I’ll admit when i’m wrong. After the Spurs mauled the Thunder in game 1, almost two weeks ago, I really couldn’t see a way back for OKC. The Thunder looked completely overwhelmed, letting LaMarcus Aldridge score at will and constantly blowing defensive assignments. But credit to coach Billy Donovan, credit to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, credit to OKC’s role players, they have turned the tables, handling the Spurs in game 6 to close out the series.
How have Oklahoma City produced such a remarkable recovery? Defence, defence, defence is the answer. Through games 2 to 6 of this series the Thunder became the defensive juggernaut many thought they should have been all season. Last night the Spurs were held to a season low 31 points in the first half, a pathetic 12 in the second quarter, as the Thunder blew the game wide open and established a 24 point lead. When these guys are locked in defensively they really are hard to score on. There is so much size, length and athleticism throughout the line up that when they are engaged 1 through 5 defensive stops become routine.
LaMarcus Aldridge’s struggles against Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams have exemplified the increase in defensive commitment from the Thunder. In games 1 and 2 Aldridge was left inexplicably open for mid range jumpers and Ibaka looked completely ill equipped to guard him in the post, as Aldridge average almost 40 a game. Last night was completely different, every shot Aldridge took was heavily contested, Adams was quick to provide Ibaka with support and Aldridge was held to 18 points.
There are still issues for OKC offensively, most nights they are still far too reliant on Durant and Westbrook hitting tough shots. Mosts nights the offence is still too stationary and still prone to fourth quarter meltdowns. However, if the Thunder can maintain this level of defensive intensity, creating turnovers and easy looks in transition, at least some of the issues at the offensive end of the floor can be papered over.
Does this defeat signal the end of an era for the Spurs? For the last 15 years the combination of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli have exemplified winning in the NBA. They could always be counted on to make the right play and come up big when the pressure was on. They exemplified the Spurs system which has won at an historic level over the last decade and a half. But over the last two postseasons the cracks have started to appear, the original big three have started to look old. Ginobli no longer has the same impact of the bench, Duncan whilst still solid defensively is a liability offensively and Parker legs seem to have lost some of their spring, as he misses more and more of those mid range jumpers he used to knock down so regularly. The sight of Duncan slowly picking himself up from the floor, having had a shot emphatically blocked by Ibaka, as Durant raced down the floor to throw down a vicious dunk perhaps signalled the end. It is time for LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard to to take control of the team.
I have complete faith in Greg Popovic and the Spurs front office to build another championship contender around Aldridge and Leonard. What was apparent this post season is that neither was quite ready to grab the team and drag them over the line. The Spurs just couldn’t find any offensive balance settling for an ugly mix of aimless ball movement and uncharacteristic Isolation plays. Bench contributions have also been a massive issue for the Spurs in this series. When asked to sum up his teams first quarter performance Popovic, in typical no nonsense fashion, said “When we made substitutions it went to crap”. Surrounding Leonard and Aldridge with some more scoring options of the bench must be a priority this off season in San Antonio.
What of OKC’s chances in the Conference Finals against Golden State? Firstly they absolutely have to maintain the defensive intensity, against a team that poses so many more match up problems for them. The Warriors also have the depth, athleticism and perhaps most importantly youth to counter Oklahoma City. If the Thunder can keep it up defensively and just hope that Durant and Westbrook are scorching throughout the series then they just might have a chance.
In a 7 game series though, I’m still taking the Warriors. But anyone who watched what OKC did this series would be foolish to count them out, as many including yours truly did after game 1.