I should start by emphasizing that there are major caveats to any analysis based upon the four games between San Antonio and Oklahoma City during the regular season, all four of which were won by OKC. The four-game sample size is minuscule, the playoffs demand a different level of intensity and game-planning, at least one key player was missing in each of their regular-season matchups, and Serge Ibaka’s strained calf is expected to keep him out for the duration of the playoffs.
When Ibaka was off the court this season, the Spurs’ shot 63.6 percent from within five feet of the basket, exactly mirroring their season average. When Ibaka was on the court, however, his elite rim-protection dropped the Spurs’ accuracy to a mere 46.6 percent within five feet, a stunning impact of -17.0 percent.
That helps explain how San Antonio’s Offensive Efficiency also dropped by 29.9 points per 100 possessions when Ibaka was on the court. Interestingly, however, the Thunder almost overcame the difference by improving their own Offensive Efficiency by 27.8 points per 100 possessions in Ibaka’s absence. Reggie Jackson’s phenomenal play off the bench is the most likely explanation for OKC’s offensive surge without Ibaka, at least vs. the Spurs this season, which brings us to our next topic.
When Gregg Popovich recently referred to Reggie Jackson as a “Spurs killer” he was only somewhat hyperbolic. Against the Spurs this season, OKC’s third-year guard averaged 21.3 points on 67.9 percent shooting, 2.0 threes, 3.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals in only 31 minutes per game. For an idea of how he racked up those scoring numbers, observe his stellar shotchart with more than half of his attempts within five feet.
With Jackson’s history of success vs. the Spurs, and Russell Westbrook playing at an elite level, Tony Parker and Patty Mills will have their work cut out for them defensively. Parker’s hamstring injury is a tremendous ‘x-factor’ in the series, an unknown variable which could prove unimportant or series-defining. He played through a Grade-2 strain in the playoffs last year and this injury is far milder, and during the five days off since their last game Parker has not seemed concerned about his status.
In a broader statistical view, the ‘four factors’ were skewed against the Spurs vs. OKC this season, even relative to their own numbers vs. the NBA at large. Compared to the average opponent this season, the Spurs had a worse effective FG percentage, FT attempt rate and turnover ratio vs. the Thunder—they also allowed the Thunder a higher effective FG percentage and a higher offensive rebound rate. Even if you’re unfamiliar with these metrics, the picture is clear – San Antonio struggled mightily with this matchup during the season. Here’s a quick rundown of the highlights during their four regular-season meetings:
First matchup: The Spurs had an 11-game winning streak heading into their first game vs. the Thunder on November 27. The game was played in OKC and the Thunder defense held San Antonio to only 39.1 percent shooting, including a mere 7-of-27 from downtown. The end result was a 94-88 win for OKC, led by Kevin Durant (24 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, six turnovers), Serge Ibaka (17 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks) and Reggie Jackson (23 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 26 minutes off the bench). OKC's victory was even more impressive since they got limited production from Russell Westbrook (six points on dreadful 2-of-16 shooting). The Spurs were completely healthy and they had five players score in double-digits, led by Tony Parker's 17 points and seven assists, but as noted above they simply couldn't get enough baskets to drop vs. OKC's defense.
Second matchup: The Thunder won again on December 21, this time in San Antonio by the final score of 113-100. The major caveat is that San Antonio played without Kawhi Leonard (dental surgery), but Kevin Durant (17 points) wasn't their biggest problem -- Russell Westbrook led all scorers with 31 points and eight assists, while Reggie Jackson had another excellent game with 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting off the bench. The Spurs shot much better in this game and went 9-of-19 from downtown, but they lost the rebound battle by 11 and couldn't get enough defensive stops.
Third matchup: The Thunder won again in San Antonio on January 22, led by Kevin Durant (36 points, five assists, 11 turnovers) and Reggie Jackson (27 points on 12-of-17 shooting with three 3-pointers and eight assists). The Thunder were without Russell Westbrook (knee) while the Spurs were without Tiago Splitter (sprained shoulder) and Danny Green (broken finger). San Antonio shot 53.3 percent from the field but OKC was even better, and the Spurs were again out-rebounded by eight.
Fourth matchup: The Spurs had a 19-game winning streak heading into their matchup in OKC on April 3, but Gregg Popovich rested Manu Ginobili and the streak came screeching to a halt in a 94-106 road loss. Tiago Splitter (two points in 19 minutes) and Tony Parker (six points) both had forgettable evenings, squandering a solid 21-points effort off the bench from Patty Mills. The Spurs actually won the rebound battle in this game, but it wasn't enough to overcome the dual threats of Kevin Durant (28 points) and Russell Westbrook (27 points, six assists, four steals). Reggie Jackson had yet another excellent game, scoring 14 points on efficient 6-of-8 shooting with four rebounds and four assists.
In summary, the Spurs were thoroughly drubbed during the regular season. Reggie Jackson dominated them, the Thunder performed well above average both defensively and offensively relative to other Spurs’ opponents, and most advanced stats skewed heavily on OKC’s favor. Given the absence of Serge Ibaka and the Spurs’ cohesive play thus far in the postseason, however, I’m personally picking the Spurs to advance to the Finals in six games. For another perspective, check out Steve Alexander's aforementioned column, "NBA Conference Finals Preview."