- Its important to start with the fact that this series is not over. San Antonio shot unusually well, Oklahoma City defended unusually poorly, and both teams performed at their best and worst respectively. With that said, Oklahoma City Thunder fans should be frustrated, and Spurs fans should be excited.
- The biggest adjustment Spurs coach Greg Popovich made tonight, compared to the regular season anyways, was placing Kawhi Leonard on Russell Westbrook. The reason why is the Spurs give up more points to opponent’s point guards than they do any other position (see Figure 1 below). Though, tonight, Kawhi held Westbrook to fourteen points on 33.7% true shooting percentage, nine assists, and two turnovers. So while Westbrook was still able to cause problems passing the ball, that was something the Spurs will willing to let happen, especially if it meant Westbrook could not drive effectively. Last night Westbrook claimed, in his presser, that this was because of the Spurs help side defense (something that LeBron has also claimed after a road loss to the Spurs this season) but at some point other players need to admit Kawhi’s length actually poses problem. Leonard forces his opponent to go to their weak hand if they plan to drive, and consequently either forces them into help side defense, or gets a steal. On a team with multiple players who are not effective shooters, such as the Thunder, this causes many problems. Thus, overall, the Kawhi-Westbrook matchup will serve to pose major problems for the Thunder over this series.
Figure 2 Stats via Synergy
3. LaMarcus Aldridge was the hero for the Spurs on offense last night. This is because the Spurs utilized the pick-and-roll to perfection. Multiple times last night Aldridge would set a screen for one of San Antonio’s guards and then roll to the basket. This play resumed in a multitude of open midrange shots, and in addition, mismatches when LaMarcus got to the basket. In fact, as a result, over 68% of all of Aldridge’s points came from the midrange. Additionally, LaMarcus Aldridge happens to be an excellent post player (see Figure 2 below). It did not seem to matter what Ibaka did defensively, it simply did not work. Oddly enough, though, the Thunder are the second best team in the NBA at defending the post-up. Consequently, do not expect this trend to continue for the entirety of this series. Nonetheless, Aldridge’s effectiveness on screens and in the post-up was crucial for the Spurs thrashing of Oklahoma City last night.
Figure 2 Stats via Synergy
4. As noted previously, San Antonio excelled in the pick-and-roll last night. What is odd, though, is that the Thunder excelled at defending the pick-and-roll during the regular season, ranking third best in the NBA; however, during the playoffs, Oklahoma City has been the second worst team at guarding this same play. There has not been a tangible change that explains this drastic difference, yet, the best I can provide is the Thunder have not adequately adjusted their pick-and-roll defense to how other teams play during the playoffs. For anyone who watched the Dallas series, for example, it was clear that Oklahoma City just out-talented Dallas and did not truly gameplan for the Mavericks’ offensive attack. The same could be seen last night, where it looked like the Thunder thought they could just be more talented than the Spurs.
5. Unfortunately, specific defensive plays were the least of Oklahoma City’s problems. The Thunder’s rotations were absolutely terrible. At separate points in the first half Cameron Payne, Nick Collison, Kyle Singler, and Randy Foye all saw minutes. Here is the problem: they hadn’t seen those types of important minutes since halfway through the regular season. On top of that, Kyle Singler should not be seeing any important minutes during the playoffs. I have written before that I do not understand why Billy Donovan chose to play him as much as he did during the regular season, and this is more true today. For players that averaged more than ten minutes per game during the regular season, Kyle Singler had the second-worst net rating, in front of Cameron Payne. With those numbers in mind, Randy Foye should be seeing almost the entirety of backup point guard minutes and Anthony Morrow should be reinserted into the rotation instead of Singler. Why Billy Donovan has not figured this out, up until this point, is absolutely mind-boggling and will begin to cost the Thunder this series.
6. On a positive notes, as I tweeted after the Thunder’s Game 2 loss against Dallas, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will most likely not play this badly again. Part of their poor play was Popovich’s gameplan, but Oklahoma City will know what to expect from here on out, and consequently Durant and Westbrook should improve. Essentially, the Thunder now know that San Antonio will double Durant every time he touches the ball, and should adjust to always having an open big in the center of the court. Moreover, Westbrook knowing that Kawhi will be guarding him means that he will focus less on driving and more on setting-up good offensive sets.
7. To that end the Spurs, more than likely, will not shoot that well for the rest of the series. Frankly, I find it highly unlikely that San Antonio will have a 67% true shooting percentage again the entire playoffs, let alone in a series. Because of this, the ball is in San Antonio’s court in regards to making defensive adjustments. Oklahoma City will have a gameplan for the Spurs’ defensive decisions in game one, and moreover, San Antonio will not shoot nearly as well as they did last night.
8. This, of course, is all dependent on Billy Donovan being able to create an effective gameplan. Say what you will about Scott Brooks, but under him, Oklahoma City always had effective gameplans and played consistent defense. This has been a problem for the Thunder ever since Monty Williams was forced to leave due to unfortunate circumstances. The greatest mismatch at this point in the series is not any player, but rather, Popovich over Donovan. It remains to be seen how much the former Florida Gator coach can adjust in order to win the series.
9. The best news from game one for San Antonio had nothing to do with the thrashing they gave Oklahoma City. Instead, it was that Kawhi handily guarded Westbrook. If this change is effective it means the Spurs will be able to defend Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving. Everything else be damned, this is a huge victory for the Spurs.
10. In conclusion, do not expect the Spurs to dominate this series like they did the first game. The Thunder will adjust, somewhat anyways, but the degree of said adjustment will determine how competitive Oklahoma City is for the rest of the series. Additionally, if Kawhi Leonard guarding Russell Westbrook is effective throughout the entire round, the Spurs will be tough to beat. Finally, the history between these two teams since 2012 indicates that the home teams will win in some sort of blowout. Think back to 2014, where the series went six games, and both teams dominated at home until the sixth game where San Antonio won on the road. Consequently, this is a truly exciting series, and I implore you to watch the rest of it.