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No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder (58-24)
As anticipated, we see the two best teams in the Western Conference facing off against each other for the right to play in the NBA Finals. This is going to be a great series, matching up two of the best point guards in the league, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook. The well oiled, ageless Spurs which look like title contenders year after year come up against the young, athletic Thunder, who are looking to put up their best playoffs performance yet. I can’t wait to watch and see how this series unfolds.
Road to the Conference Finals: Both teams have had a surprisingly rough trip to the Conference Finals for a 1 or 2 seed. Spurs had a tough 7-game series against the Mavericks, and the Thunder have had two long-drawn series against the Grizzlies and Clippers. All three of these challengers really exposed the weaknesses of the two teams, and it’ll be interesting to see how each coach takes advantage of that in this series. For the Mavericks, tiring out the ageing Spurs seemed like the best bet. For the Grizzlies and Clippers, tough half-court defense and winning 1-on-1 defensive matchups was the key, that stopped the Thunder from running their typical isolation heavy offense. The Spurs, however, are coming into this series with a little more momentum and confidence, as they managed to make quick work of a disappointing Trail Blazers in the 2nd Round.
How Spurs will win?: The Spurs are going to have to, well… be the Spurs… if they want to play in the Finals. They need to stick to what they do best, day in, day out. If they can give the Thunder a tough time in half-court defense, like the Clippers and Grizzlies were able to do well, then you’ll see the productivity of the Thunder stars decline. They have to play good basketball at all times, that’s what they do. That includes a bench which has had some great success this post-season. We’ve seen valuable minutes and good production from players like Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Marco Bellineli, and the ever-impressive 6th man Manu Ginobili. If Popovich can provide valuable minutes to the bench, and they perform well, then the Thunder will lose their advantage of being able to tire, and out-run the Spurs. The other factor for the Spurs title hopes is the defense of Kawhi Leonard. He’s got to show his metal against the best scorer in the league, and so far he’s shown he’s capable of doing it. He needs to repeat his successes against Durant and LeBron James, so that OKC have to look for other options than KD.
Spurs’ Strengths: As I mentioned before, the Spurs biggest strength is playing fundamental basketball on the offensive and defensive end that absolutely frustrates the opponent, and when the starters come off, you don’t get a break, because you’ve got good, talented players providing strong contributions thanks to the stellar coaching of Gregg Popovich. Oh, and one thing. I haven’t even mentioned Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, two future hall-of-famers, who have shown time and time again their ability to perform in the post-season. They’ve managed to stay fresh this playoffs, having only averaged 32 and 29 minutes a game respectively, and having an extra game to rest up.
Thunder’s Weaknesses: The weaknesses in this side are few and far between, they play good defense (when Ibaka is on the court) and they have one of the best offenses in the league. But in these strengths, there lie a couple of weaknesses that Popovich should be able to exploit. On the defensive end, the team will be without Serge Ibaka for the rest of the season, and this will make it a lot harder for the Thunder to defend a great post duo in Duncan and Splitter. Without Ibaka, Perkins will have to defend Duncan or risk having Timmy-D put up an easy 25 on Steven Adams or Nick Collison. it will also make it harder to contest shots from the ever-creative Parker and Ginobili, only making Parker’s gorgeous runner more difficult to stop. On the offensive end, the Spurs will have to exploit the uncreative offense of Scott Brooks the same way the grizzlies did in the first round. They won their individual matchups at every position, and that made it too hard for Durant and Westbrook to run isolations all day. This Thunder side, despite being one of the best offensive teams in the league, managed a bottom-third ranking in the league in pace-adjusted assists. If the Spurs can force the Thunder into a lot of passing, OKC will find it hard to score. Speaking of team assists per game, the perennially top of the list Spurs will be firing great passes all over the floor to open cuts, a product of Popovich’s offense. How the Thunder manage to defend that will be vital.
How the Spurs will lose?: The Spurs need to stop Durant. Plain and simple. If Durant puts up 35 points a night on them, then they have little chance of winning this series. The individual matchup of Parker and Westbrook will also be an important factor. If Westbrook tires Parker with his speed and athleticism, then it’s going to be tough for the Spurs to win. As written about by my co-author Elliott here, the Thunder have 2 of the best players in the world right now, no discussion, and if they can outplay the Spurs, which they are more than capable of doing, then the Thunder can put away this series quite easily.
Key matchups: A couple of key matchups which will be important factors in this series. The first and most important is the Parker/Westbrook head-to-head. It’s a show down of the fundamental, classic point guard and the athletic, quick breed of point guard of today’s game. Tony Parker will have to win by playing sound basketball on both ends of the court, and by showing his great offensive fundamentals. Westbrook will have to win with his scoring and athleticism, and by shutting down Parker. The winner of this matchup is whoever gives more assists. Parker will need to use his options and Westbrook will have to show his playmaking ability against a fantastic Spurs defense. Isolations won’t be the biggest factor to this matchup.
The second matchup is Durant against Leonard. Leonard needs to play good defense and force Durant to use other options. Leonard should aim to not need any double-teams on Durant when he’s assigned to him, because that’s how the Thunder can be such a threat.
Thirdly we have Duncan and Splitter against Perkins. Perkins needs to be able to slow down Duncan’s post play, without giving up easy looks on the weak side to Splitter. If Duncan can show his flair down on the block, it’ll force double teams and Duncan is one of the best in the league at finding an open man out of the post. On the other side of the court, Perkins will have to lift his scoring ability, which has been prone to simply disappearing for stretches of 3 or 4 games at a time in the playoffs. They need to capitalise on their opportunities when they come, or they’ll be in trouble. Somebody has to help out Durant and Westbrook.
Finally, the matchup of the two benches. Normally this isn’t a big factor in the playoffs, teams can get away with playing just a few of their good bench players, but not against the Spurs, which manages to have a 12-deep roster every season. When Parker and Duncan come off the court, you’ve still got to defend Green and Leonard and Splitter, then, coming off the pine you’ve got Ginobili, you’ve got to stop Mills, Belinelli, Bonner and Diaw. On the Thunder, when Durant and Westbrook are off, all you’ve got is Perkins and Sefolosha, then it’s Caron Butler, Reggie Jackson and Derrick Fisher. Good players, but hardly able to matchup against a Spurs system which flourishes with almost anybody on the floor. It doesn’t matter who’s out there, in the flowing, clockwork offense that is the Spurs, the sum total is greater than the individual parts. Duncan and Parker may not be able to match up to Durant and Westbrook at their current age, but they can have a lot more faith in their team when they sit down, and that will be one of the biggest deciding factors in this series.
Prediction and Why: This game will go to the Spurs in 6. A rested Spurs line up should take the first 2 games at home with ease, and be able to take one of the games in Oklahoma. Good defense from the Spurs and an Ibaka-less Thunder are the reason that we see the Spurs win their first few games so easily, and it’s always tough to dig yourself out of a 3-1 hole, even if you’re the Thunder. This will be a great series, and I think the games will be close, but the Spurs will ultimately by the stronger team.