There are a million reasons why the Thunder will likely lose to the Spurs. San Antonio, by any statistical measure, is one of the greatest teams of all time. Known primarily for their offensive mastery in recent years, this season’s Spurs have forged one of the best defenses in at least a decade. It will be an overwhelming challenge for the Thunder, but they have a chance in this series, like they have a chance against any opponent. It’s simple math: Two is more than one.
The Thunder have dealt with peaks and valleys over the past eight years, but for their opponents, one question has remained constant: Do we have someone who can guard Westbrook and Durant? The Spurs are one of the very few that do. But even then, Kawhi Leonard can’t guard both players at the same time. Cloning science hasn’t caught up with the modern NBA.
Even in their adaptive defensive scheme, the Spurs don’t have the horses to stymie Westbrook in the pick-and-roll. They are going to have to send extra men to stop him, which will generate open opportunities for the Thunder, as Westbrook looks for the pass about as often as he looks for his own shot these days. Simply creating windows for the offense is more than half the battle against the Spurs’ suffocating defense.
Much has been made of the Thunder’s predictable attack all season, but OKC’s low moments obscured the fact that they had the second-best offense in the league. Their unimaginative scheme wouldn’t have been much of an issue if they’d been able to commit to their defense for more than a single quarter at a time. The Thunder were a middling 12th in defensive rating this season, and that’s going to have to dramatically improve for them to have any chance of pulling the upset. Can Serge Ibaka handle LaMarcus Aldridge one-on-one? Can Steven Adams wear out Tim Duncan on the glass? Can Enes Kanter play big minutes without getting exposed defensively? Can Dion Waiters?
This is the series in which Durant and Westbrook must show their worth as leaders. Your best players have to set the tone for the defense and hold everyone else accountable, but you can’t do that if Westbrook is going to consistently gamble for steals and hang his teammates out to dry.
The most dynamic duo in the NBA will have to trust in their teammates, but more than anything, they’ll have to trust in their ability to play entire games from here on out. Anything less than 42 minutes from each of Durant and Westbrook leaves the Thunder too vulnerable against the deepest Spurs team ever. Billy Donovan has to make this gambit. Durant is a free agent at the end of the season. Westbrook’s homicidally aggressive style might not last into his 30s. There’s no tomorrow for Oklahoma City. If this is their last stand, Durant and Westbrook have to exhaust everything in their artillery.
This piece originally appeared in the April 29, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.