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Oklahoma City earned passage to the second round of the playoffs on Monday night, though not without first withstanding the best shot of a depleted Dallas team. It’s not hyperbole to say the Mavs did all they could; injuries thinned out the lineup to the point it could barely function, and yet gutsy efforts up and down the roster ensured that it did. The ledger will show a series that ended in five games. The film will show that the Mavericks made up more ground on the Thunder than they reasonably should have.
It didn’t much matter in the grand scheme of the series, as OKC survived blunders and breakdowns to post a dominant margin of victory (+18.2). Their advantages were that severe. As the Thunder advance, however, they’re set to encounter an opponent that will be far less forgiving of their oversights. Dallas left so many points on the table (and conceded plenty to the Thunder) as a result of being hobbled and outclassed. San Antonio is in no way the same, a reality that will challenge Oklahoma City to find its leverage in different ways.
The stark differences begin with the first line of coverage. Try as Wesley Matthews did, his defense against Kevin Durant would always be limited by the seven-inch height difference between them. Raymond Felton, too, gave up size, strength and speed to Russell Westbrook, edges made apparent whenever Westbrook fired up the jets. San Antonio approaches those two crucial matchups with much more length at its disposal. Kawhi Leonard, the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is as good a physical match (and as exhausting a technical opponent) for Durant as you’ll find. Danny Green can at least recover and contest against Westbrook with more room for error than any Maverick could, even if his cross-matched coverage is an imperfect solution. What matters most is taking away the express options of Durant and Westbrook shooting over the top of the defense or blowing by a defender without the aid of a screen. San Antonio won’t be as vulnerable in those ways, forcing OKC’s stars to earn every clean look they get.
Players like Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters will be challenged to make plays as that pressure builds. This is by design. Every NBA defense is structured according to what threats with which its architect can live. Often that preferable option will come by the hand of a non-shooter or a questionable decision-maker, each of which has a place in Oklahoma City’s regular rotation. The Mavericks did what they could to put the ball in the hands of the Thunder support whenever possible, but then reacted to that outcome with slower, more desperate rotations than one would expect of the Spurs. For a fourth- or fifth-option scorer, the difference between a hard-working team doing its best and an alltime great defense executing in rhythm is profound. Whether Waiters, in particular, can make do with the smaller creative windows may tilt the series.
Even the rebounding climate will be entirely different moving forward. Dallas underwhelmed on the glass even at its healthiest this season. Tag its forwards with injuries and all of a sudden players like the 6'1" Raymond Felton (who led the Mavs with 11 boards in a Game 2 win) become essential rebounders. San Antonio allowed opponents the third-lowest offensive rebounding rate in the league this season, in contrast, and stands to deprive Enes Kanter and Steven Adams a handful of baskets per game. The help defense that Westbrook and Durant attract generally yields second-chance scores to any active big with good hands. Leonard, Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge collectively have the size and positioning to deny those opportunities in a way that the outmatched Maverick bigs never could.
One could easily see the virtues in many of the strategies that Dallas attempted, even if the personnel wasn’t quite able to make it pay off. Rick Carlisle had his team full-court press against the Thunder subs to challenge the ball handling of Waiters and Randy Foye, only to give up consecutive baskets in the scramble. The Spurs could well experiment with similar pressure in less dramatic fashion; any Thunder guard beyond Westbrook can be crowded and rushed, perhaps to the point of derailing OKC’s offense. Carlisle’s playbook, too, was able to spring the Mavericks free through a constant churn of activity. Replace limited bigs with the Spurs’ proven playmakers and those sequences brim with possibility. Thunder defenders can’t lose track of Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili or Danny Green in the same way they did Felton, J.J. Barea or Devin Harris. The risks are to great, and the punishment of a quick-fire three-pointer too real.
Trust that the Thunder players know this. Their first-round series bore all the hallmarks of a heavily favored team playing down to its circumstances. An opponent like San Antonio should exact a different level of focus and intensity, provided that OKC can sustain it for a full series. Throughout the season we’ve seen snags in execution, strained defensive rotation and spotty communication from the Thunder. Clean up enough of those issues and the series could be theirs. Succumb to them and the Spurs will claim four of seven on precision.
These are the standards in play for a heavyweight bout, with no less than the future of the Thunder franchise hanging in the balance. Good tactics should make for good theater.