Roundtable: West finals analysis
The Spurs and Thunder return to San Antonio with the West finals tied at 2-2
OKC made adjustments and played well at home, but can it win at San Antonio?
Three of the five writers like the Thunder to advance to the NBA Finals
The Spurs play host to the Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Monday (9 p.m. ET, TNT). The series is tied at 2-2 after both teams won twice on their home floor. How did we get here and what's in store for the rest of the series? Five SI.com NBA writers take stock of a matchup that is living up to its billing.
1. What is your biggest takeaway from the first four games of the series?
Ian Thomsen: That Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the two biggest and most valuable stars in the league. I'm not saying they're absolutely going to meet in the Finals -- not yet anyway -- but each is showing on the ultimate terms that there are different ways of being a star. James is building his team's success from the ground up by contributing on every level and taking responsibility for every phase, while Durant gives his teammates the confidence to think that he'll find a way to win the close games as long as they do their jobs of keeping the Thunder within reach. Each is great in his own way.
Zach Lowe: The Spurs have had no answer for Oklahoma City's offense -- and the Thunder's answers on that end of the court have changed a little in each game. We knew this would be a shootout between two teams with elite offenses and just "pretty good" defenses, but the degree to which the Thunder have shredded San Antonio has been surprising. Oklahoma City has averaged 110.6 points per 100 possessions in the series, nearly two full points better than the Spurs' league-leading regular-season mark, according to NBA.com's stats database. The Spurs' tendency to overload off the Thunder's nonthreatening offensive players -- Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison -- hasn't slowed down OKC's star trio, and in Game 4, it finally opened the floodgates for most of those role players. The Thunder are scoring like bananas almost regardless of personnel (though the starting lineup has remained shaky offensively), and the team has gradually found ways for Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden to play effectively off each other. This is scary.
Lee Jenkins: A year ago, Oklahoma City led Dallas by 15 points at home in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, poised to even the series. The Thunder blew the lead, lost the game in overtime and fell in five games. On Saturday night, they found themselves in a similar position against a similar opponent, and they pulled away. Every year, the Thunder take another step in their progression, and that was a crucial one.
Chris Mannix: Coaching matters. Tony Parker carved up Oklahoma City's defense in the first two games, and it was two key decisions by Thunder coach Scott Brooks that changed the dynamic of the series: shifting Sefolosha onto Parker and switching San Antonio's pick-and-rolls. The shift clearly affected Parker, who is the catalyst for everything the Spurs do offensively. Credit the players for executing, but credit Brooks for making the right adjustments.
Sam Amick: The Spurs' way should be the only way in team-building. Even when the Thunder are beating San Antonio, they're endorsing the Spurs' title-worthy methods because Oklahoma City general manager and former Spurs assistant GM Sam Presti built his team with so many of the same principles and strategies. Ride draft picks that were put to good use, smartly manage the salary cap by locking up your stars and adding versatile, selfless role players around them, and employ a good coach to pull all of the pieces together -- voilą, you're in the hunt. Put two of these teams in the Western Conference finals, and you have all sorts of playoff magic.
2. What has surprised you about how the series has gotten to 2-2?
Thomsen: To see Perkins and Ibaka provide the kind of complementary scoring in Game 4 that OKC needs, it was kind of like seeing the Thunder beat the Spurs at their own game. If San Antonio is going to win, it will be because its non-stars come up big at different times. Ibaka doesn't have to go 11-for-11, but he does need to keep making those mid-range jump shots to provide balance to the Thunder offense.
Lowe: The Spurs appear to be more on their heels than the Thunder. Brooks has made his big adjustments, excised two rotation players (Nazr Mohammed and Daequan Cook) and now just has to be careful to stay on top of his rotation decisions in the moment in each game. The Spurs, on the other hand, are flailing a bit. The big-man rotation beyond Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw is in total flux, with Gregg Popovich benching Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner for basically the entire second half of Game 4 and resurrecting DeJuan Blair. Popovich also went small for longer than usual to end Game 4 and at one point in a traditional lineup (i.e. with two big men) broke out the ultra-big wing combination of Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. In addition, Manu Ginobili scored just 21 points combined in the two games in Oklahoma City, and playing him with Parker at times for longer minutes turns Parker into a less impactful spot-up shooter. The struggles of San Antonio's role players -- Danny Green, Splitter and Bonner -- were predictable, but the Spurs need more from Ginobili. The Spurs are still scoring well -- about 106 points per 100 possessions, a top-three rate -- but the barrages have been inconsistent, and the shots tougher.
Jenkins: Popovich was Coach of the Year, but Brooks and his staff have made the most important adjustments. By putting Sefolosha on Parker, and using Ibaka in switches against Ginobili, Brooks has been able to take better advantage of Oklahoma City's superior length and athleticism. The Thunder big men have gummed up the Spurs' pick-and-roll, which looked so unstoppable in the first two games.
Mannix: Duncan seemed to turn back the clock this season, looking spry and healthy for the first time in years. He played well in the first two rounds, too, but against the Thunder he has lost some steam. He didn't sniff 50 percent shooting the first three games of the series, and though he was effective offensively in Game 4 (21 points on 9-of-17 from the field), he watched as Ibaka, Perkins and Collison made 22 of their 25 shots. Duncan isn't the player he used to be, but he needs to play better for the Spurs to win.
Amick: Some of the most significant strengths and weaknesses for both teams have flip-flopped dramatically. Parker was the Thunder's kryptonite in the first two games (especially his Game 2 outing of 34 points on 16-of-21 shooting with eight assists and two turnovers), but he has averaged just 14 points in the last two games while hitting 11-of-27 from the field and totaling eight assists against six turnovers. And the Thunder big men who took such a public beating after Games 1 and 2 were almost unstoppable in Game 4.
3. Do you believe in the concept of "momentum" in a series like this? Do the Thunder have it?
Thomsen: The Thunder won't have it until they do it in San Antonio. They needed exceptional offensive performances from Ibaka and Perkins as well as from Durant down the stretch, and even then they barely held on at home against San Antonio in Game 4. The Spurs have to be confident that such a formula won't be recreated in Game 5 at San Antonio.
Lowe: I believe in it in the sense that the Thunder must be feeling much better about themselves at 2-2 than they'd have felt down 3-1, and that they have a real chance to win the series instead of the no-shot-in-hell status of trailing 3-1. The Spurs are too good for self-doubt, though some of the individual role players might be feeling some. And the Thunder have clearly found some things that have worked on both ends of the floor. But San Antonio finished Game 4 strongly on the offensive end, and a hot start to Game 5 would change the momentum immediately.
Jenkins: I don't believe in momentum, but I do believe in growth. The Thunder ranked last in the NBA in assists this season and they dished out 50 of them in the past two games. Westbrook deferred to Durant, and at times, Durant deferred to Ibaka and Perkins. The Thunder are learning to play together. Maybe they are taking some cues from the Spurs.
Mannix: Momentum is nice for a team needing confidence or for one questioning itself. The Spurs and Thunder are neither. This isn't San Antonio's first (playoff) rodeo and the Thunder are battle tested after last season's trip to the conference finals. Momentum is irrelevant.
Amick: Considering the Spurs tied Miami for the best regular-season home record (28-5) and are 6-0 in San Antonio in the playoffs, one would think the Thunder's hard-earned momentum would be short-lived. These are the Spurs, in their house, set for their latest biggest game of the year. Win, and they have Game 6 in OKC or Game 7 at home to finish it off. Still, the momentum created by Durant and his memorable Game 4 finish will survive -- as will the Thunder.
4. How do you see this series playing out?
Thomsen: It looks like it's going to a Game 7 and then we'll see if San Antonio's old guys -- Duncan and Ginobili -- can still be great. Because they'll need to come up very big to hold off Durant in a seventh game. I'll go with San Antonio.
Lowe: I picked the Spurs to win a very competitive six-game series, closing in Oklahoma City, so I suppose I should stick to that. These are evenly matched teams, and the odds in such situations say that the most likely outcome is the team with home-court advantage winning in seven games. That is probably the safest possible pick at this point, though no outcome should surprise is. These are super, super teams.
Jenkins: I picked Oklahoma City to win the championship before the playoffs, and I will stick with that. Of course, the Thunder will have to win a road game, and they are far better at home. I think San Antonio takes a close Game 5, Oklahoma City responds in Game 6 and the Thunder's young legs prevail in a classic Game 7.
Mannix: The Thunder figured out a few things defensively late in Game 2 and they have climbed back into the series thanks to their adjustments in Games 3 and 4. They are the more talented team; if San Antonio can't out-execute the Thunder, it can't beat them. I think Oklahoma City steals Game 5 on the road and finishes the series on its home floor.
Amick: You know it's a good playoff series when the crystal balls stop working altogether, and this is looking like one of those situations. I predicted before the playoffs started that the Spurs would beat the Thunder in the conference finals, but now I'll stick with the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately line of thinking and say that the combination of the Thunder's athleticism and a coaching staff that has grown every year will lead Oklahoma City past San Antonio in seven games.