2016 NBA Playoffs: Thunder-Spurs Series Preview

Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Apparently the first round of the NBA Playoffs have been boring? You wouldn’t have guessed it by watching the series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

A series of snarky moves and dirty plays didn’t stop the Thunder from steamrolling the Mavericks 4-1, with all four victories by 11 points or more in the gentleman’s sweep.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs completed a proper sweep, dispatching the Memphis Grizzlies in four swift and mostly untroubled games. Kawhi Leonard continued his spectacular form from the regular season, averaging 21.5 points on ludicrous 53-61-94 percent shooting splits (FG-3PT-FT), 4.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.8 steals and 2.8 blocks.

Add that to only 1.0 turnovers and Leonard is the modern model of efficiency. He embodies perfectly the team he plays for, a finely tuned and smooth moving unit.

The Spurs have lived in the shadows this season as they often do, this time in light of the Golden State Warriors‘ historic campaign. But they only lost one game on their own home floor, and the long awaited matchup with the Thunder has arrived.

Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

Key Statistics

Thunder: 113.1 off. rating (2nd), 105.6 def. rating (13th).

Spurs: 110.3 off. rating (4th), 99.0 def. rating (1st).

Season Series

October 28th: Thunder defeated Spurs 112-106.

March 12th: Spurs defeated Thunder 93-85.

March 26th: Thunder defeated Spurs 111-92.

April 12th: Spurs defeated Thunder 102-98 (OT).

Why The Thunder Will Win

Talent and match ups. The Thunder’s athleticism has historically always troubled the Spurs, and their offense is so powerful that it has the potential to overwhelm the Spurs’ historically good defense. The performance of the Thunder’s stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is crucial, and they have the ability to be the two best players on the floor in this series.

If the Mavericks series is anything to go by, though, the role players around them play just as important role that they may not have been able to in previous series. Look at the series averages of the players around Durant and Westbrook:

  • Enes Kanter: 15.2 points (71 percent from the field), 7.0 rebounds (including 3 offensive).
  • Dion Waiters: 11.0 points (46 percent from the field, 40 percent from three), 3.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists.
  • Serge Ibaka: 12.6 points (64 percent from the field, 62 percent from three), 6.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.4 steals.
  • Steven Adams: 9.2 points (62 percent from the field), 7.6 rebounds (3.8 offensive).

In years gone by this kind of support was unheard of in Oklahoma City, particularly when Durant or Westbrook had a down night. This is no longer the case. Playoff version Serge Ibaka has been reborn, after a disengaged Ibaka played out most of the season. Waiters has found his groove, whilst Adams and Kanter continue to quietly monster around the basket.

It’s going to take a flawless team performance for them to do it, but it’s possible. Fourth quarter issues may come to haunt them as well as poorly chosen rotations by Billy Donovan, but the Thunder have it in them. Can they do it?

Why The Spurs Will Win

The Spurs have the best defense in basketball, and at the very least its second best defender if not the very best in reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard, who has emerged as the premier two-way player in the NBA today. Effective on either ends of the floor, his ability to slow down Durant or Westbrook is a key to the series.

Why Durant or Westbrook rather than just Durant? Because he played on both in match ups this season. In the season opener in Oklahoma City, Leonard played the majority of his minutes defensively on the Thunder’s star forward. In the March match up in San Antonio, Leonard forced Westbrook into 9 turnovers and arguably his worst game of the season.

Despite the Thunder’s success over the Spurs in recent history (including the comeback from 2-0 down in 2012), they have managed to turn that around over time. They defeated the Thunder 4-2 in 2014, albeit with the assistance of an injury to Serge Ibaka which killed any chance of a fair contest.

LaMarcus Aldridge‘s match up with Ibaka looms as a key part of the series and potentially the Spurs’ X-Factor. Whilst there will be many factors, the former Portland man has a history of cooking the Thunder from midrange and could do so here unless Ibaka plays him right.

Meanwhile next to them underneath the basket, Adams and Kanter’s battle against Tim Duncan, David West and Boris Diaw is key. The Thunder are arguably the best offensive rebounding team in basketball, and it adds fuel to an already volatile offense. The fact remains though that the Spurs went 67-15 and that makes them favourites, and cannot be ignored.


The series follows form with the home team winning the first five games, before a win on the road means the Spurs win in 6 games. But if they don’t win game six, the Thunder win in 7 in a huge road victory to advance to the Western Conference Finals. Right now though? The money is on the Spurs.

All statistics from Basketball Reference, unless otherwise stated.