Although during the regular season the Oklahoma City Thunder were able to sweep the San Antonio Spurs, the injury to Serge Ibaka and the pressure of playoff basketball has thrown the odds in the Spurs favor – and they are reaping the benefits.
Since their heartbreakingly narrow loss to the Miami Heat in last year’s NBA Finals series, the San Antonio Spurs have had one goal. To get back to the Finals and take the throne. They want another championship, they want success, and they do whatever it takes to get there.
The Oklahoma City Thunder would be wise to take note. Although it is just a couple of seasons removed when the Thunder actually defeated the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals – and a lot has happened since then (Injuries to Westbrook last season and Ibaka this season) and OKC find themselves once again battling big brother for supremacy out West. They have two of the leagues best players, including the 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant, but they appear to still be just off the pace. A lot of it has to do with the injury to Serge Ibaka, but there are a number of other factors in play.
San Antonio are deep – like ocean deep. They don’t just have a great starting unit and some key reserves, they have a top flight bench that can play right down to the last guy in uniform. They are also extremely well coached by one of the games top tacticians and hardest task-masters in Gregg Popovich. He not only demands the best out of his players, he puts them in places and situations where they will be able to deliver their best. He also utilizes his bench – never scared to mix up minutes and rotations for the betterment of the team. And the Spurs are very tough to beat because of it.
Just a handful of seasons ago, the Los Angeles Lakers were the hump that the Oklahoma City Thunder just couldn’t get past. They needed to earn their stripes, bring in the right pieces and learn to adapt in order to finally get passed them. They are finding themselves in the same position again.
Without Serge Ibaka, the Thunder look a little lost. He balances them on both ends of the floor, but now that he is out of the lineup, the weaknesses are no longer being hidden by Ibaka’s sensational athleticism and timing. There is no clear paint presence, the Thunder can’t stop penetration from the guards but can’t close out on shooters either. Not having him on the offensive end has also increased the pressure on Durant and Westbrook.
You can’t control injuries, but you can have ready made pieces or adjustments to the game plan that minimize their effect. That is what the Spurs have. If anyone is having an off game, someone will pick up the slack. They can go big or small and still be effective. They are multi-faceted which means you need more than one game plan to slow them down, and even then it’s not guaranteed. The Thunder really don’t have the same structure. They are very isolated in their offensive sets, they rely heavily on Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka and while there is talent on the bench, it isn’t being utilized.
Head Coach Scott Brooks regularly comes under fire for his lack of coaching ability. While there is no doubt he is not as effective in the nuances of the game as some of the other “whiteboard warriors” – he does have a terrific relationship with his team and his stars. If he wants to get the Thunder a win though, he is going to need to develop some type of game plan, learn to adjust and not be scared to take chances or make mistakes. The Thunder players WANT to play for him, now he just needs to give them a better chance at winning with him.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have some very talented bench players. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III would all get minutes elsewhere, so it seems bizarre that Brooks chooses not to play them. When they have been inserted into the game, they have performed very well, and players like these budding young stars are only going to learn through doing. Look at what the Spurs have gotten out of Patty Mills, Aron Baynes, Corey Joseph and others at varying points. Steven Adams has been getting some run simply because he is forcing the hand of Brooks through solid performances and the lack of production at the center position. Brooks should be proud of the rookie’s development and learn to trust in the talent at his disposal.
Yes the Spurs have a great deal of experience, they have been playing together for a long period of time and their core remains the same. There is nothing to suggest that won’t be the case in Oklahoma City either, so the Thunder and Brooks need to prepare for the future. Developing a young and talented group that can beat you in a number of different ways, have depth and in-game experience as well as two bonafide superstars could bring a Championship to OKC.
Game 3 is a make or break game for the Thunder and perhaps for Scott Brooks. The Russell Westbrook injury forced the hand of Scott Brooks last season and he played Reggie Jackson with terrific results. He has a great deal of talent on that bench who could come in and perform if given the chance. Now he needs to use them. When you are already two games down and have been comprehensively beaten, there really is nothing to lose. As Serge Ibaka’s injury has hurt the Thunder by leaving holes on the floor, the injury is also showing glaring weaknesses in the sideline strategy.
In order the beat the Spurs, the Thunder need to become the Spurs. They need to adjust and adapt. They need to get solid minutes and production from a number of different players. They need some help from their coach. They need to do something, because their backs are against the wall. A two game deficit is a tough ask to come back from, but a 3-0 series deficit against arguably the best team in the game is as impossible a task as there is.
Perhaps Brooks should ask himself….. “What would Pop do?”.