Ready for some offense?
I'd hope so, after seeing a historically low-scoring playoffs ground further into the mud by six games of Sixers-Celtics. Well, good news is on the way. The Western Conference finals start Sunday, and you will definitely be seeing scoring. Lots and lots and lots of it.
San Antonio led the NBA in offensive efficiency this season, and Oklahoma City was second. It's been a similar story in the playoffs, as the two teams are miles ahead of everybody else on the efficiency leaderboard.
There's a certain irony to this, of course. San Antonio won four championships with a defense-first mantra, and the Oklahoma City franchise is as faithful a reproduction of the Spurs as you'll see -- it's owner (Clay Bennett), general manager (Sam Presti) and assistant GM (Rob Hennigan) all were with the Spurs at one time in the Gregg Popovich era, and San Antonio was very clearly their model for building the Thunder into a small-market tiger that always values long-term interests over short-term gains. And despite its three stars, Oklahoma City's first whiffs of success came at least as much at the defensive end; it wasn't until this season that the Thunder shifted to being such an offense-heavy team.
The similarities don't end there. Both teams have three stars that are the focal points of the attack, including a pair of slashing, foul-drawing, left-handed sixth men (James Harden and Manu Ginobili) who now are almost routinely compared to one another. And both teams breezed through the first two rounds, sporting a combined record of 16-1 while laying waste to the basketball season in Los Angeles. (Side note: Those who argue that the Thunder's romp past the Mavs and Lakers was far more impressive need to look at the standings instead of the jerseys. Dallas and Utah had the same record; the Lakers edged the Clippers by a game.)
But despite all those similarities, it's the differences that will define this series. And in this battle of teacher vs. student, the students are about to get schooled.
San Antonio has a few major advantages over Oklahoma City that should prove telling. The biggest one can be found by looking past the stars to the back-end rotation players. The Thunder give major minutes to Derek Fisher (PER: 8.0), Daequan Cook (9.3), Kendrick Perkins (8.7) and Thabo Sefolosha (9.8); while Perkins and Sefolosha have defensive value, Nick Collison was the only player outside OKC's top four to post a halfway respectable PER.
Contrast that with what San Antonio brings to the table: Tiago Splitter (20.5), Danny Green (15.5), Matt Bonner (13.2), Gary Neal (14.3), Stephen Jackson (13.2) and Boris Diaw (11.2). Their bench is so good that DeJuan Blair (17.6) can't even get on the court.
So big picture, spots 5-9 in the rotation shape up as major mismatches in favor of the Spurs. The Thunder's only advantages are at No. 1 and No. 4, if you're stacking teams up that way: Kevin Durant is obviously the best player on the court, and the Thunder's fourth-best player, Serge Ibaka, is clearly better than Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard.
Dig deeper, however, and advantages start tilting more in the Spurs' favor -- especially at the defensive end. This is where the teacher-student thing comes up again, in vivid color. The Thunder are athletic, play very hard and have a great shot-blocker behind them in Ibaka. Nonetheless, they're not a great defensive team, ranking ninth in efficiency overall.
And in particular, they tend to have trouble with the thing that San Antonio will force them to do over and over and over again -- making smart, coordinated rotations in team defense. The Thunder are relentless but, befitting their youth, a lot of that energy is wasted. Russell Westbrook runs all over on defense but is rarely in the right spot, and the same can be said if you watch the likes of Ibaka and Harden off the ball.
It's what will get them beat in this series. Looking to the regular season, the Spurs won two of the three games even though Ginobili missed all three. They won by pick-and-rolling the Thunder to death, leading to botched rotations and wide-open 3s; in the three games, the Spurs shot a ridiculous 28-of-54 from long range. That was with Blair starting at power forward all three games, mind you; now that the Spurs play floor spacers Bonner and Diaw at the 4, they'll get the Thunder even more spread out on D.
So the Thunder are at a disadvantage. But they do have a few weapons at their disposal to turn this series in their favor.
One they should seriously consider is starting either Harden or Cook and bringing Sefolosha off the bench to match up against Ginobili. Right now, the Thunder's best individual defender will be wasted guarding Green before he comes off the floor; he's likely to have virtually no overlap with the Spurs' best wing scorer, Ginobili, especially since he rarely plays fourth quarters. Unfortunately, Newton's fourth law of playoff basketball coaching says that the Thunder won't try this until they're down 2-0 or 3-1 and in desperate straits.
A lineup they're likely to use more regularly, however, is with Durant at the 4. This forces a major adjustment for San Antonio, which must either attempt to hide Diaw or Bonner on a perimeter player or go to a smaller lineup of its own. Oklahoma City's lineups with Durant at the 4 this season were extremely productive -- of the six small-ball lineups that played more than 20 minutes, five outscored opponents by more than 12.0 points per 48 minutes.
The average for those lineups was plus-13.0 in 479 minutes, accounting for nearly a third of the Thunder's point differential edge on the season; the rest of the time the Thunder were plus-4.8.
Oklahoma City couldn't get away with this look against the Lakers because of matchups, but the Spurs are unlikely to line up two 7-footers against them all game the way L.A. did. (Though one supposes it's possible with a Tim Duncan-Splitter combo.)
That's the good news. The bad news is that they used these lineups against the Spurs in the regular season and still got beat. The Thunder used four smalls for 18, 16 and 28 minutes, respectively, in the three regular-season meetings. These games were before they acquired Fisher; if they were willing to line up this way even if it means putting erratic rookie Reggie Jackson or little-used Royal Ivey and Lazar Hayward on the floor, they're likely to ride it even longer with Fisher.
Nonetheless, this grouping did seem to have an effect. The small-ball lineup guys had the best plus-minus numbers over the three games; Hayward was plus-11 and Jackson was plus-12, for instance, and those were the two whose use was most exclusive to the small grouping; Collison, who is usually the center with that arrangement, was plus-15.
Unfortunately, OKC is about to run into a buzzsaw. San Antonio's numbers of late are video-game crazy: The Spurs not only have 18 straight wins, but they are 32-3 in their past 35 games. The most amazing stat is that they're 24-3 in their past 27 road games, with two of three defeats coming when they decided to rest their starters.
That's the scarier part; when you take out games the Spurs tanked, they're record really starts looking good. In the last 47 games Tony Parker played, for instance, they're 43-4.
Did you hear me? FORTY-THREE AND FOUR!
If it took them 47 games to lose four times with Parker, I'm guessing it will take more than seven for them to lose four more.
That's why I keep saying nobody is beating this San Antonio team; it's a tribute to the Thunder's talent that they'll be able to make this series somewhat competitive. But it will also show the young Thunder how much further they have to go to match the franchise they've worked so hard to emulate. San Antonio will finally lose a game, but I doubt it will lose more than once.