The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder will begin their second round series tonight at 5:30 p.m. on TNT in what very well could be the most exciting series of the entire 2016 NBA Playoffs.
And as highlighted by Jonathan Tjarks for The Ringer, the Spurs have to be the favorite to win this thing if for no other reason because they're one of the best teams not just this year but in NBA history — it's easy to forget since they were second in the Western Conference, but they posted one of the top 10 marks of all-time this season with a 67-15 record, which could have been even better had they not strategically rested players here and there.
But with the Spurs secure in their identity as a model franchise in the NBA, if not all of professional sports, the pressure might be on the Thunder and their leaders, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Much has been made of the Thunder’s predictable attack all season, but OKC’s low moments obscured the fact that they had the second-best offense in the league. Their unimaginative scheme wouldn’t have been much of an issue if they’d been able to commit to their defense for more than a single quarter at a time...This is the series in which Durant and Westbrook must show their worth as leaders. Your best players have to set the tone for the defense and hold everyone else accountable, but you can’t do that if Westbrook is going to consistently gamble for steals and hang his teammates out to dry. The most dynamic duo in the NBA will have to trust in their teammates, but more than anything, they’ll have to trust in their ability to play entire games from here on out.
As Tjarks also alludes to, Durant is also a free agent so everything that happens during this series — especially if the Thunder lose — will be read through the lens of whether he might bolt for the Spurs, which is a possibility that is reportedly gaining steam.
I happen to agree Dan Feldman of NBC Sports on the Durant front:
Will Durant leave just because Oklahoma City loses to the Spurs? Of course not. Will Durant stay just because Oklahoma City beats the Spurs? Of course not.
But this is a big opportunity for the Thunder to accentuate their positives - and the Spurs, another team in the Durant hunt, to do the same.
But a more significant question to the actual game on the actual court is whether first time professional coach Billy Donovan can compete with Gregg Popovich on the adjustments front, especially when it comes to keeping the team locked in during the fourth quarter. And Jesus Gomez of BBallBreakdown described well why the biggest challenge for both coaches in this series is a matter of minimizing weaknesses instead of accentuating strengths.
Hiding liabilities, however, will be more important than strategic adjustments about going big or small. Tony Parker brings effort on defense but he can’t guard Westbrook. He could be assigned to Andre Roberson when the starters are in but if Dion Waiters — fresh off a great series against the Mavericks — plays alongside Westbrook and Durant, Parker will be forced to guard someone who had an edge over him.
Billy Donovan’s main concern will be Enes Kanter and how to keep him on the floor without the defense suffering too much, especially against the Spurs’ bench unit. They will surely target him in screen and roll action with Manu Ginobili as ball handler and will force him to step outside to contest hand-offs designed for Patty Mills. The perimeter defenders will have to be sharp to recover quickly and prevent San Antonio from taking advantage of him.
I, for one, am kind of glad I can watch this series from a bit of a detached perspective, without any deeply invested rooting interest — this should be an exciting series and I'm ready to just enjoy the ride. But at some point once it gets going a bit, we will start turning our attention to the matchup with the Warriors— do we want the historic showdown between two of the best teams in the history of the league or the matchup with the OKC's dynamic duo?
Vote in the poll below, explain yourself in the comments, and enjoy the game.