Well, that was easy.
One stat says it all about Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs outscored the Thunder 66-32 in the paint. San Antonio dominated the game, basically, from start to finish. Yes, OKC did take the lead 76-75 in the middle of the third quarter, but did anyone truly feel the game was in doubt for San Antonio? After giving up the lead in the third, the Spurs finished the game on a 47-29 run, sealing a 122-105 victory.
Time after time, the Spurs carved up the Thunder, penetrating the lane at will to score or find an open teammate. San Antonio got so many lay-ins and bunnies that the usually stoic Spurs’ Coach Gregg Popovich pulled a Staples Easy Button out of his pocket and pressed it on the sideline after every easy basket, sending a “That was easy” over the PA system throughout the arena.
Okay, so that didn’t really happen in Game 1, but if it doesn’t happen in Game 2, I will be extremely disappointed. San Antonio shot 57.5 percent from the field and made 9-of-17 3-point attempts. In the Spurs’ Game 1 offensive clinic, only 16 points of the Spurs’ points came from shots between the paint and the 3-point line, shots roughly 10-feet to 23-feet away from the rim. For all the math-letes out there, that means the Spurs scored 106 points inside 10-feet, outside the 3-point line (23-feet), or from the free throw line. Dang.
Offensively, the Spurs got everything they wanted all night long. Tim Duncan had his way with basically any defender OKC threw at him while scoring 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Manu Ginobili found his shooting stroke after struggling against Portland and scored 18 points, all in the second half. Tony Parker scored 14 points and dished out 12 assists. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard capped off stellar individual performances with 16 points each. It was just another phenomenal display from what looks like the favorite to win the NBA Title. (Sorry, Heat fans.)
Without Ibaka protecting the rim for OKC, San Antonio is the much more complete team. Top to bottom, the Spurs have the depth to run the Thunder out of the building, like they did in Game 1. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant hit a wall at the end of the third quarter. The duo used all their energy working to overcome a 15-point deficit early in the game. In the end, the Spurs had the fresher legs and poured it on at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth quarter.
Overall, the Thunder had enough scoring to compete. Durant and Westbrook combined for 53 points. Derek Fisher chipped in 16 points off the bench and provided a spark from 3-point range. OKC just couldn’t get stops consistently over the course of the game and had to play catch-up almost from the tip. Scoring 105 points is enough to win, but you can’t win if three of your starters combine for only five points, like Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, and Kendrick Perkins did in Game 1. Yikes. If the Thunder want to win the series, those three players will have to have some impact offensively.
The Thunder struggled to get stops all night long, but when they did get stops, like early in the third quarter, Westbrook found driving lanes in transition and was able to finish at the rim, uncontested. This is the only aspect of the game the Thunder can look at as a positive moving forward in the series. San Antonio doesn’t have anyone who can go toe-to-toe with Westbrook in transition or even come close to stopping him when he has a head of steam headed for the basket.
If the Spurs’ bigs don’t get back in transition defense and clog the lane, Westbrook is getting almost straight runs to the rim with only Tony Parker or Patty Mills as his only obstacles. Obviously, the most athletic point guard in the league can finish over those two with relative ease.
In the second round against Portland, San Antonio’s wing players were running to the 3-point line to make sure Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews weren’t getting open 3s. Essentially, the Spurs were allowing Damian Lillard the opportunity to attack the rim in transition if he could. Against the Thunder in Game 1, I noticed some of San Antonio’s wing players were still defending the 3-point line in transition like they were against Portland, instead of clogging the paint and forcing Westbrook to kick the ball out. Whether that is a breakdown defensively or by design, I don’t know.
I can’t imagine the Spurs want to keep the ball in Westbrook’s hands, instead of making him give it up to Fisher, Reggie Jackson, Sefolosha, or Caron Butler on the wing. I expect Coach Pop to make the adjustments to transition defense in Game 2 and try to force Westbrook to give the ball up.
The main problem and area of concern for OKC and their coaching staff is finding a lineup that can play with the Spurs. The Thunder’ starters, Durant, Westbrook, Sefolosha, Collison, and Perkins, had the most success defensively, holding the Spurs to 14-of-31 shooting (45%) in 16 minutes together. That lineup just couldn’t score together, which forced Scott Brooks to get creative. Unfortunately for Thunder fans, no one in the history of the world has ever described Brooks as “creative,” “imaginative,” or any other expression describing someone who thinks outside the box. When it comes to creativity and execution, Brooks is the Gob Bluth of NBA coaches.
Brooks tried basically every lineup combination he had in his repertoire and thought his best chance to win was with a small-ball lineup. With either Butler or Durant at the small-ball four or five, San Antonio shot 64 percent and made 36-of-56 field goal attempts. The Thunder may need to sacrifice scoring and just hope Westbrook and Durant are good enough to get it done. Without Ibaka, San Antonio had no problem pulling Perkins and Adams away from the basket in the pick-and-roll, knowing there was no rim protector behind them. Until the Thunder sort out their defense, San Antonio will continue to have their way with them in the series.
Ibaka’s injury is so unfortunate for a variety of reasons, especially from a fan’s perspective. I’m sure this series is going to be exciting. OKC, led by the ultra-competitive Durant and Westbrook, is not going to roll over, not when they’ve come this close, so I fully expect an entertaining series. But, we’re left to think of what it could have been had Ibaka not injured his calf.
Ibaka’s injury is one more example of how much has to go right in the playoffs to win the NBA Championship. If your team refuses, year after year, to spend into the luxury tax, it makes the task all the more difficult and daunting. Ask the Chicago Bulls how the last three years have gone because of two injuries. OKC is no stranger to injuries upsetting hopes and dreams. When you have three of the Top-12 players in the world and four of the Top-25, you have to find a way to keep them together because of times like this.
The Spurs figured out how to keep their “Big 3” in place all these years and built the perfect team around those three players. OKC never figured it out, and at this rate, they might never recover from the Harden Trade.