Entering the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a preseason favorite to contend for an NBA championship. Moving on to the Western Conference Finals this week, the team is one step closer to its goal.
Reaching the NBA Finals won’t be easy. In their way are perennial favorites, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are an aging team, but continue to prove that they are one of the league’s best, despite the age of their core stars, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The Thunder have youth on their side as well as the league’s Most Valuable Player, Kevin Durant. But if Oklahoma City wants to knock off the Spurs and reach the finals, the team’s defense simply will need to improve.
Of the four remaining franchises, the Thunder have been playing the weakest defense. That’s backed up by the 101.2 points that Oklahoma City is allowing each game, which ranks the worst statistically of the teams still left standing.
In their last series with the Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City’s defense gave up just over 106 points per game. While the Clippers had the top offense in the league this season, it’s not a surprise that they gave the Thunder trouble. However, for Oklahoma City to move on, the team will need to put more defensive pressure on the Spurs.
In the last round, the Thunder were able to run away from the Clippers simply because Los Angeles’ defense was even worse. During the regular season, the Clippers ranked near the middle of the league and only were an average squad in that regard. Things are about to get significantly more difficult for Oklahoma City, though.
Against the Spurs, the Thunder will face one of the best offensive and defensive teams in the NBA. San Antonio ranked sixth in both team offense and team defense in the league, and statistically, were the top two-way team in the Western Conference. When it comes down to it, Oklahoma City won’t simply be able to run away offensively from San Antonio. The Spurs will show up defensively and have enough firepower on offense to score effectively. To compete against the defending Western Conference champions, the Thunder need to step up their defensive game.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma City is already at a disadvantage. The Thunder are going to be without starting power forward Serge Ibaka, their leader in rebounds and blocked shots during the regular season. Ibaka’s presence in the paint will be sorely missed and could hamper the team’s defensive effort. Because of his loss, Oklahoma City now needs to get a bit more from their two-headed monster at center, Kendrick Perkins and rookie Steven Adams. Ditto for backup power forward Nick Collison, who now could be thrust into the starting lineup.
Specifically, one thing the Thunder need to do better is force turnovers. In this postseason, the team ranks 14th of the 16 playoff teams, forcing fewer than 11 per game. Causing turnovers was one thing that Oklahoma City failed to do enough of in their last series with the Clippers — only twice did Los Angeles turn the ball over at least ten times. Oklahoma City needs to find ways to harass the Spurs into making some mistakes and limiting their possessions. That’s particularly true since San Antonio has been one of the most efficient teams offensively in the playoffs, shooting a league-best 49.3 percent from the floor.
The Thunder defense was sufficient this year, giving up just under 100 points per contest, but they were far from dominant. While there aren’t questions about the team’s offense, moving on to the next round won’t be easy unless Oklahoma City makes more of a commitment to team defense.
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