SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
What adjustment do the Spurs need to make to win Game 5?
Lee Jenkins: Ball movement. Some who have been around the Spurs throughout the Gregg Popovich regime believe this is the best passing team he has ever had. The Spurs saw in the past two games they cannot reach the Finals by trying to beat the Thunder one-on-one and take them to the basket. They have to move the ball, the way they did in Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals in 2012, and again in 2014. The Thunder defense, stingy inside with Serge Ibaka, springs more leaks on the perimeter. When the Spurs are at their best, they are finding open outside shooters and exploiting undisciplined three-point defenses. Of course, to make those efforts count, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard and others have to hit their threes.
Ben Golliver: Protect the rock. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn't pleased with his team's transition defense after their blowout victories early in the series, pointing out that Russell Westbrook was running the ball down their throats, and he's likely mortified about what transpired in Game 4. Westbrook's ability to turn defense into offense evened the series, and he did it by taking advantage of neglect on the part of multiple Spurs ball-handlers. San Antonio has played crisp, sharp basketball for much of the postseason, making smart and decisive pick-and-roll reads and breaking defenses with their unselfish extra passes. Those attributes were mostly nonexistent in Games 3 and 4, as San Antonio's perimeter guys often looked out of sync or tentative. Even if San Antonio's attack is bound to slow down now that Serge Ibaka is back, the Spurs can still generate quality looks for their many shooters if they maximize their opportunities by taking better care of the ball in Game 5. The silly turnovers must be eliminated, or else the Thunder will continue to wreak havoc in transition.
Rob Mahoney: Spread the floor. The frontcourt tandem of Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter had worked well prior to Ibaka's return, but in the two games since it has become untenable. San Antonio is still moving the ball well and working to create shots near the rim. Their every move on the interior is simply crowded due to the fact that Oklahoma City doesn't have to guard Splitter explicitly. I'd like to see Popovich shake up the rotation to see if it might pry open some driving and passing lanes; Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner could start in Splitter's stead if Pop would prefer to run relatively big, though San Antonio could also turn small by substituting Manu Ginobili or Marco Belinelli. Splitter, then, could fill in minutes behind Duncan with more room for his own rolls to the basket while the offense on the whole would benefit by clearing clutter from the lane. Considering how poorly the Spurs have played on both sides of the ball with Duncan and Splitter on the floor of late, what would be the harm in a shift that would -- at the very least -- give the offense some breathing room?
Matt Dollinger: Stop fouling Russell Westbrook. If you're an opposing team, you can live with Russell Westbrook shooting jumpers against you all night. He's hitting just 42.1 percent of his shots from the field this postseason, but that hasn't stopped the trigger-happy guard from attempting 21.4 shots per game (fourth-most in playoffs). But what you can't do is foul Westbrook. Now, that's easier said than done. Westbrook is built like a running back and often attacks the paint like he's trying to break through a defensive line, but the Thunder's All-Star guard is a proficient free-throw shooter, making fouling him a costly move. Westbrook is getting to the line 8.1 times per game in the playoffs and hitting 88.3 percent of his attempts -- seven percent better than Kevin Durant. In his last two games, he's gone a perfect 22-of-22 from the stripe, making San Antonio pay for its sloppy defense. In the first two games of the Western Conference finals, the Spurs' defense was much more disciplined and kept Westbrook from attempting a single free throw in Game 2. It's no coincidence that they won both of those games (Westbrook averaged 20 points per game) and lost their two most recent (33 ppg). For San Antonio to regain the lead in the West finals, it also needs to regain its defensive prowess.
Chris Johnson: Adjust to Serge Ibaka. Go back in time and cast a spell to counteract the supernatural healing powers that changed Serge Ibaka’s prognosis from “Probably done for the playoffs” to “He’s good to go for Game 3”. If that fails, a more realistic plan involves San Antonio making adjustments to account for Ibaka's defensive presence. The Spurs’ offense was operating so smoothly in Games 1 and 2, making what-if statements about Ibaka’s health seemed to completely miss the point. Even if Ibaka did come back, it seemed, the Spurs would adjust and continue pummeling Oklahoma City. The last two games have illustrated how disruptive a defensive force Ibaka can be. The crisp ball movement and open looks that characterized the Spurs’ attack earlier in the series have given way to turnovers, tentative forays into the paint and swatted shot attempts. San Antonio needs to recalibrate its offensive approach -- whether by running different sets, trying out different lineups or making other tactical tweaks. Ibaka is one of the best interior defenders in the game, but his return to action shouldn’t be enough to scuttle a Spurs attack that ranked among the league’s best all season and bombarded the Thunder with 234 points combined in Games 1 and 2.
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