Game 1 of the Western Conference Final didn’t have me completely sold on the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder are a bit out of their league in terms of running plays and executing on both ends of the floor. After Game 2? It looks like the San Antonio Spurs are better in each and every way.
Basketball can be explained by numbers, but that isn’t exactly the case in this series. Simply watching Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili torching James Harden and Russell Westbrook time and time again is enough to see that all of the Thunder’s good defense during the regular season and later on in the postseason doesn’t matter in a whole new scenario.
How Kevin Durant is missing assignments time and time again, allowing Kawhi Leonard to finish with 18 points and 10 rebounds. On how Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can’t handle, thus far, passing and moving big men like Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw (not such a big man), creating space in the paint for penetrations over and over again.
The Thunder aren’t defending with discipline and commitment. They’re simply making the wrong move and decision each time. Not switching well on the Pick n’ rolls. Not giving help when they should to a player (mostly Westbrook) losing his man, or too keen to help when there’s no need for it. The Spurs get too many open looks, and no wonder they made 11 three pointers in Game 2.
Screens, Screens and more screens. Gregg Popovich is out-coaching Scott Brooks and the Thunder to the ground. Or maybe it’s just he has such intelligent players, and it’s not Brooks’ fault. Whatever it is, something isn’t working, fundemntaly, for the Thunder. Just watching them lazying back and making it easier and easier for the Spurs on their transition offense makes you feel for Brooks, who probably isn’t telling them to move like turtles while leaving men open.
But it’s the small adjustments that aren’t happening, and Brooks doesn’t seem to be finding the answers for his players. Perkins and Ibaka make the wrong choice every time Parker rolls off a screen. Instead of attacking the short pass the Spurs love so much, they go for the dribbler, which makes it easy for Parker or Ginobili to find an open man.
Worse? Kevin Durant. First of all, let’s stop the talk about LeBron James and Kevin Durant. KD is an incredible offensive talent and his long arms allow him to get impressive numbers with blocks and steals (averaging 2.5 in both this series). But he slacks off on defense.
Leaves his man, sometimes to help and sometimes to wander off and move aimlessly. When the Thunder are having their way, it doesn’t stand out. When they’re getting pounded like they are against the Spurs, his lack of versatility and defensive awareness when compared to the league’s MVP shines through.
Russell Westbrook is taken through a grinder. Gregg Popovich made a decision to attack and attack and attack the Thunder’s point guard to a point where he’s simply given up, and it affects him on both ends. He has to fight three screens in one possession at times, eventually simply giving up on trying to stop Parker.
The Thunder fully believe that their individual talent in Durant, Westbrook and James Harden can be enough to beat a near flawless team effort by the Spurs. It might be enough to win at home, where the Thunder have yet to lose in the postseason. But there’s a reason they’ve only beaten the Spurs once in 11 games. As long as they keep playing this kind of basketball with a lack of discipline and the needed effort on defense, they can kiss their hope of making the Conference finals goodbye.