Before beginning the scouting report of game five of the Western Conference Finals between the San Antonio Spurs (2-2) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (2-2), I watched a quick video before gathering my data.
The video I watched was produced by the NBA and posted on Project Spurs by our own Jeff Garcia. The video is a quick summary of the Spurs’ 20-game winning streak that featured highlights from the streak, before it was ended on Thursday by the Thunder. As I was watching the video, I noticed a bunch of the highlights featured three key elements: 1) Tony Parker driving into the lane and either scoring or passing for an open three pointer, 2) Manu Ginobili slashing to the lane and scoring or passing for an open shot, and 3) the ball was being moved around by the entire team for either a dunk, layup, or open three pointer.
So now that the Spurs have been put on a two game losing streak, what happened in Oklahoma City that wasn’t happening when the Spurs were running teams out of the gym in “clinical” fashion?
"With great power, comes great responsibility."-Uncle Ben from Spiderman
Game three was ugly, as the Spurs got blown out by 20-points by beating themselves with 21 turnovers. Game four was close, but the Spurs never got close enough after the second quarter to retake the lead. Give credit to Oklahoma City’s defense when they played at home. They absolutely took an offensive juggernaut in the Spurs out of their comfort zone and made the Spurs resort to the “older” version of their team. The Thunder defense made it difficult for Parker and Ginobili to continuously get into the lane and thus, the Spurs’ offensive flow and ball movement was put to a stop as their third option on offense, posting Duncan, became their only option. Duncan is arguably the greatest power forward to play the game, but he’s 34 years old today and doesn’t command an automatic double-team anymore. He can’t carry the Spurs on his shoulders game after game like he used to when he was performing at his MVP level. I’ve watched every game this season and can tell you that a majority of Duncan’s points this season came from him either hitting his new patented 18-foot jumper wide open from the elbow, like the one the NBA made a commercial about, or Duncan finishes at the rim with layups or dunks in transition after Parker or Ginobili open the holes to the basket.
After playing the guard heavy drive and kick game for the entire season, the Thunder have forced the Spurs to go back to being a half court team that pounds the ball into Duncan. This isn’t good because it’s taking away the Spurs’ special ability to move the ball around the floor and find great shots, and it’s going to put more minutes on Duncan and his body if he has to continuously post Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka possession after possession.
Numerous times this season, the Spurs have been called Parker’s team. If Parker truly wants to take his game to the next level and be regarded as one of the best point guards to play, he has to fulfill the responsibility of guiding the Spurs’ ship. It’s like that famous quote Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker in the Spiderman movie, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Parker has to become Spiderman, there’s no other way. This was evident in game three as he was shut down at the hands of Thabo Sefolosha and the Thunder defense. As I mentioned on the Sports Roundtable powered by Project Spurs on Saturday before game four, I didn’t think Ibaka or the Thunder defense could completely shut Parker down. Game three looked more like he wasn’t playing as aggressive and he played right into the Thunder’s plan.
In the first quarter of game four, Parker proved he could find a way to be effective against the Thunder as he cut harder when screens came so the Thunder couldn’t use their zone defense on him, which allowed him to get into the paint. He was also playing well without the ball going around set screens and freeing himself of Sefolosha. But as the game went on, Parker went back to deferring and succeeding to what the Thunder were giving him. He looked a bit more aggressive in the fourth quarter when he crossed Nick Collison and finished with a beautiful teardrop, but he was absent after that point. Let’s look at the numbers from Parker in game four.
In the first quarter, he took six shot attempts and had four points. In the second quarter, he only took two shots and scored just two points. In the third quarter, he took three shots and scored four points. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed him most, he took four shots and only made one of them for just two points in the final quarter. For a guy who is playing the role of Spiderman on the team, he needs to make more than two points in the final quarter when his team had a real chance to make a comeback.
From what I see, it looks like Parker is either fatigued at the end and isn’t as aggressive, or he’s just mentally succumbed to the idea that the Thunder aren’t going to let him get into the paint. Those two games in Oklahoma City reminded me of Parker’s series against the Memphis Grizzlies in last year’s playoffs. Parker was the only member of the Spurs’ big three who was at full health and could have taken over a game on several occasions, but he lost his aggressiveness as Mike Conley outplayed him both offensively and defensively. So far this season Parker has shown the ability to put the team on his back and be the leader they so desperately need right now. If he’s not Spiderman in game five, the Spurs are going to be have a tough time winning not only at home, but also back in Oklahoma City.
Back to scouting the game, there are still some other areas the Spurs as a team need to address heading into tonight. I’ve narrowed them down both offensively and defensively.
The second quarter: First and foremost, the second quarter has been a major problem in the last two games. Even head coach Gregg Popovich mentioned the second quarter in his post game press conference on Saturday. The Spurs are averaging 17 points, shooting 13-of-39 (33%), only passing for 2.5 assists, and turning the ball over 4 times in the second quarter. Meanwhile, the Thunder are averaging 30.5 points, shooting 24-of-38 (63%), and passing for 7 assists in the last two second quarters. Offensively, it seems the Spurs go Duncan, Ginobili, and Gary Neal heavy as they take the majority of the shots. The Thunder got a big second quarter from James Harden and Durant in game three, and a huge quarter from Serge Ibaka in game four. What seems to be happening is the Spurs aren’t staying satisfied with keeping up with the Thunder in the first quarter, that they look less aggressive in the second quarter.
Move the ball: The Spurs’ strength of passing the ball (23.1 assists per game) wasn’t happening in Oklahoma City. As I just wrote about how the offense has been shifting from Parker to Duncan, the Spurs have lose their opportunity to swing the ball around the floor and open driving lanes or open shots on the perimeter. The Spurs collected just 18 assists in game three, and that number decreased to 17 assists in game four. When the Spurs are playing at their best, it’s because they’re moving the ball around the floor like a veteran soccer team in the World Cup. The passing is fluid and makes the defense begin to guess and scramble as to who is ultimately going to take the shot. When the Spurs go down to Duncan on consecutive possessions, the defense can clamp down on the shooters, and thus, the offense is limited to one option. The ball must be moved if the Spurs want game five.
The Spurs need the Green: Danny Green is in a shooting slump right now. He’s gone from scoring 12.3 points against the Los Angeles Clippers to scoring five points against the Thunder. What’s worse is Green was shooting 58% from three-point range against the Clippers to just 19% from the same area against the Thunder. It’s not like all of his shots have been contested, he’s still getting plenty of open looks, he’s just not knocking them down right now. If he can’t produce offensively, then it doesn’t matter how much of a great defender he is when the Thunder are continuing to score on the other side of the floor. When Green is having a cold night, it forces coach Popovich to have to live with offense over defense as he has to give Gary Neal a huge chunk of Green’s minutes because even though Neal makes the Spurs’ defense lighter, he can be relied on to consistently put points on the board. As Jeff mentioned on Saturday, he thought Ginobili could possibly start in game four. I wasn’t in total support of that move before game four, but after finding out that Green is shooting 4-of-21 from three against the Thunder, I wouldn’t be surprised if Popovich elects to start either Ginobili or Neal in place of Green in game five.
Unleash the Blair: DeJuan Blair made me eat my words in a way on Saturday. On paper, this doesn’t seem like a great series for him and it seems like he’s so limited compared to Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, and Matt Bonner. But after watching the energy and heart he brought to the floor in Oklahoma, I endorse Blair getting more minutes. Yes he’s still small on defense and the Thunder might get some extra boards, but Blair is quick and helps the Spurs speed up the tempo, while he also does the little things on defense like when he blocked James Harden in game four and took an emotional charge that fired his teammates up. From what I was seeing on Twitter from Oklahoma fans and writers, Blair is someone they feel could really change the game. Even before game one of this series, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks mentioned Blair as a player who has consistent success against his team. I’m not saying Blair should start over Diaw, but he definitely needs to take Bonner’s minutes. Bonner is having Green’s shooting accuracy right now as he’s shooting 14% from three and has only made 1-of-7 attempts from beyond the arc.
Push the tempo: One of the last points the Spurs need to do offensively is push the tempo. The Thunder look like the offensive machine as of late because they’re pushing the pace of the game in their favor, which is helping them make Spurs-like passes as they’re starting to easily collect assists. Pushing the tempo starts and stops with the tone Parker will set in the game. Since the Spurs are back home where the fans feed off momentum and team plays, the team will need to keep the pace at a high level to make use of their home court advantage.
Limit Thunder role players: No matter what the Spurs do in this series, they can’t allow the Thunder as an entire team to have an efficient night. It’s bad enough when Durant, Westbrook, and Harden are scoring, but it’s even worse when Ibaka is pouring in points along with Perkins, Collison, Fisher, and Sefolosha. The Spurs’ other defenders who aren’t concentrating on the Thunder big three have to make sure they can limit the Thunder role players as much as possible.
Make Thunder shoot jumpers: Before game three and four, the Thunder were known as a jump shooting team. In game three and four, they became an attack-first team as they attacked the paint 42 times in game three, and 37 times in game four. Even though Ibaka shot 11-of-11 from the field in game four, Paul Webber reports via twitter that coach Popovich will still allow the Spurs live with Ibaka taking open jumpers, rather than shots in the paint.
Pop on Sunday not second-guessing D on OKC bigs after 22/25: "Maybe they'll do it again, but I don't think so. We'll play the same defense."
For the Spurs, their players have to communicate on defense. There were late or non-existent rotations in game three and four and the Spurs found themselves scrambling when the Thunder started moving the ball around the floor. The Spurs have to lock in as a team on defense like they showed in game one and two and force the Thunder to go back to playing one-on-one ball, where they drain the shot clock with one player trying to beat his defender on each possession.
One Dirk is enough: In the fourth quarter of game four, Jesse Blanchard tweeted this when Kevin Durant started posting up the Parker and Ginobili.
Seeing Parker and Ginobili on Durant consecutive possessions reminds me of 2006 WCF and Dirk.
It's a weakness the Thunder exploited at the end of game four as Durant scored 16-consecutive points for them. The way the play would develop was by having Westbrook set a screen for Durant, as Durant got free Parker or Ginobili were forced to switch on to him as Stephen Jackson had to recover onto Westbrook. If the game's close, the Thunder will likely go back to this play down the stretch, coach Popovich has had just one day to find a counter for the move.
If this Spurs team has shown anything this season, it’s resiliency. They’ve yet to lose three games in a row, and their play will be dependant on Parker and the tone he sets from the beginning of the game. So long as the Spurs push the pace, take care of the ball, move the ball, and communicate of defense, I can see them winning game five by 10-13 points and sending the Thunder back to Oklahoma City on the verge of elimination.
Will Parker dawn the red and blue suit and mask? Or will the Thunder come into San Antonio and steal one from the Spurs? After 48-minutes of play on Monday, we’ll have an answer.
Spurs vs. Thunder Playoff Statistics
- 1. Points: Spurs (102.2) – Thunder (101.5) = Spurs
- 2. Assists: Spurs (23.1) – Thunder (18.5) = Spurs
- 3. Shooting percentage: Spurs (48.6%) – Thunder (46.4%) = Spurs
- 4. Three point shooting percentage: Spurs (42%) – Thunder (36%) = Spurs
- 5. Turnovers: Spurs (13.5) – Thunder (10.5) = Thunder
- 6. Rebounds: Spurs (41.1) – Thunder (40.7) = Spurs
- 7. Personal Fouls: Spurs (19.7) – Thunder (22.5) = Spurs
- 8. Free Throw Attempts: Spurs (22.6) – Thunder (24.3) = Thunder
Statistical Leader: Spurs 6-2