Game one of the Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs was every Thunder fan’s worst nightmare. After learning on Friday that Serge Ibaka would likely be out for the remainder of the playoffs, the fear heading in to game one was that the OKC would be unable to stop the Spurs scoring attack without its defensive anchor.
For all 48 minutes of the game this was the case. The Spurs guards weaved their way through the Thunder defense and in to the paint to score for themselves and create for teammates. Although OKC found their way back in to the game at times, it was never really in doubt for the Spurs.
Now, heading in to game two on Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder are in a really should win situation. Not yet a must win because they will still have the chance to go home, but against a team like San Antonio there is no room to mess around.
Every crucial game comes with a few keys that are essential to the team’s chances of winning. The Thunder must do the following things in order to tie the series on Wednesday night.
Figure out the lineups/rotations
When a team loses a top player, the first thing that needs to be figured out is who will replace him. Sometimes it’s as easy as plugging in his backup and moving on. Unfortunately for the Thunder, that isn’t always the case. Serge Ibaka was not only second on the team with 32.9 minutes per game, but he also has an irreplaceable defensive impact.
In game one the Thunder started with Nick Collison at the power forward spot in place of Ibaka. Collison is a seasoned veteran; someone who has been with the organization since its days in Seattle and someone Scott Brooks feels he can trust.
When the Spurs had success scoring inside early in the game, Brooks was forced to go to his bench. Because he is used to having Collison on the bench rather than in the starting lineup, he was forced to get creative. This is what the Thunder fans have actually wanted for quite some time. The only problem was that there was no continuity among the lineups, as well as the horrible matchups that allowed to overpower the Thunder.
In game two, Brooks must find out what lineups are working and when he needs to use them. Ideally he will have figured this out within the first eighteen minutes of the game. It is important that he does because the Thunder cannot afford to fall too far behind against a team like San Antonio.
One player that fans can keep an eye on is Perry Jones. His presence on the floor could be a great help to Scott Brooks because his versatility will allow Brooks to make the necessary lineup changes while still being able to matchup defensively.
Another thing Thunder fans can check to evaluate the lineups being played is the plus/minus. It will be important for the Thunder to do very well with this stat when Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are on the floor and not fall too far below zero when they are not. This will show that Brooks has found the right mix to keep his team in the game.
Don’t allow Tim Duncan to beat them
In game one the future hall of famer killed the Thunder. Not only did he do a great job scoring (27pts, 11-19), but he was terrific passing as well. He only accumulated 3 assists in the game but he was a crucial part of the Spurs offense on almost every possession. If the Thunder want to be successful on Wednesday night they must not allow Duncan to beat them.
In the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks did a good job defending the Spurs by forcing Tony Parker to beat them. They deployed what is known as the amoeba defense; swarming multiple players towards Duncan, forcing him to get rid of the ball. This made Parker play outside of his comfort zone. Rather than being able to move without the ball as well as with it and get to the basket, he was turned in to a mid-range isolation shooter. He is no slouch at this but it is the best way to keep him in check.
If the Thunder can make it difficult for Duncan to catch the ball near the rim, they can force players like Parker, Kawhi Leonard, and Tiago Splitter to beat them. This is still a risk because all of those players are capable of scoring effectively, but anything is better than letting one of the best power forwards off all time pick them apart.
Ride the energy of Russell Westbrook
This one is tricky. Riding the energy of Russell Westbrook is similar to riding a bicycle across a tightrope. The Thunder’s superstar point guard is one of the most polarizing players in the league because of his energy and passion, but that often comes with some critical mistakes.
In game one these mistakes were very prominent. Westbrook turned the ball over four times and they seemed to come in the worst situations. This is just the risk of having a player like him on the floor.
Although the mistakes were glaring, it was clear to the trained eye that the Thunder were feeding off of the energy of Westbrook; in the first three quarters anyway. When Russell was in the game, the speed was picked up. His intensity on the defensive end was leading to stops or turnovers that eventually led to transition buckets. Things got a little out of hand late, mostly because the team was down big and he was clearly pressing a bit. As crazy as it may sound, this could be a Russell Westbrook series.
Many NBA pundits are constantly searching for answers to the Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook situation. What nobody seems to realize is that there may not actually need to be a chain of command. Sure, KD is the MVP and more often than not he will be the one carrying the load. However, Westbrook is still one of the best players in the league. When the matchup calls for it, the Thunder should take advantage of his talents as much as possible.
Against the Spurs the matchup calls for Russell Westbrook. The San Antonio backcourt features nobody who can even come close to guarding the OKC point guard yet, they do have a player in Kawhi Leonard who can do as good a job as anyone at slowing down Durant.
If Oklahoma City wants to put themselves in the best position to win, they must live with the bad and ride Russell Westbrook in this series. Brooks must make sure Russell knows that getting to the basket is priority number one. If and when he gets by the Spurs guards he can finish strong at the rim, get to the free throw line, and force the defense to collapse so he can kick to open shooters (DURANT!).
It might be a heart attack in the making, but a Russell Westbrook dominated game might just be what the Thunder need.
A game two loss would be devastating to the Thunder. It is the difference between going home just hoping to catch up, or going home with a chance to take a commanding lead. Between the lineups, the defensive strategy without Serge Ibaka, and the impact of Russell Westbrook, Scott Brooks has some decisions to make that will have a major impact on what is certainly a crucial game for the Oklahoma City Thunder.