Western Conference Finals preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs 62-20 (No. 1 seed in West)

Oklahoma City Thunder 59-23 (No. 2 seed in West)

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: Tony Parker has a strained hamstring but will play in Game 1 Monday. If he is hampered and can’t penetrate off the pick-and-roll, can’t push the pace in transition, it will be an issue.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka is out for the playoffs with a strained calf muscle (suffered in Game 6 vs. Clippers). This is a huge blow for the Thunder, who lose their third best player and an athletic shot blocker on defense. In these playoffs Ibaka has averaged 12.2 points on 61.6 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game — his catch-and-shoot baseline jumper is a key part of what the Thunder do.

If I were a Thunder fan this is the stat that would scare me the most: In four games this season San Antonio’s offense averaged 93 points per 100 possessions when Ibaka was on the court, and 120.8 (shooting 51.4 percent) when he was on the bench. That is 27.8 per 100 better when he was out, and he is out for all seven games.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS IN PLAYOFFS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 111.1 (second in playoffs); Defense 101.2 (third in playoffs)

Oklahoma City Thunder: Offense 107.9 (seventh in playoffs); Defense 102.8 (fifth in playoffs)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How do the Thunder replace Serge Ibaka? The short answer is they can’t. Not easily. In four meetings with San Antonio this season the Thunder did not use any five-man lineup that didn’t feature Ibaka for more than 10 minutes. Over the course of the first couple games of this series expect Scott Brooks to throw a lot of different looks against the wall to see what sticks.

Here are two to watch for. First, Kevin Durant at the four spot. This would be the “going small” lineup and it could create some matchup issues for the Spurs. That lineup can work if the Thunder hit their threes and can play up tempo, but it also creates some defensive challenges. Second, when Ibaka went down in Game 6 vs. Clippers Brooks turned to a front line of Nick Collison and Steven Adams to great success. That lineup also keeps Kendrick Perkins off the court, which is a good thing for the Thunder.

2) Can Tony Parker get into the paint and finish at the basket? It’s not a shock to find out Tony Parker had success driving the lane against Oklahoma City, he does that against everybody. According to the Sports VU camera data this season Parker didn’t get in the lane as much when Westbrook was his primary defender, but when it was Reggie Jackson or the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka switched on him on a pick-and-roll Parker drove in at will (he will be more aggressive against Perkins/Adams/Collison, all of whom are slower of foot than Ibaka).

But when he got to the rim on those drives Parker only finished 13-of-24 (54.2 percent) — that is what Ibaka’s length and shot blocking bring. As a team the Spurs shot only 50 percent in the restricted area in four meetings between these teams this season, the length and athleticism of the Thunder disturbed those shots. Will that happen with Ibaka out? If Parker, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs as a whole get into the paint and finish a higher percentage at the rim things will look very good for them this series.

3) Can the Spurs hit their corner threes, open midrange looks? Why have the Thunder taken 10-of-12 from the Spurs the last few years? Athleticism on defense. Gregg Popovich’s mantra is “good for great” and the Spurs are better than any team in the league at making the extra pass to get the open look. The Thunder’s length and athleticism on defense (Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Westbrook) negates that — OKC can recover and contest that shot anyway. In four regular season meetings this year the Spurs shot just 9-of-28 (32.1 percent) on the corner threes they love and just 39.7 percent from the midrange. Will that change with Ibaka out? As with #2 above on drives, if the Spurs are hitting their corner threes it tilts everything toward the Spurs. Watch for Danny Green, if he gets hot from deep it’s huge for San Antonio.

PREDICTION

The Thunder swept the regular season meetings and have won 10-of-12 between these two teams — their athleticism has given them a real match advantage in this series. It will again, but that is diminished some without Ibaka. Oklahoma City is going to miss Ibaka as a third scoring option. The Thunder need to run more this series and get some buckets in transition. Kevin Durant has to have a monster series despite Kawhi Leonard being on him (Durant shot 43 percent with Leonard on him in the regular season), Westbrook has shot just 32 percent with Parker guarding him during the regular season. OKC’s stars are going to have to be phenomenal for them to have a chance. They can do that a couple of times, but not enough to win the series.

Spurs in six.

Charles Barkley tells Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley can sometimes get into it on TNT’s programming surrounding NBA games, but Tuesday night after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 4, 112-99, was something different.

The two got testy — even more so than usual — as Barkley and Shaq traded insults.

Most notably, O’Neal went after the fact that Barkley only once made the NBA Finals, while Chuck told Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to get his rings.

It felt at least partially real, especially if you watch Ernie Johnson’s reaction during the back-and-forth.

Via Twitter:

Game 4 was more interesting, but a 30 minute special where Chuck and Shaq actually do move the furniture and throw down might draw more viewers than these playoffs.

Here’s Kyrie Irving going nuts on the Celtics in the third quarter of Game 3 (VIDEO)

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Kyrie Irving went crazy on the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, scoring 23 points in the third quarter while simultaneously saving the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4. Thanks to his efforts, the Cavaliers now have a chance to head back to Boston on Thursday for an elimination Game 5.

If you were unable to watch Irving go bananas as LeBron James struggled with foul trouble, it truly was a dazzling display. Cleveland scored a whopping 40 points in the third quarter alone, and Irving seemed energized by a rolled ankle he suffered in the period.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at how Kyrie got the Cavaliers’ groove back.

Via Twitter:

Not bad, not bad. If you like that sort of thing.

What I really like is this move that came in the fourth quarter.

I just fell out of my chair, someone help me up.

Cleveland beat Boston, 112-99. They now lead the series, 3-1.

Watch LeBron James miss a wide open dunk against the Celtics in Game 4 (VIDEO)

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LeBron James did not have a good first half on Tuesday night against the Boston Celtics. The Cleveland Cavaliers star had four fouls in the first half, the first time that had ever happened according to ESPN.

Things were not going well for James when he went up for a dunk with nary a defender in front of him and he still wound up being unable to convert the bucket.

This is something you don’t see every day.

Via Twitter:

Of course, thanks to a 23-point quarter by Kyrie Irving the missed dunk didn’t seem to mean much. LeBron’s playoff entry to Shaqtin’ A Fool will be duly noted.

Meanwhile, the Kyrie Irving saved the Cavaliers in Game 4 with a 42-point effort. The Cavaliers beat the Celtics, 112-99, and will have a chance to close the series Thursday night in Boston in Game 5.

Kyrie Irving scores 23 in third quarter, saves Cavaliers in Game 4 win over Celtics

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The Boston Celtics led by as many as 16 points, but Kyrie Irving‘s 23-point third quarter sparked a Cleveland Cavaliers comeback that the visiting squad could never match. With LeBron James struggling early, Irving’s incredible play helped Cleveland grab a win in Game 4, 112-99.

James was the big storyline as the game opened, as the King again struggled with scoring. James got himself into foul trouble hilariously early, racking up his fourth foul in the second quarter. It was the first time in his career that James had four fouls in the first half, and it hamstrung the Cavaliers.

Boston continued their effective play on offense, seemingly less predictable with Isaiah Thomas out with a hip injury. Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder were the stars for the Celtics, but after an incredible Game 3 performance Marcus Smart failed to deliver.

Irving’s big third quarter was of course the main storyline of the game, with the star guard going nuts on Celtics defenders with a bevy of crossovers, twisting layups, and pull up 3-pointers. He did all this after rolling his ankle, seemingly using the adrenaline to fight off both injury and a series tie at 2-2. Irving’s 23-point quarter fueled a 40-point period for Cleveland, helping them turn the tables and take a 7-point lead going into the fourth.

LeBron seemed to reactivate off Irving’s stellar play, and he wound up scoring 34 points on 15-of-27 shooting, adding six assists, five rebounds, a steal and a block. Irving finished with 42 points, going 4-of-7 from 3-point range to go along with four assists and three rebounds.

Boston was led by Bradley, who scored 19 points but went just 1-of-7 from 3-point range. Crowder added 18 points, eight rebounds, and four assists. Al Horford dropped 16 points, seven assists, and three rebounds.

Cleveland now has a chance to put us out of our misery and close this series in Boston in Game 5 on Thursday.

If the Cavaliers do close, the big questions that remain will be whether LeBron can perform steadily and if the Cavaliers have what it takes on defense to slow down the Golden State Warriors.