Fresh off a grind-it-out series against the Mavericks to open up postseason play, the Thunder now has to kick into another gear as it faces a dynasty unlike any other: the San Antonio Spurs.
The much-anticipated series will finally get going in San Antonio on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Game 2 set for Monday night.
With the nearing free agency of superstar Kevin Durant, the pressure is on the Thunder like never before, and exiting the playoffs in the second round wouldn’t bring much leverage for OKC when coaxing Durant to stay put.
That being said, here are three keys to the Thunder advancing past the Spurs:
Shut down the perimeter
If you haven’t heard yet, San Antonio is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league. In fact, the Spurs are currently shooting the money ball at the best clip (47.1) of any team in the postseason, and finished the regular season with the second best percentage (37.5).
It’s no secret the NBA has shifted to a perimeter-powered league, and the battle on the outside will be crucial in deciding who wins this series. In four games this season—in which the Thunder and Spurs split two apiece—the team which shot the best percentage from the outside won the game.
While the Spurs are a dominant team from the outside overall, San Antonio’s pride and joy hasn’t stroked it quite as consistently when facing the Thunder. The Spurs shot 25 percent (17-68) from deep in the four games against OKC. Part of that has to do with the lack of consistency out of sharpshooter Danny Green, who only made 3-of-22 three-point shots he took when facing the Thunder.
OKC held its opponents for 34 percent shooting from behind the arc in the regular season, but OKC is known to let up a bit defensively late in games and allow teams to get open shots. Perimeter defenders such as Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Kevin Durant and Dion Waiters must be judicial in not letting up on the outside, while little mental lapses such as failing to switch on a screen or hesitating instead of rotating will be magnified against a historically good team such as San Antonio.
The kind of defense the Thunder must play against the Spurs pic.twitter.com/ozzTLvYdqZ— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 26, 2016
OKC shot 36.4 percent from deep in the Mavericks series, and those same guys who are supposed to lock up the outside, will also need to drain a few of their own three-point shots. Durant’s buckets will come—they always do— but it’s crucial that Westbrook takes the smart shot, while Roberson will be left wide open in the corner throughout the series.
Winning on road a must
Here comes Mr. Obvious: in order for the Thunder to win a seven-game series as the lower seed, OKC must strap on its boots and corral a win down south in San Antonio. But that won’t be the easiest of tasks seeing the Spurs went 40-1 at home during the regular season.
With a phenomenal coach such as Gregg Popovich along with his army of steadfast playmakers, it’s tough to crack the code when the Spurs are inside of the AT&T Center. In fact, the only team to take down the Spurs in San Antonio was none other than the best team in NBA History: Golden State. It isn’t necessarily the ruckus environment which gives San Antonio the advantage, but it’s the discipline by the Spurs’ players to know how important it is to protect home-court.
While it’ll be hard thing for OKC to accomplish, it’s definitely not impossible to pull off. Back in the March 12 matchup between the two teams, the Thunder led entering the fourth quarter, but was outscored by 10 points in the final frame while Kawhi Leonard flashed his greatness.
Role players must thrive
Everyone knows what Durant and Westbrook are capable of doing on a nightly basis, but the key to this series won’t boil down to the play of the Thunder’s superstars. While it’ll be KD and Russ leading the way, OKC will need consistent contributions from the trio of Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters in order to pull off this upset against one of the best defensive teams in NBA history. The Spurs rank 12th all-time in points allowed per 100 possessions with an average of 99.
Ibaka was pivotal in the Thunder beating San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals back in 2012, and his absence from Games 1 and 2 in the 2014 conference finals proved to be devastating for the Thunder. “Air Congo” averaged 12.6 points per game to go with 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in the Mavericks’ series, and he must duplicate those numbers plus some against the Spurs if OKC wants to advance.
The Thunder were 32.9 points per 100 possessions better vs. the Spurs with Ibaka on the floor vs. off this year.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 29, 2016
Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka now have forty playoff wins Jordan/Magic Lakers only other w/3 under 28 do it. pic.twitter.com/XmgYx0G6pM— Michael Cage (@Exhoopsmc) April 29, 2016
While Ibaka has been a staple in the Thunder’s playoff history against the Spurs, both Kanter and Waiters are new to the party. Kanter has been a beast so far in the postseason, and averaged 15.2 points per game to go with seven rebounds against the Mavs. He’s also given the Spurs fits throughout the regular season by averaging 15.7 points and a monstrous 14.7 rebounds in the four matchups.
Waiters also had a stellar series against Dallas, averaging 11 points per game on 46 percent shooting from the field. It appears both Kanter and Waiters have taken control of the bench unit, and it’s crucial both guys come to play in the second round.