What to watch for in Spurs-Thunder, Game 3

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Have you memory-charmed that Raptors-Heat overtime debacle out of your brains yet? Good. Let's get back to some real basketball, as the headline series of the second round resumes tonight after what feels like a two-week layoff since one unprecedented Dion Waiters shove opened a whirlpool of chaos.

(Seriously, though: Do the Raptors and Heat know you are allowed to start doing things on offense with more than 12 seconds on the shot clock? God, that was awful).

As things tend to go, those final frantic, comedy-of-errors 13.5 seconds of Game 2 have overshadowed the 47-plus minutes of interesting basketball that came before. And, man, those 13.5 seconds were nuts. One note that perhaps hasn't gotten enough attention: it was not a coincidence the Spurs assigned Manu Ginobili to defend Waiters on that fateful inbounds pass. The Spurs have long believed Ginobili is one of the best inbound defenders in league history, perhaps the very best ever, and their choice for that role in crunch-time usually comes down to: Manu or a big guy?

But those 13.5 seconds didn't decide the game, and plenty of forgotten bizarro stuff happened earlier. Remember when Russell Westbrook flung a lob to Kevin Durant, hit the backboard by accident, and the ball bounced to Steven Adams for a layup? Whoops. Or when Westbrook got stuffed at the rim, poked the rebound away from an unsuspecting Tim Duncan, and rose up for a "what the hell?" triple that went in?

So many nutty things happen in a 48-minute game. All you can do is control the process so more of the things you can't completely control go your way in the end.

With that in mind, here are things to watch as this heavyweight clash resumes.

Can Oklahoma City bring their best defense again?

After embarrassing themselves in Game 1 with an inattentive effort unworthy of a lottery team, the Thunder focused, tweaked their schemes, and bottled up the Spurs pick-and-roll attack that had destroyed them. Westbrook was cleaner on the ball. Ibaka often took a step or two higher on the floor against those Tony Parker/Patty Mills-LaMarcus Aldridge pick-and-rolls, corralling Parker before he could penetrate into the paint -- allowing Westbrook to catch up sooner, so that Ibaka could scuttle back to Aldridge before pick-and-pop death rained down.

The Thunder sometimes forced Parker away from the pick, making every rotation a bit shorter. Even when Parker attacked that defense with his cagey wit, the Thunder used their length and athleticism to run San Antonio off its preferred shots:

Sometimes they had Ibaka lunge out at Parker to wall off any driving lane, and stick closer to Aldridge -- the anti-Dirk defense. Aldridge countered by slipping hard to the rim, but with Tim Duncan nearby, it was tough sledding for him in there:

It's dumb to say, but this is the Thunder, so we have to say it: Oklahoma City has to play like this every game.

More Diaw, please

Unless something is really wrong with Diaw -- and I don't think there is -- he needs to play more than the eight minutes Gregg Popovich allowed in Game 2. The Diaw-Aldridge combination was deadly for the Spurs all season, but Popovich has only used it for eight combined minutes in this series so far.

Look at that Aldridge miss in the lane again. If Diaw is on the floor instead of Duncan, he's probably behind the 3-point arc, and his defender has much further to go to bother Aldridge. The Diaw-Aldridge combo is so good because they can flip-flop between the inside-outside roles, keeping the defense off-balance and opening up breathing space for each other.

Diaw can also work any Thunder big man other than Steven Adams in the post, and plow his big butt right through Durant if they cross-paths during Oklahoma City's small-ball minutes.

Diaw has only received two post touches all series, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com, and both came in garbage time of Game 1.

Look: Diaw is not some world-beater. But Duncan and West struggled to finish anything in Game 2, and the Spurs cannot ask Aldridge to play 43 minutes, carry the offense, and protect the rim when paired with West.

I'll be very surprised if Diaw doesn't see more time tonight.

Too much Aldridge?

The Thunder "let" Aldridge get his, the thinking goes, shut down everyone else, and baited the Spurs away from their beautiful game identity.

Eh. Not really. The Spurs have scored more than 1.3 points per possession on Aldridge post-ups, and even better than that if you include shots that came one or more passes after an Aldridge post touch, per SportVU data. If you score 1.3 points per possession all game, you are going to win, all the time. Voluntarily giving up 1.3 points per possessions to "shut everyone else down" is not really a thing that works. That the Thunder outscored San Antonio by four points during Aldridge's 43 minutes is irrelevant; the Spurs offense died when Aldridge sat, and the Thunder won those 43 minutes mostly because they scored like gangbusters, per NBA.com. (They lost the other five because their bench defense was horrible).

The Thunder didn't win because of Aldridge's post-ups. They won because they defended every other play type pretty well. Did they shut down that other stuff because San Antonio got its players out of rhythm by dumping the ball to Aldridge over and over? That's an interesting question, but I'm unconvinced the answer is "yes."

The Thunder understood Aldridge was killing them, which is why they started doubling him late in Game 2 -- effectively using Parker, hidden in the corner underneath the scoreboard in the photo below, as San Antonio's version of Andre Roberson:

That's the interesting yin-yang here: the Spurs noticed the Thunder abandoning Parker to muck up their spacing, so they went to Mills -- a better shooter -- more in the second half. But Mills isn't as polished a drive-and-kick guy on the pick-and-roll, and so the Spurs naturally leaned even more on Aldridge's post game.

If Aldridge keeps obliterating Ibaka one-on-one, the Spurs should keep right on going to him. Aldridge almost certainly can't sustain that efficiency, especially as the Thunder throw more looks at him, and the Spurs will then have to recalibrate their offense back into balance.

They know how to do that. A lot of it comes down to Kawhi Leonard just playing better. When Oklahoma City shifted Durant to Danny Green, I expected Leonard to feast on both Roberson and Waiters. Nope. They stonewalled him. If they pull that again, the Thunder have something cooking.

Even more Westbrook pick-and-roll

The Spurs haven't had an answer for the Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll, with three shooters -- provided Waiters is in the game for Roberson -- surrounding center stage. The Thunder get good shots out of this almost every time -- Westbrook layups, wide-open 3s for Ibaka and Waiters, and dunk after dunk for Adams.

This one even featured Ibaka setting a pindown for Durant on the weak side -- a decoy meant to distract anyone who might crash Adams's dunk party:

On shots that have come two or fewer passes after an Adams ball screen for Westbrook in this series, the Thunder have a "quantified shot quality" of 57 percent, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com -- an estimate of the percentage players would be expected to hit on those precise shots, factoring in how open they are, the closest defender, and other variables from the tracking data.

That is a massive number; the Hawks led the league in the regular-season at 53 percent. This is something you milk until the Spurs prove they can contain it, even if it comes at the expense of Durant's touches.

The Westbrook-Ibaka pick-and-roll has also been effective, though it doesn't knife the defense the same way, since Ibaka mostly pops for jumpers with Adams chilling in the paint. But let's take a minute to appreciate Westbrook's subtle brilliance on plays like this:

Man, look at that! Westbrook has barely even gotten around Ibaka's screen before he kicks a turbo pass back to him. The timing of that pass -- how early it is -- is very much intentional. Westbrook knows Aldridge is going to drift away from Ibaka to contain his drive, and he gets that pass airborne while Aldridge is still shifting away from Ibaka. Poor Aldridge has zero chance to stop, change direction, and get anywhere near Ibaka.

The Spurs eventually started switching the Westbrook-Ibaka combo, daring Westbrook to hit long 2-point jumpers over Aldridge. He drained a bunch. The Spurs should probably live with that, and bank on the math tilting back their way in Game 3.

But that's all the more reason for the Thunder to lean on that Westbrook-Adams combo. The Spurs can't switch that, at least if Duncan or West is guarding Adams. Those fogies have no shot staying in front of Westbrook.

The Spurs will try going under screens to shut off Westbrook's drive and keep themselves out of rotation mode, but that's the thing with Westbrook: he is so damn explosive, maybe the fastest zero-to-60 driver ever, that he can beat guys to the spot when they go under picks.

Hell, his raw speed makes switching the dread Westbrook-Durant pick-and-roll harder than you think it would be. If Westbrook is at full throttle, it takes pitch-perfect footwork to stop, change directions, switch assignments, and have a prayer at keeping Westbrook from the rim:

The Spurs know all this. They'll just try a bunch of things, and bank on Leonard playing peak Sharktopus defense.

Thunder dilemma: big or small?

Donovan busted out the Adams-Kanter double-mustache look in Game 2, and the Thunder played the Spurs even during the minutes those behemoths shared the floor. That's a home run for the Thunder considering how the Spurs have victimized poor Kanter on defense.

The Thunder tweaked their rotation in Game 2, scrapping Nick Collison, and playing small-ball, with Durant at power forward, late in both the 1st and 3rd quarters. It was a change a lot of analysts -- including this one -- pitched after Game 1.

And it was a disaster. Playing Cameron Payne, Waiters, Anthony Morrow and Kanter together leaves too many awful defenders splattered across the floor. It also highlights how the Thunder have failed since 2012 to find any two-way wing their coach might trust. Morrow and Roberson are one-way players going in the opposite direction, Randy Foye hasn't worked, and Kyle Singler is out of the rotation -- again.

Plus: if the Thunder play small-ball with Roberson on the bench, it leaves Waiters as the only viable option on Leonard, since Durant has to guard a Spurs big man. Waiters did fine in that matchup, but can he hold strong?

The small-ball Thunder could slide Durant onto Leonard, and try and get away with Waiters guarding West. West might punish that mismatch, and if he can't, it amounts to a Howler demanding Popovich put Diaw onto the floor to inflict harm.

The Spurs in Game 2 broke out a new move in this chess match: they went small, too, with Leonard bumping to power forward. The downside: that lined up Durant with Leonard, so that Waiters no longer had to guard him. The upside: the Spurs could hide their point guard on Morrow -- the place West hides on defense if San Antonio stays big -- stick a wing player on Payne, and switch the Payne-Durant pick-and-rolls that did real damage.

Watching Popovich and Donovan play this out will be fascinating. The Kanter-Adams combo worked in Game 2, but it cramps the lane when Durant comes flying off a pindown screen:

The easy pass to Adams isn't there, since Aldridge is lurking nearby off Kanter.

Look how much easier that Durant-to-Adams pass is with Aldridge patrolling Ibaka at the 3-point arc:

Roberson's minutes are also worth monitoring. Nobody guards him. Duh. The Thunder have tried to leverage that inattention by using Roberson as a screener, especially in pindowns for Durant, but it hasn't worked. The Spurs just double Durant with Roberson's man (usually Parker), and happily ignore Roberson for the rest of the possession.

Mega-adjustments don't happen after a 1-1 stalemate. These teams still are feeling each other out. After tonight, that could change.