This time, after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the semifinals, the Thunder will face San Antonio in a best-of-seven series to decide which team will represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
The Thunder lost the regular-season series with the Spurs two games to one. That record, coupled with the Spurs' incredible 18 straight wins, has raised plenty of questions about how this series will take shape. In time, answers will be revealed.
Game 1 is Sunday night.
Meanwhile, here are five preliminary questions facing both teams as they prepare to start this series.
What's changed since they last met?
The Spurs upgraded their roster through midseason additions. They added swingman Stephen Jackson in a trade that sent Richard Jefferson to Golden State and inked free agent forward Boris Diaw and guard Patty Mills.
The Thunder, on the other hand, brought in Derek Fisher.
Additionally, the Spurs welcomed back crafty guard Manu Ginobili, who missed all three meetings with the Thunder due to injury/rest. Since the Spurs' last meeting with the Thunder, Ginobili has averaged 12.6 points in 28 games, 27 of which he came off the bench. San Antonio also replaced DeJuan Blair in the starting lineup with Diaw and handed the reserve minutes to Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter. The additions have made the Spurs deeper and even more dangerous because of their improved versatility.
Who will guard Kevin Durant?
Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard will get the start defensively on Durant. In the regular season, Leonard actually did a decent job on Durant ó and the reigning three-time scoring champ still averaged 22.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists. Those averages might seem impressive, but Durant's scoring average against San Antonio was his lowest against any opponent he faced more than once this season.
Jackson is expected to come off the bench and be thrown at Durant as well. Between Leonard and Jackson, the Spurs have an athletic and physical duo that possesses ample strength and length to make Durant work to get his points. But after watching how Durant annihilated Metta World Peace and the Lakers, there may no longer be a defender on the planet who can cover him.
Has the Thunder kicked its turnover problem?
By now, you're well aware that the Thunder led the league in turnovers at 16.3 per game during the regular season. Against the Lakers, though, Oklahoma City averaged just nine turnovers in the five-game series, which helped contribute to the Thunder's playoff-low average of 10.7 turnovers.
But given the fact that the Lakers were the worst team in the league in the regular season at forcing turnovers, there is reason to question whether the Thunder's ball security is now a real or perceived strength. San Antonio was only marginally better than the Lakers at forcing turnovers in the regular season, so it's possible that the Thunder can continue its impressive ball security.
But the Thunder averaged 14.3 turnovers against the Spurs, so it could go either way. The best news for the Thunder is Durant (2.8) and Westbrook (1.0), who were the second- and third-worst players, respectively, in turnovers during the regular season, both saw a drastic cut in their turnovers against the Lakers.
How significant will the point guard matchup be?
The series could be decided by Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker. That's how significant of a matchup this is. But don't expect Westbrook and Parker to cancel out each other. Both are much too good and far too dominant for that. Neither will be able to defend the other.
So the key will be which player can consistently make others better while contributing in other areas. Because the Spurs' offense is much more pass-oriented than the Thunder's, it seems Parker will have the advantage in that department and Westbrook will have his work cut out for him.
Westbrook will have to be locked in while defending Parker in the pick-and-roll and try to limit Parker's penetration. If Parker can blow by Westbrook it will break down the Thunder's entire defense and lead to layups and open 3-pointers. So Westbrook needs to focus on defense first and offense second. He doesn't have to be great. He just has to be solid.
Parker averaged 23.7 points and 7.7 assists against the Thunder this season, including a 42-point game on Feb. 4. If If Westbrook can make Parker one-dimensional, either as a scorer or a passer, the Thunder can have success. Parker can't be both.
Should OKC be relieved that DeJuan Blair has been squeezed out of the rotation?
San Antonio always seems to have some sort of X-factor who torches the Thunder. At least once in each of the past three seasons, that guy has been Blair, the second-round draft pick the Thunder passed on.
As a rookie in 2009-10, Blair came to Oklahoma City and posted a 28-point, 21-rebound game. Last year, he annoyed the OKC crowd by grabbing seven offensive rebounds in a game. And this year, he came to town and put up 22 points while pulling down 11 boards.
But with Diaw in the mix, Blair has been banished to the bench. He's appeared in just six of the Spurs' eight playoff games and averaged only 8.2 minutes. With Blair becoming the 11th man, the Thunder might no longer have to deal with a rugged and relentless rebounder that it had no answer for.
But in Diaw, the Spurs added a more versatile threat who can put pressure on the Thunder with an inside-outside offensive attack, as well as his ability to defend multiple positions. It very well may end up being a pick-you-poison proposition for OKC. Either Blair keeps possessions alive and puts the Thunder at a greater risk of putback opportunities, or Diaw finishes drives and kicks with equally deflating 3-pointers.
And don't forget about Bonner, the sharpshooting Florida product who, like Blair, has a history of burning the Thunder. Over the past two regular seasons, Bonner is 14-of-20 against the Thunder from beyond the 3-point arc. Less minutes for Blair means more minutes for Bonner. And that means matchup problems for the Thunder. OKC doesn't want Serge Ibaka covering Bonner on the perimeter.
Even if Ibaka successfully does defend Bonner on the 3-point line, it would take away his best strength, which is shot-blocking. So don't breathe too big of a sigh of relief if you don't see Blair in the mix.
Read more: OKC Thunder: Five questions for the Western Conference Finals | NewsOK.com
Wouldn't be shocked to see Blair back as the starter in this series. The Spurs have become used to fairly fluid rotations from Pop, and Blair has been a beast against OKC.
Last edited by mckennaspur1; 05-23-12 at 10:14 AM.
Blair's been a pain because he rolls to the basket a lot, which forces OKC in a pick and roll situation while lagging off of Parker.
Diaw can do the same thing. the difference with Boris is that he can get a rebound and run the break. if Perkins is guarding him, Diaw will most likely be open or a shooter will because of a disadvantage on our favor in the fast break.
Making the case for DeJuan Blair to play vs. Thunder
Written by Paul Garcia | 24 May 2012
One of the ongoing debates among some of our readerís here at Project Spurs and maybe in the San Antonio Spurs-Oklahoma City Thunder conversations around the region, is whether or not Spurs backup center DeJuan Blair should get more playing time against the Thunder?
Itís an interesting debate, as Blair has shown some success in the past this season against the Thunder. So to have some fun, Iím going to make this a case of Blair vs. Diaw, or Bonner, or Splitter. Letís begin with Blairís argument.
Blairís lawyer: ďMy client deserves to get more than 8.2 minutes per game against the Thunder. He had a 22-point and 11-rebound game the last time the Spurs defeated the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Heís shooting 15-of-23 against the Thunder this season (65%), averaging 11-points, and grabbing six rebounds per game against them. He deserves to get a chance in this series.Ē
Diaw-Splitter-Bonnerís lawyer: ďWith all do respect to your client, you forgot a few minor details. First, you failed to mention that in the other two games against the Thunder this year, your client only scored five and seven points in those outings. You also failed to mention that before your client scored 22-points against the Thunder, he scored just four points the game before. He also followed his ďbigĒ 22-point game with a mere six-point game the following night in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Your client started the first Spurs-Lakers game of this season, and never saw anymore-major playing time after because Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol absolutely exposed his lack of height and declining rebounding ability. Diaw, Splitter, and even Bonner were able to hold their own against the Lakers and with Blair sitting the on the bench in the next two meetings, the Spurs routed the Lakers in the next two games.Ē
-Judge interferes- ďEnough! Didnít you all forget youíre all on the same team?Ē
OK, that was a little dramatic. Itís true, thereís a debate there for Blair, but itís going to be really tough for one to present a strong enough argument that Blair should be getting more minutes against the Thunder right now. Of the Spursí four big men options not named Tim Duncan, Blair is the one who has lost his position in the rotation. Heís been reduced to James Andersonís companion on the bench and only goes in when one of the other big guys gets in early foul trouble, or itís a blow out.
The Spursí front line without Blair playing major minutes is so dynamic right now. Duncan is Duncan so you already know what he can do. Diaw has become the starting center for good reason, he brings even more diversity to the starting unit and makes them that much tougher to stop. Diawís production on the court is showing, he went from scoring 5.5 points, grabbing 4.8 rebounds, and shooting 33% from three-point range against the Utah Jazz to averaging 7.5 points, grabbing 6.3 rebounds, and shooting 57% from three-point range against the Los Angeles Clippers. Diaw brings so much versatility on both sides of the floor. He has the ďsizeĒ and speed to defend different sized post players, heís an excellent passer, can attack the rim, can shoot from three, can hit the mid range jumper, and even his coach and Duncan have raved about his high level of ďbasketball I.Q.Ē in the locker room after games. One more attribute Diaw is bringing against the Thunder is the element of surprise. This season, the Thunder have yet to face Diaw because he wasnít apart of the Spurs in the first three meetings, and he never faced the Thunder when he was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats. The Thunderís big men of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison donít have any recent/prior game time experience against him like theyíll have against the Spursí other frontcourt players.
As for Splitter and Bonner, Blairís going to have a tough time cracking into their minutes as well because they both have more qualities on both sides of the floor that outmatch Blair. Splitter is a main element in the Spursí second unit pick-and-roll game, and he gets to the free throw line at a high rate. Bonner will be important against the Thunder because of his ability to take Oklahomaís shot blockers away from the rim as he floats around the perimeter. All Blair can do is pick-and-roll, he doesnít have much else in his offensive tool box that he can throw out there. He hasnít developed a perimeter shot, and teams grab offensive rebounds against too pretty successfully.
If youíre still not convinced, letís break down a typical Spurs playoff game to see where Blair can get any serious minutes. Diaw starts, then either Splitter or Bonner come in for his and Duncanís relief. In the second quarter, Duncan will pay alongside Bonner and Diaw for the majority of the quarter. In the third quarter, Duncan and Diaw once again get more minutes, and then Splitter and Bonner come into relieve them. In the closing quarter, the Spurs will finish with Duncan and Bonner if theyíre trying to catch-up to their opponent, or theyíll close with Duncan and Splitter if theyíre trying to hold their lead and put the opposing team away. Each Spurs big man has a role in the rotation and knows where they belong when coach Popovich calls upon them. Thereís a reason this lineup has won eight-straight playoff games and 18-games in a row dating back to the regular season, coach Popovich has found rotations that work well.
The only way in my opinion that Blair gets any serious minutes in this series is if a) a big man gets into foul trouble early in a game, or b) the Thunderís speed in the open court is just too much for the Spursí bigs, so coach Popovich might look to Blair as more of a backup adjustment move. But even then, if the game is going too fast, I expect Popovich to put Leonard or Jackson at the power forward spot and just one center to match the Thunder.
The Thunder donít have very skilled offensive post players. Perkins gets some put-backs here and there, as does Collison, and Ibaka gets alley-oops and some put backs as well. The closing big man lineup for the Thunder is usually Perkins and Collison, the Spurs wonít need Blair to match those two post players.
As the series begins on Sunday, I donít expect Blair to be a major factor in game one, nor in the series unless the Thunder find some unknown weakness in the Spursí frontcourt. The way I see it, if the Spursí front court rotation isnít broken, then donít mess with it. Just leave it alone. Itís proved itself with 18-straight wins and an undefeated road record since Diaw and Patty Mills joined the team.
ďHeís everything, He has been the perfect coach for me. He understands what I need even if I donít understand as a player what I need health-wise and time-wise. He continues to push me. He gets on my ass. He allows me to be a player, and at the same time Iím learning every day.Ē - Duncan on coach Popovich.
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