Thunder stars no remedy for Spurs’ relentless attack
Get all of Rob Mahoney’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
SAN ANTONIO — The revelry of the Spurs came in their excess. It took only a few minutes for San Antonio to build a double-digit lead over Oklahoma City in Game 1 and a few minutes more to grow that lead to 20. There weren’t runs so much as occasional lulls; the Spurs extended their control from the first stretch to the first quarter to the first half to the first full game of the series, never relenting until the Thunder had been buried. This game was over, 73–40, at halftime. Still San Antonio’s reserves piled up points and stops deep into the fourth quarter, long after OKC had anything left to play for in a 124–92 victory. The only silver lining to be found was stitched into the uniforms of the victors.
No margin this daunting comes without its outrageous performances. The Spurs had many: LaMarcus Aldridge made 18 of his 23 field goal attempts for 38 points, Danny Green (who has struggled with his shot all season) made five of his six three-pointers, and San Antonio on the whole converted at such an ungodly rate that it finished with an effective field goal percentage of 66%. What is exceptional, however, is not always aberrational. Players like Aldridge and Green did only what they ought to do when confronted with the most porous defense they’ve seen all season.
The Thunder’s base coverage of the pick-and-roll fell to pieces when presented with actual scoring threats. Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka, both quality defenders on balance, drowned in the open air the pick-and-roll created. A lot is asked of any big tracking Aldridge in the two-man game, and even perfect coverage on their part can be made to look foolish by a counterpart who ambles in his recovery. The Thunder bigs were miles short of perfect. Still it was Russell Westbrook who had, in many cases, abandoned them with the impossible options of a drive they are responsible to hedge and an Aldridge midrange jumper they are responsible to contest.
“I thought, at times, because LaMarcus drove us a few time early, I thought we were closing out short to him and giving him that shot,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “We’ve gotta be able to do both. We’ve gotta be able to long closeout to him and we’ve gotta be able to move our feet and guard him. It was a multitude of things.”
There is no way to progress in this series for Oklahoma City if it doesn’t execute more cleanly in this very basic way. The Thunder even switched on a handful of plays in the third quarter out of some desperate overcompensation. If Westbrook couldn’t be bothered to get back to Parker in good time, perhaps he might at least lock in to the prospect of defending against a mismatch. It did so at the cost of organizational confusion; the free-switching Thunder spent time roving, pointing, and guarding no one in particular, deficits that only enticed the Spurs to pile on. No matter the means of initiation, OKC’s defense always seemed to need one more body in rotation. The Thunder can, and probably should, experiment with bringing more bodies into the mix to contain the Spurs in motion or zoning up areas of the floor. By doing so, they create a real issue with more open cutting lanes and three-point looks, but one a team already giving up 124 points on amazing efficiency probably shouldn’t concern itself with.
Game 2 will offer no clean slate. This matchup tilted as wildly as it did because of problems endemic to the Thunder—problems that will be very difficult to resolve through adjustment alone. Donovan and his staff can try to coax better defensive focus out of Westbrook and fine-tune the positioning and timing of OKC’s bigs. Still the stability of the system relies on a collection of players who have never maintained high-level defensive synergy throughout the regular season. To produce that kind of precise, intuitive team defense now would run counter to all that we’ve seen of this Thunder team to date.
This isn't to say Oklahoma City can’t play better. It simply may not matter that it does. The 32 points that separated the Spurs and Thunder on Saturday are as indicative as they are severe. Fundamental advantages were exploited and exploited, one feeding into another, until the matchup burst. Kawhi Leonard spent many of his relevant minutes cross-matched to defend Westbrook. His length threw off one of the league’s most explosive scorers, as did the variety of help defenders positioned to alter Westbrook’s attempts at the rim. The presence of a complete non-threat like Andre Roberson didn’t only give the Spurs a place to hide their shakiest individual defenders. With it came the invitation to pack the paint, pre-rotate and do whatever was needed to wall off the basket.
PHOTOS: NBA championship rings throughout the years
San Antonio seized on the opportunity by leveraging it into another. Misses at the rim may not create long rebounds, but they do create openings against a spatially imbalanced opponent. Westbrook often ended up at the baseline or on the floor. A teammate or two usually stood deep in the corner. The Thunder bigs looked to pursue the ball on the offensive glass. In conjunction, these factors left OKC painfully exposed to quick surges in transition.
“We were able to get out on the break by making it tough for them on that end of the floor, making them take some tough ones,” Green said. “They obviously didn’t get a rhythm. They were cold. Luckily for us, they missed a good amount of them so we were able to get out on the break and we moved the ball well, took some good, uncontested shots, and everybody kind of got a rhythm going that way.”
An attempt to move some of the pieces around runs into more of the Thunder’s core issues. The spacing is compromised in every one of Roberson’s minutes and won’t be remedied by the insertion of Kyle Singler or Dion Waiters. Oklahoma City will need to strike gold on low-value plays be it the spot jumpers of its least reliable shooters, the decision-making of the team’s biggest loose cannon, or Westbrook’s difficult finishes over multiple layers of excellent defense.
This is what San Antonio’s defense can reduce an opponent to. The Thunder will be made to carry the weight of their role players’ limitations on every offensive possession. Even superstars offer no quarter.