Western Conference Finals Preview
Last season, the San Antonio Spurs were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies. With that disappointing loss, people began questioning if the Spurs were too old and if a core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker was capable of taking the Spurs to a title anymore. While the Spurs were answering questions about their advanced age, the Oklahoma City Thunder were answering questions about their youth. The Thunder, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka were able to advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they were ultimately dispatched by the eventual champion Mavericks.
The general consensus around the league regarding the Thunder has been that they will eventually be a great team, once they get a little more experience. The Thunder advancing to the Conference Finals last year made people question if the Thunder had arrived. Now, for the second straight season, the Thunder find themselves a mere four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals. This year, however, they’ll be running into a veteran Spurs team.
The Spurs won two of the three matchups between the teams this season. The Thunder won on January 8th, 103-96. It was the second night of a back-to-back for both teams. Then, on February 4th, the Spurs avenged their earlier loss to OKC with a 107-96 win. On March 16th the two teams squared off in a “rubber match” of sorts, with the Spurs taking the season series with a 114-105 decision. A fun fact about the two teams’ matchups this season was that each time they played the Thunder was playing their second game in two nights.
Let’s look at these two teams position by position and see who has the upper hand in the Western Conference Finals.
Point Guard: Tony Parker vs. Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is a phenomenal athlete at the point guard position, which could cause some problems for Tony Parker. Westbrook faced some backlash from fans earlier in the year for his shot selection, as he does look for his offense more than some would like seeing as how he has the option of passing to Kevin Durant. Westbrook however, is more than capable of hurting the defense either by scoring himself or setting up his teammates. Westbrook erupted for 36 points in the March meeting between the two squads. In MVP voting, despite most of the love going to Durant, Westbrook got a single 4th place vote, and a single 5th place vote.
Unfortunately for Westbrook, he’s going up against a savvy point guard in Tony Parker, who happened to finish 5th in MVP voting. Parker knows how to get into the lane better than just about any point guard in the game, and once he gets it in there he knows how to beat the defense with a layup of his own, a pitch out to the Spurs’ shooters, or a dump off to Tim Duncan. Parker could be the key to this series. In the Spurs’ two wins against the Thunder this season, he averaged 33.5 points and 8 assists (buoyed by a 42 point, 9 assist game in February). In the loss, though, The Thunder held him to 4 points on 1-of-8 shooting. Advantage: Spurs
Shooting Guard: Danny Green vs. Thabo Sefolosha
How many coaches would tell Manu Ginobili that he has to come off the bench behind a player in Danny Green that was waived by a post-decision Cleveland Cavaliers team that could use all the talent they could find, and then even later waived by the Spurs as well? The Spurs resigned Green and now he’s a starter on a team playing for a berth in the Finals. On the other side, Scott Brooks keeps James Harden on the bench to begin games in favor of Thabo Sefolosha. Ultimately, casual fans won’t pay much attention to this matchup, but both men bring something to the table. Sefolosha is a quality defender who will be tasked with slowing down the Spurs’ guards while Green will be looked to by the Spurs to provide some outside shooting, spreading the floor. Green dropped 21 on the Thunder in March, but combined for a mere 12 in the other two matchups. Advantage: Even
Small Forward: Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant
Kawhi Leonard had an excellent rookie year, culminating in being named to the NBA’s All-Rookie team. He averaged right around 8 points, 5 rebounds, and an assist per contest. He plays solid defense and has contributed all season long. In the three matchups against the Thunder this season he averaged over 14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals per game on 62% shooting, including 71% shooting from three point land. Pretty darn good numbers for a rookie.
Unfortunately for Leonard, he’s matched up with the runner up for MVP, Kevin Durant. Is there anything I can say about Durant that hasn’t been said? He’s tall enough to shoot over guards and quick enough that forwards can’t hang with him on the perimeter. He’s quickly becoming one of the best scorers in the entire league, while continuing to expand his game and become a better rebounder, passer, and defender. He’s going to drop 20 points on you every night, and that’s a given (he was held to fewer than 20 points only 5 times this season, and only once did he score fewer than 18). He is a truly special talent. Advantage: Thunder
Power Forward: Tim Duncan vs. Serge Ibaka
Serge Ibaka is one of the bright young players for the Thunder. He can block just about any shot you put up. He is an absolute game changer on defense, and the Spurs are well aware of that fact. Tim Duncan admitted, “We understand he’s a heck of a weak-side defender and a great shot blocker. We all have that in the back of our minds.” Ibaka has also expanded his game so that he can step out and knock down the midrange jumper, which makes him dangerous. Westbrook and Durant can drive and kick to Ibaka, making them much more difficult to defend. Ibaka scored double digits in all three games against the Spurs but was limited to only 5 rebounds in two of the matchups. In March he had a line of 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 blocks.
Tim Duncan, quite possibly the greatest power forward of all time, is getting up in age but is still a very good defender. He’s probably really a center, but the team has fought tooth and nail to have him referred to as a power forward, so that’s where we’ll list him here. Against the Thunder this season, he averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds, including a 16 point, 19 rebound , 5 block game in March. He can score inside or outside. He’s still one of the premier inside defenders. Earlier this season, the Spurs kept him inactive for a game for rest and officially listed him as Did Not Play – Old. It got a few laughs, but it’s true, Duncan is getting up there in age, but retains his superstar status. He isn’t as quick as he used to be, but his game was never predicated on athleticism, meaning that even at 36 years old the Big Fundamental is still a great player, and while the Spurs are more reliant on Parker than ever, they can still run the offense through Duncan for stretches of the game and give opposing defenses fits. Duncan, despite not being the focus of the offense this season, got a single 4th place vote for MVP this season. Advantage: Spurs
Center: Boris Diaw vs. Kendrick Perkins
Perkins was a rock for the Celtics inside, until he was traded to the Thunder where he has teamed with Ibaka to create a formidable inside duo. As a defensive player, his numbers don’t often tell the story of his impact on a game. He’s only averaged 6.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game over his career, but his performances against the Spurs this season has been a big part of his team’s struggles against the West’s number one seed. In three games, Perkins had 2 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks…total. In fact, he had more turnovers against the Spurs this season than points scored.
Boris Diaw is not a traditional big man. He does, however, fit in well with this team because coach Popovich knows how to use him and allows him to play to his strengths. He started the season off in Charlotte, before coming over to the Spurs. He didn’t even play against the Thunder this year, meaning he could be a game changer for the Spurs. His ability to step outside and knock down jumpers is his biggest contribution. He also plays well with fellow Frenchman Parker, able to work the pick and pop. He stretches the floor, creating driving lanes for Parker and Ginobili. Advantage: Thunder
The Thunder’s bench is led by sixth man of the year James Harden, while the Spurs are led by Manu Ginobili. Harden is young and a great scorer. He can beat his man off the dribble drive, or he can step out and knock down the three, which is especially important playing off of Westbrook and Durant. He made a believer out of a lot of people this season. Thunder GM Sam Presti (who formerly worked with the Spurs) took some heat for selecting Harden over players such as Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio and Steph Curry but Harden silenced those critics this season. He averaged just under 20 points a game against the Spurs this season.
Diaw isn’t the only Spur that didn’t play the Thunder this season. Ginobili missed the three games against Oklahoma City. Perkins and Ibaka are very good for the Thunder, but if they get in foul trouble there is little depth behind them. Ginobili, with his reckless drives to the hoop, has the ability to draw fouls on the Thunder frontcourt, getting them out of the game. Because Ginobili plays such an unorthodox game, his shot can be very difficult for shot blockers to time, meaning he could give the Thunder fits. Advantage: Spurs by the slimmest of margins
The Spurs have more experience, and with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have a more balanced attack. Both teams are very good offensively and defensively they are good enough to get the job done. The Spurs were the second most prolific offense, followed closely by the Thunder who were third (103.7 ppg to 103.1). The Spurs were ranked 16th in the league in opponent points per game while OKC was 17th. These two teams are very closely matched. On the bench the Spurs have Gregg Popovich, who is one of the best coaches and tacticians the league has to offer. Scott Brooks is very good for the Thunder, but not quite on Pop’s level. The Thunder are going to be good for a long time if they can find a way to keep this team together, but the Spurs are better right now. Each team had two players receive votes in the MVP voting, so it may come down to who steps up down the stretch.
Final Prediction: Spurs in 7.
Series Schedule: (All Times Eastern)
Sunday, May 27 8:30 Thunder 98 @ Spurs 101
Tuesday, May 29 9:00 Thunder @ Spurs
Thursday, May 31 9:00 Spurs @ Thunder
Saturday, June 2 8:30 Spurs @ Thunder
Monday, June 4 9:00 Thunder @ Spurs *If Necessary
Wednesday, June 6 9:00 Spurs @ Thunder *If Necessary
Friday, June 8 9:00 Thunder @ Spurs *If Necessary