Thunder-Spurs Will Look A Bit Different Tonight
By Randy Renner
Considering the circumstances, Kevin Durant's return from injury and starting the last year of his contract, Billy Donovan making his debut as head coach and a big time opponent in town with a national television audience watching, most folks believe this is the biggest Opening Night ever for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
And who am I to argue?
The team's very first Opening Night would be the only other one that might even come close but the stakes weren't nearly as high that night.
Of course players and coaches still like to say what they've generally always said going into these games.
"It's just one game in the grand scheme of things," Durant said.
"82 games is a lot of games and every game at that moment in time is gonna be big," echoed Donovan.
And we all know they're both right. A win over the Spurs doesn't guarantee a championship season, just as a loss doesn't mean the team's ultimate goal won't be achieved.
But Thunder fans know the Spurs have been one of the teams that has set the standard by which others are measured and Spurs fans know the Thunder have been one of those teams too.
Since the 2009-10 season San Antonio and Oklahoma City rank 1st and 2nd in the NBA in overall wins (336 for the Spurs, 316 for the Thunder) and wins on their home floors (193 for San Antonio and 180 for Oklahoma City). The margin between the teams is only as big as it is now because the Thunder fell below their average win mark with all their injuries last season.
Both teams have made changes in the off-season.
The Spurs brought in All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and former All-Star David West. Big names to be sure but Donovan is just as sure San Antonio's fine-tuned system under 5-time NBA Champion head coach Gregg Popovich hasn't been altered much.
"There are some things they're doing with West and Aldridge they haven't done in the past," Donovan admitted, "but their core package contains things they've been very, very good at for a long time and LaMarcus fits that very well."
As far as specific things the Spurs are doing now with Aldridge that perhaps they weren't doing before?
"They're playing him in wing pick-and-rolls a lot more," Donovan pointed out. "They're finding ways to throw him in the ball in deep postups and obviously he's a terrific mid-range jump shooter. He's utilizing his skill set inside of their system."
So overall the Spurs will still look very similar to what the Thunder have seen before. The Thunder may look much more like a totally different team to the Spurs.
Donovan has changed up the offense and the defense. Durant appears to be back at full speed, a level he didn't reach at all last season plagued by pain and soreness in his right foot during the 27 games in which he played. No one is hurt on the Thunder roster, something that couldn't be said at any time last season. And the players who joined the team late last season, Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler will finally get the chance to play with Durant and a full strength roster.
Donovan said this week though that perhaps too much is being made of the changes he's implemented because there are still a lot of holdovers from past seasons.
"There's things that I've kept that they've done here in the past that were really good concepts and were really effective and our guys are comfortable with that. And there's things defensively that they did last year that were really, really good and that they're comfortable with that we've kept."
But Donovan also says, even with the plays that have remained, he and his staff have added some tweaks that the Spurs (and other teams) haven't seen before from OKC.
"There's certainly different things that we've added that they didn't run, some plays, some sets, some side out-of-bounds actions or under the basket out-of-bounds plays that are gonna be a little bit different."
One thing that will likely remain unchanged is the Thunder starting lineup. Donovan said after Tuesday's practice he wasn't ready to make the official announcement but don't expect any changes from a Durant-Westbrook-Serge Ibaka-Andre Roberson-Steven Adams starting five.
Lineups featuring Westbrook and Roberson at the guards combined with Durant have held opponents to just 41.5 percent shooting over the last two seasons. Donovan has shown he prefers to begin games, much like Scott Brooks did, by setting a defensive tone.
The mystery tonight is where Billy D goes when he starts substituting. Will it be Waiters or Kanter off the bench first? Will we see times when Westbrook and Augustin are on the floor together? Maybe even along with rookie Cameron Payne too?
And remember the answers we get to those questions tonight may not be the same answers we get Friday night in Orlando or Sunday night against Denver.
Donovan seems more willing than Brooks was to change up his rotations and substitution patterns based on situations and matchups.
If you're going to the game tonight Thunder Alley will open at 4pm on Reno Avenue between Chesapeake Energy Arena and the Cox Center. If you're not going you can take your pick of how to watch the game because it will be on both ESPN and Fox Sports Oklahoma.
Of course here at InsideThunder.com we'll have complete coverage with pre and postgame updates and reactions. Click over to our Twitter feed page for updates through game.