San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan works with the ball against Golden State Warriors Carl Landry during the first half of their NBA basketball game in Oakland

PBT Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio: 58-24, two seed in the West

Golden State: 47-35, six seed in the West

PLAYOFF RECORDS

San Antonio: Swept the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0

Golden State: Beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2

SEASON SERIES

The teams split the series, with both teams winning their two home games. In both Spurs’ losses, they were on the second night of a back to back including their second to last game of the season where Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all sat out. In one of the Warriors two losses, Stephen Curry didn’t play with ankle injury.

KEY INJURIES

On the Warriors’ side, David Lee is still hobbled by his torn hip flexor. And while he saw some game action in game 6 versus the Nuggets, even Mark Jackson acknowledged that was more for inspiration than as a real weapon. Lee’s not expected to play a significant role this series.

For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter is sidelined with a bad ankle and may return mid-way through this series. Boris Diaw is also still out after having a cyst removed from his spine, but the original 3-4 week timeline for his return means he could potentially return this round if everything goes as planned.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

San Antonio: Offense 111.0 (1st in the post season), Defense 90.6 (1st in the post season)

Golden State: Offense 107.7 (5th in the post season), Defense 102.4 (9th in the post season)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Can Stephen Curry stay hot?: There’s no denying the damage Curry did against the Nuggets. He created his own shot from behind the arc, took the ball to the rim when defenders tried to take away his jumper, and made plays for teammates when Denver committed extra defenders to slowing him down. The Nuggets, however, didn’t have a great perimeter defender to throw on Curry after deploying Andre Iguodala on Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack.

Will the Spurs make the same mistake by putting Tony Parker on Curry while Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard guard the Warriors’ other perimeter threats? The answer to this question will play a major role in how much space Curry has to operate on the perimeter and the quality of the shots he has available to him. If Green and Leonard spend most of their time chasing Curry, they can do a better job using length to contest his jumpshot an bother his handle when he works in isolation. But if Parker is put on an island or asked to defend through multiple picks, Curry may just start the second round where he ended the first: lighting it up.

Andrew Bogut’s defense: While Curry may be the most important Warrior on offense, Bogut is clearly that player on defense. Against the Nuggets there wasn’t an interior threat to occupy the big Australian and he used that freedom to blow up pick and rolls and contest shots at the rim. Against the Spurs, though, Bogut will have his hands full defending Tim Duncan in the post while also having to provide help defense against a motion heavy attack that moves the ball to the open man expertly.

Bogut will not only need to defend Duncan without fouling, but will need to do so from the post all the way out to 18 feet where Timmy can effectively hit the spot up jumper. Further, he’ll need to wall off Parker and Manu Ginobili when they work in isolation and out of the pick and roll to deter shots at the rim. If Bogut can do all these things for heavy minutes, he could turn the tip the balance of the series. If he can’t, the Spurs’ machine will gain momentum and roll over a Dubs’ defense that simply doesn’t have the man power to defend all over the floor without their defensive ace of a big man.

The Spurs front court players not named Duncan: Against the Lakers, you’d have thought the Spurs’ front court would have been severely tested matching up with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. However, due to the Lakers dearth of guard talent the Spurs simply crowded the paint and made life awful for the Lakers’ big man duo. Taking this same defensive approach this series isn’t possible against a Warriors’ team who has so much perimeter firepower. And while the Warriors don’t have the post up talent the Lakers do, Carl Landry and Bogut aren’t slouches down low. Add in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green as a small ball power forwards, and that’s a nice foursome who can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile the Spurs are thin up front with Splitter and Diaw ailing, leaving only Duncan, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner as regular rotation players at power forward and center. Duncan, of course, is a defensive monster and will be fine with whatever match up he’s tasked with. But can Bonner or Blair deal with Landry in the post? Can they out muscle Festus Ezili on the offensive glass? Can they hedge and recover back to the perimeter when Green and Barnes are hovering around arc looking to shoot open jumpers or slide with them when they attack off the dribble? Maybe the Spurs end up going small in this series, but even that may cause some issues as Stephen Jackson was released before the playoffs and Tracy McGrady is fresh off a first round that only saw him get garbage minutes in the clinching game.

OUTLOOK

The Spurs weren’t tested in the first round and will have had nearly a week off since by the time this series starts on Monday. Meanwhile the Warriors are riding the wave of winning a hard fought series, having sharpened their game and found combinations of players to step up when needed most. That said, while rust might play a factor at the start of game one,  I also expect the Spurs’ extra preparation to show up from the outset of the series.

The Spurs’ offense is a well oiled machine and asking the Warriors to slow it down consistently is asking a bit too much. Look for Parker and Ginobili to have success against perimeter defenders who aren’t known for locking down their opponents. Both Parker and Ginobili have the ability to get into the paint and when they do they will create the types open looks Green, Gary Neal, Leonard, and Bonner thrive on.

Also look for Duncan to continue his strong play from round one against Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Timmy has found the range on his jumper and has proven that when defenders try to close out on him he still has the ability to put the ball on the floor and either finish at the rim or draw fouls when attacking. If he can keep the Warriors’ bigs off balance in the manner he did the Lakers’, he can give his team an offensive diversity that is difficult to match up with.

It’s not like the Warriors are helpless here, though. They have the type of shooting and overall talent to give the Spurs issues, especially if they can get into the open court and play offense before the defense is fully set. If Curry and Jack can push the tempo and create open looks for themselves and Thompson while the Spurs are in scramble mode, they can hit enough shots to keep them in games. Furthermore, Landry offers a unique match up issue for the Spurs especially when he’s flanked by shooters. If he can score in the post against Bonner and Blair when both team’s second units are in the game, the Spurs may have to double team to slow him down and that will only create open looks for Golden State’s outside shooters.

The Warriors’ main issue, however, is that they seem to struggle mightily when playing in San Antonio. They’ve not won in the Spurs’ arena during the Tim Duncan era and that doesn’t bode well for them in a series in which the other team has home court advantage. Of course many of those losses have little to do with the current version of the Dubs, but the fact remains that the you can’t expect the Spurs to beat themselves and simply give away a game through poor decision making or erratic play. No, the Warriors will have to out execute them down the stretch and based off what we saw towards the end of the Nuggets series, I don’t see that happening.

PREDICTION

Maybe the Warriors get hot for a game or two, potentially even stealing a game in San Antonio. But, the Spurs discipline on both sides of the ball will wear the Warriors down over the course of the series. And while Mark Jackson was very good in making adjustments to out-coach George Karl, I don’t see him doing the same to Gregg Popovich. Spurs in 6.

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City was a 55-win team — most season’s that win total would have them entering the playoffs considered a contender. They have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. But with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things propelling them to new heights.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the league. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, 98.1 in Game 3. What changed was they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. Their athleticism lets them make up ground, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes and create turnovers. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Warriors coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Dion Waiters, in his entire career, has played as well as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a new player. This is a guy who had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Billy Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, Waiters gets it. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team from item No. 1, his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last season — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around becuase the Thunder become so much faster. The Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Kevin Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovans siad postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

But more than that, he has gotten buy-in from the team. The Thunder were never this focused, Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, and waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, but none of it works if the players don’t buy in. After a season where Donovan had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) — Donovan has figured it out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).