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May 30, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
High Level

by Kevin Pelton

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at San Antonio 120, Oklahoma City 111 (San Antonio leads 2-0)
Pace: 94.7
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 125.8, Oklahoma City 118.2

During the third quarter on Tuesday night, the San Antonio Spurs reached basketball nirvana. They were every basketball cliche every invented--five players as one, etc. Players went to the right spot, moved the basketball rapidly and created a series of high-value open looks from beyond the arc and in the paint. Add in a dose of Tony Parker making everything he threw at the basket and, for a span of six minutes, the Spurs were utterly unstoppable. After turning the ball over on the first possession of the second half, San Antonio scored on 10 of its next 12 trips downcourt, including five three-pointers for an Offensive Rating of 208.0 points per 100 possessions in that span.

Inevitably, the Spurs couldn't continue at that same level, and give the Oklahoma City Thunder credit for staying focused in the wake of a historic run of offense. The Thunder would go on to make things interesting in the fourth quarter, cutting a deficit as large as 22 down to just six at one point.

You'll probably hear plenty about Scott Brooks deciding to intentionally foul Tiago Splitter as a turning point, but I'm not sure the story is quite so clean. San Antonio hadn't made a field goal in the last six possessions before the intentional fouls started, turning the ball over half of those trips downcourt. After Splitter split his 10 free throw attempts, the Spurs scored on three of their last four possessions going into the fourth quarter.

To me, the more significant turning point was the quarter break, when Brooks decided to go back to the small lineup he had largely eschewed before halftime. With Gregg Popovich sticking with his usual rotation at first, the small group gave Oklahoma City a quickness advantage that proved effective at both ends of the floor. The Thunder opened the fourth quarter on a 13-5 run to get back in the game.

I understand Popovich's desire to keep Brooks from dictating matchups, but the problem with matching up big against Oklahoma City's smaller unit is that the Spurs' power forwards don't really take advantage of playing against smaller defenders while they have a tough time keeping up defensively. As a result, the Thunder has the better of things playing small against big. San Antonio was able to stem the run when Manu Ginobili returned after a break, subbing in for Boris Diaw. The Spurs' small unit, with Kawhi Leonard at power forward, was +1 over the next 4:21. San Antonio then successfully finished off Oklahoma City with a bigger lineup including Diaw, losing just one point off the lead in three and a half minutes.

The biggest difference between Game 1 and Game 2 was how clearly the Spurs' starting lineup dominated to begin the first and third quarters. San Antonio opened up an early eight-point lead to start the game and was nearly perfect after halftime. With the Spurs' offense clicking, the Thunder's defensive-minded starting five couldn't keep up. Kendrick Perkins had a particularly rough outing, beginning with traveling on the token post-up he got on Oklahoma City's opening trip. Perkins ended up using 10 plays to score three points, and his terrific post defense was offset by San Antonio forcing him to defend repeated Parker pick-and-rolls. Forced to give ground or get beaten off the dribble, Perkins watched helplessly as Parker drilled a series of pull-up jumpers. (Parker was an incredible 9-of-12 from 14-20 feet, including 6-of-6 on the left side of the court.)

The Thunder had little more success using all five reserves together at the start of the second quarter, including center Nazr Mohammed in a conventional lineup. So Brooks went back small, except this time he featured Serge Ibaka as the lone big man. Ibaka wasn't exactly brilliant offensively--he shot 3-of-11 from the field--but the Spurs at least have to respect his ability as a scorer in pick-and-rolls. Ibaka also provides credible help defense as the lone big man, and proved surprisingly stout against Duncan in the post. Duncan scored just two points in the fourth quarter, missing all three of his shot attempts. His biggest contribution against Ibaka was three offensive rebounds. After Game 2, Ibaka has clearly established himself as the choice when Brooks goes small.

To some extent, the discussion about Oklahoma City offense is inherently quibbling. Brooks' task is to maximize his chances in context of being at a disadvantage when both teams play normally. At this point, that appears to mean going small and hoping San Antonio won't match up. If Perkins continues to struggle defending the pick-and-roll, Nick Collison--who played just nine minutes, his shortest playoff outing ever--may be a superior option when the Thunder plays big. And Brooks ought to try to get Thabo Sefolosha more minutes in place of Derek Fisher, who played the entire fourth quarter despite missing nine of his 11 shot attempts and struggling defensively. But when Parker is shooting the ball like he did Tuesday, and the Spurs are so willingly finding the open man, it barely matters what fivesome the Thunder puts on the floor.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Best with Rest (05/29)
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