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No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (58-24) The Spurs v Thunder finals series in the Western Conference is a hotly anticipated one that has been predicted by many since the start of the season. This is an extremely unique match up of two teams with contrasting play styles. The last time these two teams met in the Playoffs was on this exact stage in 2012, where the Thunder came out on top in 6 games. This will be a very interesting and entertaining series indeed.
Last Time They Met: April 3: Thunder defeated Spurs 106-94 at Chesapeake Energy Arena
Road to the Conference Finals: The Thunder have done it the hard way this year, needing 7 games to finish off the Grizzlies (read more about that series in Jack’s article here) and needing a tough 6 games to defeat the Clippers in the Semi-Finals. After a see-sawing start to the series against the Clippers, in the big moments, when the game was on the line, it was OKC’s two main men; Durant and Westbrook who stood up and were counted. Between Westbrook’s 3 clutch free throws in Game 5 and Durant’s 39 points in Game 6, this pair brought OKC a lot of momentum coming into this series.
Oklahoma City Strengths: So far these playoffs, Russell Westbrook has been incredible, averaging 27.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.1 assists. This guy often cops a lot of criticism (in fact, even here at NBAAusStyle he’s a well debated topic), but he is a jet. OKC just happen to own two of the best 5-10 players in the world at the moment and that can generally help a team when it comes to winning basketball games. The Thunder are extremely deep, with guys off the bench like Reggie Jackson, Steven Adams, Derek Fisher and Caron Butler all being NBA starter quality. Guys like Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb aren’t even getting minutes! Along with this, they have a guy called Kevin Durant, you may have heard of him, he is the well-deserved NBA MVP. They have the most valuable player in the league for the 2013-14 season. Enough said.
Spurs Weaknesses: This is a Spurs team that managed the best record in the NBA this season, this is a quality outfit. But during the playoffs, especially against Dallas, the cracks were on show a little bit. The Spurs were very reliant on Tony Parker, who can be unstable at times when the pressure is on. Coupled with this, Westbrook’s athleticism does not bode well for TP, who is neither explosive nor ridiculously athletic. The Spurs can also struggle to defend shooters, which could be a problem with mid-range threats Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and even Butler and Jackson. More on the Spurs hopes in Jack’s article soon.
How OKC will win? The Thunder swept the Spurs 4-0 in the regular season, this team matches up very well against the Spurs. No one on the Spurs can match it with the calibre of a Westbrook or Durant, not even Tony Parker. The Thunder have that X-Factor about them and have proven to be a very clutch team. In the series against the Clippers, Scott Brooks was actually quite innovative, trying out various lineups and plays, rather than the stock standard ones OKC rely on. The one type of team the Spurs struggle against are ultra athletic teams. The Thunder are the epitome of that. That was how they came back from 2-0 down in the playoffs in 2012, they out ran the Spurs and it’s one of the main contributing factors to how they beat the Spurs in the regular season.
How OKC will lose? The Oklahoma Sh*tty Chunder (as I sometimes like to call them) can be very susceptible to cold patches. This is caused by the reliance on KD and Westbrook and Scott Brooks poor coaching (throughout the regular season mainly, personally I think Brooks has been good in the playoffs). The Thunder are often weak with the ball, and instead of treating every possession as valuable and a point scoring opportunity, they’re often lackadaisical with the ball in hand and tend to jack-up shots. Against a well-oiled Spurs machine, the Thunder cannot afford to be like this. The stagnant offense they run can be called out in the clutch (as seen in the Clippers Game 4 comeback), they need to be intuitive with the ball in their hands sometimes, as they can be far too predictable. The Thunder have some issues on defense, including perimeter D and mainly, consistent effort for on-ball defense. This is common knowledge that teams like the Grizzlies as well as the Clippers have exploited already.
What does Serge Ibaka’s injury mean for the Thunder? Serge Ibaka is an integral part of this Thunder unit, Oklahoma City value him so much they were willing to effectively give up James Harden for him. But, with his season ending calf injury, the Thunder are in a lot of trouble, here’s why. Ibaka is one of the best defenders in the league, and his speciality is post D. Against the likes of Duncan and the underrated Splitter, OKC will have a lot of trouble stopping points in the paint. Ibaka is also one of the best rim protectors in the game, always giving a solid presence on D. On offense, Ibaka is vital as he can hit mi-range shots and unclog the paint. Something players like Steven Adams and Nick Collison are not as adept at. OKC will likely have to rely on Steven Adams to provide rim protection (1.4 blocks on 16.3mins per game), but he is raw on offense and limited in other aspects of defence. Scott Brooks has been playing more small ball this season, with Ibaka primarily at centre. A line-up of Westbrook, Jackson, Butler, Durant and Adams is in no way out of the picture and is in my opinion one of the Thunder’s best options against the Spurs. Especially when either of Duncan/Splitter are off the court. Backup bigs Diaw and Bonner are both stretch players and the Thunder will not have to rely on an undersized 4 defending them in the post as much. The Thunder need guys like Adams, Collison, Butler and ever Perry Jones III to step up.
Key matchups: Obviously the Point Guard dual is huge, but with the supreme skills of Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, the almost cancel out. The two biggest matchups in my opinion are as follows:
Kawhi Leonard v Kevin Durant: The way that Leonard takes Durant will likely decide the series, Matt Barnes and Tony Allen have done quite well on KD in the lead up to this series, yet Durant is still averaging a massive 30.8 points per game. Kawhi Leonard has decent history against Durant, restricting him to around 26 points on average when they play (KD scored 28 on April 3). When both these guys play, OKC and San Antonio are 5-4 (to the Thunder), indicating tight matchups, although this season they’re 3-0 to Thunder. Kawhi Leonard is one of few players in the NBA that has the length and intensity to defend KD, he will disrupt KDs rhythm and frustrate him, just like he did to LeBron James in the NBA Finals last year. How Durant handles Kawhi will be the most important head to head in this series.
Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter v Serge Ibaka-less Thunder: The way that Collison and Adams handle Duncan and Splitter in the post and in general on the defensive end will be vital in this matchup. With Serge Ibaka’s injury, the centrepiece in the Thunder’s defence and another option for a spent Westbrook and Durant on offense (12.8pts at 61.7% FG) is gone. With him injuring his calf in Game 6 versus the Clippers, Ibaka is out for the series. This will likely prove disastrous for the Thunder, for the reasons listed above mainly, as well as this Oklahoma City outfit having no other big men the calibre of Splitter or Duncan. This is not good news for a Thunder team who may have to rely heavily on a trio of the much-ridiculed Kendrick Perkins, rookie Steven Adams and bench player Nick Collison as the big men in Ibaka’s absence.
Prediction: San Antonio in 7. KD needs to prove he’s the MVP. This is the perfect stage to do it, with a (likely) 2012 NBA Finals repeat against the Heat on the cards. The strengths of Oklahoma City just outweigh the weaknesses too heavily. This is a team that matches up perfectly against the Spurs, as evidenced by their sweep in the regular season. But this is with a healthy Ibaka. Without Ibaka, the Thunder’s defense will fall apart and their offense is further limited. Spurs go into this series as resounding favourites now.
See you guys soon for my Mock Draft article! Look out for the new stuff here on the blog, Jack just posted a round review of the Conference Semi-Finals and will be posting an article on the Spurs, Ryan is posting an article on the Pacers projections, Bick is posting one on the Heat projections and of course my Mock Draft article, exciting times!
Yours in Basketball, …Elliott03