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Spurs Playbook: Postmortem on the Spurs/Thunder series

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Donovan's adjustment to go to Kanter over Ibaka was the adjustment that changed the series. Was this the difference? Or did the Spurs just play a team with the two best players on the court.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 playoffs have been owned by three players, two of whom have inexplicably become underrated: LeBron James and Kevin Durant (Westbrook being the third). In a season rightfully dominated by the Warriors' quest for 72 and San Antonio's quest for perfection at home, LeBron and KD went under the radar. But during these playoffs the NBA's "former" top two players have challenged the notion that this is Steph's league with Kawhi not far behind.

When you remember that LeBron did not have Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in the finals last year, and still took two games from Golden State, and that Kevin Durant was injured last season, this changing of the guard seems a bit premature. This is not a rant about how Steph Curry didn't deserve to be the unanimous MVP. And it's not to say that Kawhi and even Westbrook are overrated. It's just that just two seasons ago, Kevin Durant and LeBron James were considered the best two players in the league for a reason. Now healthy with formidable supporting casts, their teams look poised for a Finals clash.

Can Spurs fans take solace in losing to a team that just had the more talented stars? Usually when you have the best player on the court your team wins. Those 90's Jazz teams could at least bow their heads to MJ and take pride in their own accomplishments. Because of Kawhi's amazing season and second place MVP finish, Spurs hopefuls may have gone into the series thinking they had the 1st and 4th best players (Leonard and Aldridge) on the court. That thinking, coupled with having a better overall roster that won 67 games seemed to promise a deep postseason run. But while Kawhi is capable of reaching that level, he hasn't passed those two yet, and if not for his defensive prowess, it wouldn't be close.

But San Antonio is supposed to be the exception to the rule. The Spurs are the organization that wins by committee. The team that isn't afraid to take on star studded teams and beat them. And the Thunder had Westbrook and Durant in games 1-3, and the Spurs looked more than fine. Ultimately, it was the Kanter/Adams combination that created the separation. OKC's ability to feature electric pace from Westbrook, lethal scoring from Durant, and dominant rebounding from the "Stache Brothers" proved too much.

Was there a counter to this behemoth lineup? Here are four possible solutions.

Match size with size

The Spurs aren't aren't exactly lacking in big men. With Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Alridge, Boris Diaw, Davis West, Boban Marjanovic, and even Matt Bonner, they have more serviceable 4's and 5's than most teams. So why not match size for size? Unfortunately, when scanning that list, there aren't two players as strong and physical as Adams and Kanter. For starters, Adams and Kanter are both seven footers. Other than Boban, the Spurs bigs are just not as tall. Moreover, Adams and Kanter are loads, and at ages 22 and 24 they have a combination of energy, length, and strength that no two Spurs bigs can match. Finally, the Thunder were the top rebounding team in the league. The Spurs were 24th. I'm sorry Boban loyalists. Trying to outsize them was not a viable option.

Play a stretch 4

This is the in-between approach. By playing a stretch four with a center, you still have two bigs to attempt to neutralize the size, while forcing one of Kanter/Adams to guard on the perimeter. The problem again is that only Matt Bonner would be a candidate for that role. And if Matt Bonner is your solution to beating the Thunder, than there are bigger problems. David West and Boris Diaw can serve as pseudo-stretch 4's, in that they have some shooting range. But David West isn't a three point shooter, and Diaw shot only 36% from three this year. That isn't good enough to force Kanter out of the lane where he his defense is suspect.

Go small

Even though Popovich mocked the reporter who asked about going small earlier after Game 6, this strategy is your best chance. By going small you force Adams and Kanter to guard players who make them pay on the defensive end. Your hope is that their defensive liabilities in this case would outweigh their rebounding presence and the Thunder's bigs would have to sub out. At halftime of Game 6, the Spurs made the adjustment to bring out Parker, Green, Ginobili, Leonard, and Aldridge. The problem for the Spurs is that while this is a smaller unit, it's not small enough to compromise the Thunder. Enes Kanter actually played decent one-on-one defense on Aldridge. LaMarcus doesn't shoot threes, he doesn't receive a lot of screens, and he doesn't drive to the rim too often. That is where the taller, less agile Kanter is most exposed. And his height helps him in guarding Aldridge's fadeaways.

That leaves Adams to guard Leonard or Green. Danny Green has a predictable game, and Steven Adams is energetic enough to get out to the three point line. This leaves Durant or Roberson on Leonard, and that's a tough task for Kawhi. If Adams has to switch onto Leonard, he's mobile enough to get by.

Conversely, Golden State has a small ball lineup that can truly play the tandem off the floor. With Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson, all five players can put the ball on the floor, shoot the three, and play in the pick and roll. Kanter can't survive that combination. And that's why Serge Ibaka has gotten much more playing time in the Western Conference finals.

Run the pick and roll over and over

The Thunder like to switch or go over screens. When you run the pick and roll against Kanter you either force him to switch onto a guard, or you put him into a show, where he is easy to eurostep around for a layup. When that player is Steph Curry, it's no contest. But the Warriors aren't the only team to use the pick and roll to play Kanter off the floor (as this excellent German video breakdown demonstrates):

Even an older Mavericks team got this done in stretches, and OKC's opponents used this all season. The Spurs ran some Parker/Aldridge pick and rolls. But at this stage of Parker's career, he's content shooting the mid-range jumper. Aldridge prefers the mid-range jumper. Kanter is really tall. If his task is to simply contest a jumper he is not as compromised as when he has to guard down hill drives or step back threes. Perhaps Ginobili or Leonard could have initiated the action with Aldridge and used their versatility to go at Kanter and even Adams. The Spurs could have put Kanter in countless pick and rolls.

The Spurs may have been toast no matter what. Durant and Westbrook are playing up to their potential and Steven Adams has taken a leap. With Waiters actually contributing and Roberson playing better, the Spurs ran into a faster team that could also dominate them on the glass. But Enes Kanter was a difference maker. And in Games 5 & 6, with the series still in the balance, it would have been interesting to see if an onslaught of pick and rolls could have played him off the floor.