The Oklahoma City Thunder swept the San Antonio Spurs during the regular season, but the playoffs are a whole different story. Before they kick off their battle for the Western Conference crown, our panel of experts examines the series.
1. Fact or Fiction: Losing Serge Ibaka changes everything.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact. The Thunder were going to need to be at their best to beat the Spurs. That required Ibaka's defensive presence and providing the type of offensive threat he posed in Game 3 of the Clippers series.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Fact. I talked about this in our series preview for Insider. Ibaka's absence doesn't just hurt Oklahoma City's defense as its primary rim protector and defensive anchor, but it hurts the Thunder offensively as well. They have been almost 10 points per 100 possessions worse on offense when he's off the floor in the postseason.
Graydon Gordian, TrueHoop Network: Fact. Oklahoma City is still an excellent team, but this makes San Antonio the clear favorite to win the series. There's a big drop-off between Ibaka and the likes of Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams. Ibaka's PER this postseason is 19.6. Perkins' is 6.3. San Antonio wants to get to the rim. Doing so just got a lot easier.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider: Fact. As the fourth quarter of Game 6 versus the Clippers showed, it's not entirely for the worse, but Ibaka has played two-thirds of the team's minutes this season, missing only one game. His absence certainly makes the Thunder a different team.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Fact. It changes everything. The Thunder are now without their third-best player and a defensive anchor who allows OKC to play the kind of high-pressure defense it does. Losing Ibaka means the Thunder will have to completely adapt and adjust, but it doesn't mean they're finished.
2. Fact or Fiction: San Antonio is a better team than last year.
Adande: Fact. The Spurs have a more experienced Kawhi Leonard, they've added Marco Belinelli (who's fit in perfectly), and there's been little drop-off with Parker, Duncan and Ginobili. Plus, even though it feels as though the Spurs have been around forever, this group playing this style is new and could use another year of playing together.
Elhassan: Fact. Marco Belinelli is an upgrade over Gary Neal; Patty Mills, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter are all better than they were last year; and in some respect, the sting of losing the Finals last year has hardened the resolve and focus of everyone on the roster and staff.
Gordian: Fact. The Spurs have continued to refine their system on both ends of the court. Kawhi Leonard has continued to improve. Tiago Splitter's defense has improved. Patty Mills has greatly improved. Manu Ginobili has had a much better year than he did in 2012-13. The improvements are slight -- they were already very good -- but they have improved.
Pelton: Fact. Patty Mills' breakthrough has solidified the backup point guard spot, which was San Antonio's biggest weakness, and Marco Belinelli has been an upgrade over Gary Neal. The real question, though, is whether the Spurs are better than two years ago -- which they are, for those reasons plus Kawhi Leonard's development.
Young: Fact. Simple reason for me: Kawhi Leonard is better. He has elevated his defensive game even more, but he's developed into a reliable, consistent scorer largely because he's discovered the importance of remaining aggressive offensively. The Spurs are a year older pretty much everywhere else, but with Leonard, they're just a year more experienced.
3. What's the key to this series for the Thunder?
Adande: Kevin Durant has to play like the best player on the court. Theoretically, the Spurs have no answer for him. If he gets hot, they don't have someone who can match him bucket-for-bucket. But if he goes through some of those dry spells he suffered against the Grizzlies and Clippers, the game (and possibly series) will slip away from the Thunder.
Elhassan: Overwhelm San Antonio with their athleticism. This has to be a running series for Oklahoma City because if it turns into a half-court affair, the Thunder haven't shown the ability to consistently create easier scoring opportunities.
Gordian: Oklahoma City needs to stay focused and play deliberate basketball for 48 minutes. Although a great team, the Thunder are prone to mental lapses and periods of listlessness, especially on offense. The San Antonio machine is always waiting for an opportunity to kick into high gear. Don't give it one.
Pelton: Durant/Westbrook takeovers. When both players are on at the same time, like Games 2 and 3 against the Clippers -- and perhaps even Game 6, despite Westbrook's poor shooting -- Oklahoma City can beat anyone, anywhere. The Thunder will need three or four of those type of games to win this series.
Young: The backcourt. The Thunder have one significant matchup advantage against the Spurs, and it's in their big, athletic backcourt pairing of Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson. The Spurs simply don't have a physical answer for either, outside of taking Kawhi Leonard off Kevin Durant, which doesn't look like all that great of a plan.
4. What's the key to this series for the Spurs?
Adande: Keeping everybody healthy. They had a scare with Parker's hamstring against Portland but were able to finish that series off and buy him some rest. How will they hold up if this series goes long and the minutes add up? Fatigue and breakdowns became factors when the Spurs were dragged into long series against the Warriors and Heat last year.
Elhassan: Outexecute the Thunder to death. San Antonio is at the top of the league in terms of execution and attention to detail. The Spurs need to turn this series from an athletic spectacle to a decision-making event, from the 100-meter dash to a game of chess.
Gordian: The Spurs must keep their foot on the gas. The even-keeled Spurs can be too measured at times. In the 2012 Western Conference finals, they learned a hard lesson: No lead is insurmountable for a team as talented and explosive as the Thunder. They need to learn from that painful experience.
Pelton: Production from the role players. The Thunder were able to shut San Antonio's wing shooters down in the 2012 Western Conference finals by running them off the line. Leonard, Green and Belinelli have to be prepared to make plays off the dribble if Oklahoma City does the same in this series.
Young: Making open looks. Sounds like an oversimplification, I realize, but the Spurs are going to get clean looks against the Thunder's inconsistent perimeter defense. In the four games between the teams this season, the Spurs got plenty of open shots but were extremely spotty in knocking them down. Make those shots and it clears OKC's ability to pack the paint to overcompensate for the loss of Ibaka.
5. Who wins the series?
Adande: San Antonio in 6. When Westbrook and Durant get going, the Thunder will have moments when they seem unstoppable. Ultimately, the Spurs will spend more minutes playing at a higher level, regardless of which unit Gregg Popovich has on the floor.
Elhassan: San Antonio in 6. I had the Spurs winning before Ibaka's injury, but that just sealed the deal. I have a hard time believing that the Thunder's simplistic offensive approach can just outscore every opponent. Eventually, the piper will be paid.
Gordian: San Antonio in 6. This series will look very different than Spurs-Thunder in 2012. No Harden. No Ibaka. A greatly improved Leonard. Oklahoma City still has the best player on the floor, which gives it a great shot at winning. But in the end, the depth and collective IQ of San Antonio will make the difference.
Pelton: San Antonio in 7. I leaned slightly toward the Thunder before Ibaka's injury, but his absence makes the Spurs the clear favorites. They're the best team in the NBA, and without Ibaka, Oklahoma City's matchup advantage is mitigated somewhat.
Young: Thunder in 6. I'm sticking with my original pick for the series despite Ibaka's injury. The reason is simple: It's always been about Westbrook and Durant. With them, the Thunder still have the two best players in the series. OKC's depth has been damaged and it will have to find a solution to replicate Ibaka's midrange spacing, but Westbrook and Durant can beat the Spurs. They're that good.