Oklahoma City has been here before, exactly here, in 2012.
The San Antonio Spurs had won the first two games of the Western Conference Finals and seemed to be in control. On blogs and across talk radio there were questions about just how good the Thunder really were. Then suddenly the lightbulb went on over the Thunders’ head before Game 3 — “We’re way more athletic than these guys and we can overwhelm them on both ends of the court.” They did. Oklahoma City defended aggressively, won Game 3 by 20 and went on to sweep the Spurs right out of the series.
Thunder fans are hanging their hat on that again in 2014 — they turned it around against the Spurs before, they can do it again.
No. Not this time.
This time the Spurs are going to win this series and return to the NBA Finals. It will take four or five games, based on the fact they won the first two by a combined 52 points (it was 12 in 2012).
Here are three key reasons 2014 is not going to be a repeat of 2012.
1) No James Harden. Back in 2012 it was the heady days when the Thunder were a trio, not a duo. Harden came in off the bench but was the Thunder’s second leading scorer in that series, averaging 18.5 points a game with a true shooting percentage of .641 in those six games (Westbrook scored 18.3 but had an unimpressive true shooting percentage of .450). At the end of games OKC put the ball in Harden’s hands to create for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to guide the offense and share the ball. That third scorer no longer exists. That glue that got Durant and Westbrook to play with each other and not next to each other is gone. And it shows.
2) No Serge Ibaka. Thunder management made the call to pay Ibaka and not Harden, and while there are things you may question about that choice you can’t question how much Serge Ibaka means to the Thunder. Not now. On one end the Spurs have scored 120 points in the paint in two games, exploiting the lack of shot-blocking with Ibaka out with a calf injury (Scott Brooks should play more Steven Adams, but that doesn’t solve this issue). However, the Thunder miss Ibaka more on offense — they miss his baseline jumper to bail out Westbrook on drives, they miss his offensive putbacks, they miss his activity off the ball and his energy. They are not the same offensive team without Ibaka, thy are much easier to defend. And it shows.
3) The Spurs are much more athletic, much deeper now. When these teams met two years ago, the fourth leading scorer for the Spurs was an aging Stephen Jackson. Kawhi Leonard was still growing into the player his now, he was not a defensive force, he was not getting that much run. Tiago Splitter was not a guy Gregg Popovich trusted, now he starts and is a key defensive force. Splitter gives them a versatile big man who is a defensive anchor and can make a few plays on offense, too. Danny Green wasn’t getting many minutes, nor was Patty Mills. Bottom line is that the Spurs are still not the most athletic team in this series, but they closed the gap some. And it shows.
The Thunder can play better, make some adjustment (start Steven Adams and Caron Butler, for one) but this is a very different Spurs team from two years ago. One that is not going to let the Thunder roll them this time.
It’s not 2012.