Thunder Making Moves

By Charlie Gibson

On Thursday night the Thunder beat the Spurs in the biggest game of this NBA season so far. The OKC crowd smelled blood in the water and had an Oracle-level impact on the game. Kevin Durant had the quietest 37 points of the playoffs while Westbrook dropped 28 with 12 assists. Kawhi Leonard had 22 points on 23 shots and LaMarcus Aldridge had 18 points on 18 shots for the Spurs in the blowout loss. Tim Duncan, in what may or may not have been the last game of his career, scored 19 points in 34 minutes, both highs for these playoffs.

So let’s delve into some implications from the game…

I picked the Thunder to win this series in my playoff predictions.  I did so for two reasons. One, I thought Durant was the best player in the series. Two, I thought the Thunder had more at stake than the Spurs did. I’ll elaborate.

1) Durant is the best player in the series: Kawhi Leonard was second in the league in MVP voting, and he won Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year. But what he cannot do is go basket for basket with the league’s best scorers down the stretch of a close game.

Durant, meanwhile was overlooked this season while he laid a little bit low following his lost season in ’14-15. He finished 5th in MVP voting, receiving less than half the votes of teammate Russell Westbrook who finished 4th. But the man averages a career 27.4 points per game and 28.7 pts/gm in the playoffs. He was league MVP in 2014, led a team to the finals at age 23, and has led the league in scoring four times.

In one of the biggest series of his career, and against a historic defense, he averaged a series high 28.5 ppg on 50% shooting. He currently leads these playoffs with 301 points scored through 11 games.

2) The Thunder had more at stake than the Spurs did: The Thunder were and still are facing the possibility of being broken up this summer having never reached their full potential. The Spurs, meanwhile were almost playing with house money. They’ve been elite for 19 straight years, and they will be again next year. 2014 was supposed to be the last run for Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, but here they were two years later with the most wins in franchise history.

The Spurs will continue to be the model franchise in the NBA, even without Peter Holt and maybe without Tim Duncan. The next era has already started with a team built around two elite forwards in their primes in Leonard and Aldridge.

 

***

 

What I did not expect was for the Spurs to get no-shows from Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and David West. The Spurs couldn’t get ball movement against the athleticism of the Thunder, and Ginobili never got going. He scored 8 total points in games 5 and 6. Diaw, meanwhile, was rendered ineffective against the size of Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Serge Ibaka. His value comes against small-ball lineups, but it was still shocking to see him get a DNP-coach’s decision in game 6. Patty Mills was ice cold all series, and David West couldn’t handle being the team’s number 2 or 3 big man.

Tim Duncan’s decline I was ready for, but it put the Spurs in a bit of an awkward situation. He started to fall off the second half of the season, and during the playoffs was often a weak spot in the rotation. He is certainly no longer capable of being a starting center, but the team had no one else to fill that role–allowing the thunder to rule the paint.

It was hard to watch Duncan average 4 points a game considering how well he played in the last two playoffs.  I even wonder if the weight of the moment became a bit of a distraction in game six. He is simply too great to be a 9th man, which makes me think he will retire. Then again, Duncan has never been like other superstars. Regardless, when Duncan and Andre Miller ran a pick and role at a combined 80 years of age it reminded me a bit of Kobe’s last game.

 

Side note: The other potential retiree, Manu Ginobili, I think has more of a chance of coming back next year.  If I’m the Wizards I would probably pay him $7 million to be a veteran leader.

This brings me to Leonard and Aldridge, who did average a combined 50 points per game in the series, but could not match the production of Durant and Westbrook. Aldridge went all out in games one and two with 38 and 41 points, but shot 39% in games 3-6.

Kawhi, finals MVP in 2014, was not the best player in last years Clippers series or this years Thunder series. He’s only 24 years old, and he certainly did not have a bad playoffs, but somehow it’s good to know he still has room to grow.

Despite the narrative that the Spurs bucked the league trend and went big this year, I honestly think they were built more with the Warriors in mind than the Thunder. Aldridge is not a bruiser in the paint, but he is the perfect big to beat small-ball lineups. Diaw would have been more effective against the Warriors, and it would have been easier to get away with a hindered Duncan.

 

***

 

To me the two most important games of the series for the Thunder were games 2 and 4, which set the stage for them to win game 5 in San Antonio. It must have been deflating for the Spurs to lose game two, at home, with Aldridge scoring 41 points. The controversial ending only made it worse. The Spurs put up their best effort in those first two games at home and the Thunder came away with a game.

In game four, in OKC, the Spurs led 81-77 after three, 12 minutes away from a 3-1 lead. That’s when Kevin Durant asserted himself with 17 points in the 4th to finish with 41. Through the first 6 games of these playoffs Durant averaged 24.3 points per game on 37% shooting. Bill Simmons started making LeBron James comparisons. In his last five games—every game since the blowout—Durant averaged 31 points per game and shot 51% from the field. When every player wanted it the most, nobody could stop Durant.

I think some people were surprised that the series was 2-2 going into game five. Winning game 2 in San Antonio broke the spell of the 40-1 home record, and Durant going unstoppable in game 4 broke the spell that MVP runner-up Leonard was a superior player. So going into game five the Thunder’s confidence was at a high, and Russell Westbrook took over. The Spurs again led in the fourth quarter, but could not overcome the will power of Westbrook.

So now the Thunder, the team that traded away James Harden, have been to four of the last 6 Western Conference Finals. And not only that but this may be their best team yet. They made the finals in 2012, when Durant and Westbrook were kids. In the four years since luck has not been in their favor. In 2013 Westbrook was hurt in the playoffs, in ’14 they lost to a superior Spurs team, and in ’15 Durant missed most of the season. The Thunder with Durant and Westbrook both playing this well at the same time, in their 6th trip to the playoffs, should scare the champs.

The only thing I will say about OKC/GSW is that it will be interesting to see which team wins the style of play battle. The Thunder’s best unit includes Adams, Kanter, and Durant—basically three 6’11 guys, while the Warriors obviously have the death lineup. Adams and Kanter just owned the paint against Duncan and Alrdidge. I want to see if Draymond Green can survive as the lone big. When you add Westbrook, the best rebounding guard in the league, the Thunder have a puncher’s chance at getting enough offensive rebounds to cancel out the Warriors three point shooting. But my guess is the series will come down to who plays better: Steph, Klay, and Draymond or Durant and Westbrook?

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