Absence of Ibaka a huge blow for the Thunder…
The San Antonio Spurs have cruised to a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals, but can the Oklahoma City Thunder fight their way back into contention?
Fanatix NBA experts Sumeet Paul and Scott Hazlewood discuss what has happened thus far, and take a closer look at how the momentum could turn in Games 3 and 4 in Oklahoma City.
Key to the series so far:
Sumeet Paul: No Serge Ibaka. The San Antonio Spurs have had a field day inside the paint with the likes of Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter, while Tony Parker amongst others has been able to exploit the space, attack the lanes and get easy lay-ups.
In addition, Ibaka’s scoring is also missed as ultimately Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have received little help from the other starters and their own efficiency is suffering by having to deal with the extra defensive responsibility to go on top of the necessity to light it up on offense.
Scott Hazlewood: No doubt Ibaka’s injury is the biggest difference between these first two games being close or split, and them being walkovers as they are. But for me it’s the coaching as well. Gregg Popovich is the best coach the NBA has seen for the past 25 years, and while Scott Brooks of the Thunder has arguably more talent on his books, he gets out played so often.
OKC went small at different times to try and run the “old” Spurs around and see if they could break them down that way – it didn’t work. And too often he sticks with line-ups that don’t work, but for some reason he stays loyal to certain players, when really at this time of the season, it’s all about winning no matter what five guys are on the floor.
What must change for the Thunder:
SH: Where do you start with what the Thunder have to change for game three? Well for one whoever has got Danny Green, all game, needs to be on him like a cheap suit. Pop has given Green the, pardon the pun, green light to throw it up from beyond the arc if he is open, and his seven threes from game two showed that.
They need to rotate better in defence as well with the Spurs getting 27 assists in game two, nine more than the Thunder. I could go on about this all day what they need to change given it is so much, but Brooks needs to take Thabo Sefolosha out of the starting line-up. He played just over 10 minutes in game two, did not hit a shot from the field from seven attempts, however, he was far from the only Thunder player who has a shocker last time out.
What the Spurs must continue to do in order to dominate series:
SP: The Thunder are going to react, especially at home, and the Spurs can ill-afford to get complacent and risk losing four straight just as they did at this stage in 2012.
However, the key difference this time is that the Thunder have no James Harden off the bench and Ibaka is out. As a result, no matter what adjustments Brooks makes, I think Duncan and Splitter will continue to make their money inside, and the San Antonio bench has to match what the Thunder offer.
Butler, Jackson, Fisher and most recently Lamb have threatened to give the kind of impact needed, but it will be up to Mills, Belinelli and Diaw to maintain the momentum when the starters sit.
If the Thunder fail to make the Finals, how much longer is their window open?
SH: As you say I really think the Thunder will lift at home, their building will be rocking and rolling and Durant will, hopefully, do what Durant does in the remaining games this series. But history shows that teams that go down 2-0 have a tough time progressing to the next round. KD will become a free agent in the summer of 2016, until then I don’t think OKC fans have anything to worry about in the same way Magic and Knicks followers have wondered if Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony respectively are staying or going.
For me Oklahoma City has two more years in which to try and win the title if they don’t get there this year. The Trail Blazers, Clippers and Rockets are coming, but they don’t have the level of experience in hard-fought playoff series like the Thunder do. And in the East you got the next “Where will LeBron go” saga that will engulf the NBA, so I would say two years, but will Scott Brooks be in charge in that time?
And what if the Spurs capitulate and go on to lose this series:
SP: Not that I think they will, but if the Spurs do go on to somehow lose this series, it all builds up to one final push from Popovich and his ‘Big Three’.
While their production is clearly not regressing, Parker, Duncan and Ginobili will all see their contracts expire at the end of next season, and the latter two could consider their options moving forward.
Despite fighting off father time for so long, the end will have to come eventually and it will undoubtedly be a sad day for the entire league let alone the Spurs fans, but I see San Antonio collecting their rings one more time this year and their brilliant trio returning next season.