Four questions for four writers, previewing the Western Conference showdown between the Thunder and Spurs:
1. Who shoulders the most pressure because of the Serge Ibaka injury?
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) - Kevin Durant. He's the face of the franchise and, frankly, he hasn't had the best postseason. He's delivered a few great and timely performances. But he's needed Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson to bail him out a few times in these playoffs. That can no longer happen. He'll need to be at his absolute best for the Thunder to get out of this round.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) - In reality, it’s the Spurs. At some point, Tim Duncan will retire and this incredible dynasty will fade. May be as soon as this offseason. So a potentially final title shot is staring them in the face and Ibaka’s injury is paving the way. Can they take advantage? But if you’re asking Thunder-related, I’ll go with Russell Westbrook. He’s been the Thunder’s best player in these playoffs, but now must raise his game higher and do it without his pick and pop safety valve.
Jenni Carlson (columnist) - Scott Brooks. The Thunder coach has to figure out how to best manage the rotations with a key cog sidelined. What’s more, he’s going to need to be able to adjust during the game. That was bound to be the case against the Spurs before Ibaka’s injury, but it’s going to be even more important now. And Brooks has shown regularly that his in-game adjustments are lacking. He’ll need to step it up.
Berry Tramel (columnist) - Kevin Durant. No matter who Scotty Brooks decides to start, here's the lineup you'll see most vs. the Spurs. Durant, Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams and probably Caron Butler. That's a heck of an offensive lineup that means Durant is going to have to rebound, he's going to have to interior defend and he can't foul. Durant is accustomed to playing power forward for 10-12 minutes a game. I can see him playing power forward for 30-32 minutes a game in this series.
2. What’s the key matchup the Thunder must win? San Antonio?
Mayberry - For the Thunder, I'll go with the same guy who has the most pressure on him with Ibaka out. Kevin Durant. He has to get the best of Kawhi Leonard, who is a true star in the making. If you think that matchup shouldn't be close that just means you haven't paid attention to Leonard's development. He absolutely is capable of not only slowing down Durant but also going at him at the other end. He could make this a really uncomfortable series for the Thunder. For the Spurs, I'll go with Danny Green over Thabo Sefolosha. Remember the 2012 West Finals? Green flat out disappeared. He scored 20 points the whole series. He was so ineffective that he lost his starting job in the final two games and totaled just eight minutes in those contests. It was the disappointing play of role players like Green that caused that series to get away from the Spurs.
Slater – Missing its biggest talent, OKC’s batch of bigs must find a way to at least play the Spurs’ frontline to a draw. And it’s not as tall a task as it seems. Tim Duncan’s still great, but the Thunder just got done battling Randolph and Gasol, then Griffin and Jordan. And OKC held its own. In 2014, those four present bigger issues than Duncan and Splitter. For the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard must flashback to the 2013 NBA Finals. Minus a crucial missed free throw, he was fantastic against the Heat, going toe-to-toe with LeBron. If he can do the same with KD, hard to see San Antonio losing.
Carlson - Point guard for OKC. The Thunder won the point guard matchup during the regular-season games, and it didn’t matter who was playing. Russell Westbrook. Reggie Jackson. Both were very effective against the Spurs. The Thunder is going to need that sort of domination and aggression in this series, and it’s not just on the offensive end. So much of what the Spurs does goes through Tony Parker. The Thunder has to get a handle on that. And for San Antonio, they’re going to need to win the post matchups. With Ibaka out, the Thunder will be scrambling a bit. If the Spurs can take advantage of that with Tim Duncan and an improved Tiago Splitter, that could throw the momentum in their direction.
Tramel - Russell Westbrook must dominate Tony Parker. That's a tall order. Parker is an elite player. A guy who still is a whiz of a point guard. But Parker is old (32) and he's banged up (hamstring) and even two years ago he was no match for Westbrook. Now Westbrook is stronger and better, and Parker is older and slower. If the Thunder doesn't get a major lift from Westbrook, hope is gone.
3. X-factor in this series?
Mayberry - Give me one of the sixth men. Reggie Jackson or Manu Ginobili. Neither team has an answer for the other, so whichever one can be most consistent should give his team a nice advantage.
Slater - Reggie Jackson. With Ibaka down, he’s now the third most talented player on this team. So he must to play like the third best player on a title contender. Consistently. And that’s the key word with Jackson. He’s dominant for stretches, then nonexistent for others. But he no longer has that luxury. It can’t just be flashes in this series. But good news for him: he torches San Antonio. Averaged 21.2 points on 68 percent shooting in four games. OKC needs that Reggie.
Carlson - Steven Adams. The rookie big man has been playing superb basketball in these playoffs, no small thing against Memphis and Los Angeles. Both have talented bigs, and Adams has more than held his own. If he can continue to play the way he has, it would be a huge boost to the Thunder. But if he has a bunch of rookie moments, you can bet Duncan and Co. will take advantage.
Tramel - Steven Adams. The cows are out of the barn. Steven Adams is going to play a ton. Unless Tim Duncan just flat out schools Adams, Adams will play more than Kendrick Perkins in this series. 25-30 minutes a game, I'd say. And he's getting so much better so quickly, there's no telling what kind of player Adams might be by series' end. OF course, he also could be completely flummoxed by the complexity of the Spurs' offense, so that's quite the X factor, I'd say.
4. How would you have predicted this series with Ibaka? Your prediction now?
Mayberry - With Ibaka, I was leaning toward the Spurs in seven but maybe six. Without him, I'm thinking the Spurs could take it in five but six at most. That's a pick that is more of a reflection of my concerns about the Thunder than it is of how much I think Ibaka matters (although he matters a ton). And to be clear, that's not to say it won't be a competitive series. I think it will be. But the first two rounds exposed some maturity issues with the Thunder that I thought were a thing of the past. The Thunder still plays with a lack of discipline on offense and a lack of focus on defense. Those things will get you beat by the Spurs every day of the week. And the loss of Ibaka is now a huge blow to the Thunder's biggest advantage over the Spurs – athleticism.
Slater - Before the injury, probably OKC in six. But without him, Spurs in seven. And it sounds so weird picking against the team with the two best players in the series. But the Ibaka injury matters that much. A crippling blow to OKC’s defense. Here’s Austin Rivers earlier this season on Serge: “He’s fast enough to keep up with guards. When you have a 7-foot guy who can jump, running on a fastbreak on defense, it’s hard to get to the basket. Their defense is all on him. Without Ibaka, this is a whole different team.”
Carlson - With Serge, Thunder in 6. Without Serge, I’m still going to go Thunder in 6. Maybe I’m foolish for thinking this, but I still believe the Thunder is an extremely difficult matchup for the Spurs. And truth be told, if Ibaka’s injury forces the Thunder to go small more often, that might actually be more difficult for the Spurs. Going small, after all, means going younger, and those young legs are tough for the Spurs to counter.
Tramel - I liked the Thunder rather easily with Ibaka. Probably five games. It's just such a good matchup for the Thunder. Without him, things change. The Spurs have an easier path to the basket, the Thunder pick'n pop game is suspect, everything changes. But the Thunder's main advantages remain. Speed and youth. And it's not like the Thunder is a bunch of pups. They are young, but they are experienced. I'll take OKC in six.