Battle royale with these…
The NBA’s Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs brings together two of the best teams record-wise in the NBA Playoffs thus far. Both times are a combined 16-1 heading into this series. One which could result in a changing of the guard as the Thunder look to become the new standard in the West with their athleticism and youth, punctuated by the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. While at the San Antonio Spurs are expecting their bold moves in the off season to continue paying off great dividends as they look to extend their 18-game winning streak. Their aging, yet solid nucleus of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are healthy and more importantly – they are rested.
Two times a flash
I’m still surprised that Thunder coach Scott Brooks still gets the co-pilot treatment despite the exceptional job he’s done since his arrival in OKC. Spurs coach Greg Popvich’s name always came after that of Phil Jackson’s. With Jackson’s retirement and his Spurs on the brink of another NBA Finals appearance, we may be witnessing Pop’s finest coaching job yet.
Most of the conversation I’ve heard among casual fans is that the Russell Westbrook/Tony Parker match up will be a one-sided affair which is the furthest thing from the truth. Parker, while not as explosive as Westbrook can do just as much damage in this series. Westbrook is most dangerous in the open floor and if the Spurs can avoid turnovers that half the battle in containing Westbrook. The Thunder need their point guard to play his best floor game in this series, this starts with allowing the offense to formulate before launching from deep. If Westbrook can maximize taking 15-17 shots per game while controlling the tempo, the Thunder will be in good shape. Thabo Sefolosha will be counted upon heavily in this series as he will open up guarding Daniel Green, but his primary assignment will be Manu Ginobili who has yet to find his playoff groove.
Defensive specialist Serge Ibaka will be busy with Tim Duncan who still remains one of the more difficult assignments in the league. The 36-year old averaged 13.3 points and 13.7 rebounds against the Thunder this season. Ibaka, on the other hand, was no less effective with averages of 10 points 7 rebounds and a whopping 3.7 blocks per game. Ibaka’s high energy attack is just what the Thunder need to match Duncan’s steady shoulder-to-wheel approach. Nick Collison will be on call as he attempts to make things tough on Duncan as well. Kawhi Leonard at 6’7″ will have his hands full dealing with Kevin Durant and both ends as the MVP runner-up hit the Spurs up for 22 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks during the season. Veteran Stephen Jackson, who is in his second stint with the Spurs may be the better matchup in this scenario.
As much as the Thunder want to run the Spurs into the ground, San Antonio is looking forward to making this series all about rebounding and presence in the paint. The Spurs Boris Diaw and OKC’s Kendrick Perkins are about as complex of a center match-up as we’ll see in the playoffs. Diaw doesn’t match up with Perkins physically by giving up 35 lbs. but his effective perimeter game leaves the Thunder with one less man underneath.
Manu Ginobili is averaging 11.3 points in the playoffs and that isn’t enough for the Spurs in this series. Going blow for blow with Sixth Man of the Year James Harden may take more out of Ginobili - putting more pressure on the Spurs bench. If Ginobili struggles the scoring burden is going to fall to Stephen Jackson who the Spurs have counted on to have them make this deep playoff run. For the Thunder Derek Fisher adds leadership and an option when the Thunder want to slow things down. The Spurs’ Tiago Splitter poses more of a physical presence for the Spurs and will be counted on to keep Perkins in foul trouble with his ability to score around the basket. The Thunder can match splitter with veteran Nazr Mohammed and even Cole Aldrich is foul trouble becomes an issue. Gary Neal and Patrick Mills give the Spurs bench a little more offensive kick as opposed to the Thunder who will have to mix and match to remain effective.
This series could end in five games or it could go a full seven (I believe the latter) whichever team can control the tempo will gain a huge advantage. The Spurs and Tim Duncan want to make this a marathon by slowly wearing out the Thunder on the boards and in the half court game, frustrating Russell Westbrook who wants to streak up and down the floor at break neck pace.
This is going to be the kind of series that reminds you why we love this game the way that we do.
Michael Tillery talked to Reggie Miller and Steve Kerr about preparing for Conference Finals as players:
Steve Kerr: “To win the NBA Championship you have to win four rounds of playoffs. There is a lot of stress involved. By the time you’ve advanced to the Western Conference Finals you’ve been through it for about one month so you’re either really stressed out or you’re used to the routine. These teams are both pretty experienced.”
Reggie Miller: “Stress is good. When you get down to the [Conference Finals], that series is the hardest to win…you can see that light at the end of the tunnel, you can see tape at the finish line and you’re almost there…to me that’s the toughest part when you get to the Conference Finals.”
Mike also asked Miller about the challenge of dealing with the Thunder’s three killers on the court: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and how that impacts a defensive game plan:
Miller: “The one thing about the Thunder, they are a jump-shooting team. When they have their jump shot going, they’re pretty much an unbeatable team. The key is to keep them out of the paint and contest those jump shots.”
Spurs in 7.