction?
A: A lot has changed since 2014... and a lot hasn't. I'm not about to pick either of these teams to win on the other's court until they give me a reason to. Spurs in 7.
* Literally the birthplace of Skip Bayless..