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The Coming Western War: Oklahoma City–San Antonio Preview

Tony ParkerSo far in the playoffs, neither the San Antonio Spurs nor the Oklahoma City Thunder have been truly tested. But when they face each other in the Western Conference Finals, I’m expecting that to change for both teams. They both score efficiently, but in polar opposite ways. As I’ve written about before, San Antonio relies on their perfect execution to get into the lane, make extra passes, and get the best shot possible. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, relies on their talented shooters. We can expect this to be a high-scoring series, and there are two key play types — one for each team — that could determine the direction of this series.

Oklahoma City’s signature play on offense is the high pick-and-roll. This was very effective for them against the Lakers, and it will be even more important against the Spurs because San Antonio doesn’t defend it well. According to Synergy, the Spurs were the worst team in the league when it came to preventing the ball handler from scoring off of pick-and-rolls, and that has continued in the postseason. They have given up an average Points Per Possession (PPP) of 0.832 and 44.3 percent shooting on these plays, 12th out of 16 playoff teams. It’s not entirely accurate to call upon the Spurs’ regular-season stats when considering the playoffs because they barely played at full strength then. Nonetheless, this possession from the fourth quarter of their final regular-season game is emblematic of San Antonio’s struggle with the high pick-and-roll:

https://www.youtube.com/v/VTI_Ew2zUw8?version=3&hl=en_US

Serge Ibaka, who is being defended by Tim Duncan, sets a high screen for Russell Westbrook, who is being defended by Tony Parker. As Westbrook comes off of the screen, Parker works over it instead of going under. This is the best turnout for Westbrook; he thrives against defenses who go under ball screens against him. Meanwhile, Duncan hedges over, but not aggressively enough, thus giving Westbrook space to pull up and knock the shot down.

This weakness was also exposed in the last round against the Los Angeles Clippers when Chris Paul came off of high pick-and-rolls:

https://www.youtube.com/v/Z5tda1dcinQ?version=3&hl=en_US

You see the same defensive strategy that resulted in the Russell Westbrook jump shot. Yet San Antonio still overcame this deficiency to sweep Los Angeles. In addition to the fact that the Clippers ran way too many side pick-and-rolls, San Antonio started forcing the ball out of Paul’s hands:

https://www.youtube.com/v/05EpacJB29I?version=3&hl=en_US

The Spurs were willing to allow either Blake Griffin or Kenyon Martin to take jump shots, which is why I think Serge Ibaka will be instrumental for the Thunder in this series. If Westbrook starts hitting jumpers off of the ball screens, the Spurs are more than likely to show hard against him, leaving Ibaka open for these pick-and-pop jump shots.

Will Ibaka capitalize? It’s hard to say. He is a very capable mid-range shooter, and he was successful in pick-and-pop situations during the regular season, posting a PPP of 1.091 (the 92nd percentile) while shooting 54.5 percent. However, he has been struggling in the same situations this postseason, hitting just two of 10 shots. But if both Westbrook and Ibaka are hitting their jumpers, it could be a real challenge for the Spurs.

The key play for the Spurs is their spot-up jump shots. During their eight games this postseason, spot-ups accounted for 20.9 percent of their possessions and they posted a PPP of 1.183 (most among all playoff teams) on 45.5 percent shooting. Breaking it down even further, in catch-and-shoot situations (according to Synergy, this includes spot-ups and attempts off of ball screens), the Spurs posted a PPP of 1.169 (again highest in the league) on 41.9 percent shooting. As you can tell from these numbers, they feast on open jump shots, converting at a very high rate. Out of the 160 catch-and-shoot jumpers the Spurs have taken this postseason, 98 were unguarded and they scored 132 points off of them. This translates to 46.9 percent shooting and a PPP of 1.347, again best in the league.

https://www.youtube.com/v/YNlfHUKLlsY?version=3&hl=en_US

The Spurs don’t look to create a shot for a specific player. Rather, they look for the best shot in every possession. Extra passes, skip passes, and drawing defenders over to get a shooter open are all ways the Spurs create good shots. Plus, they have myriad players who can knock down the open shot: Matt Bonner, Tim Duncan, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard.

San Antonio’s ability to not only create open looks but also to convert could be the reason why Oklahoma City loses, especially because they defend the catch-and-shoot poorly. So far this postseason, the Thunder have defended 138 catch-and-shoot jumpers. A whopping 93 (67.4 percent) of those shots were considered unguarded by Synergy Sports, third-most among all playoff teams. But in the first two rounds, the Lakers and Mavericks combined to make just 32.3 percent of those open shots. The Thunder probably will not be so lucky against the Spurs, which makes me believe the Spurs will win. It’s going to be a tough, hard-fought battle, but I think the Spurs take it in seven.