After swimming quite soundly through the Lakers series, the Thunder have advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row. The problem is, they're facing their toughest challenge yet in the experienced San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs have absolutely cruised through the competition so far, making mincemeat of the Utah Jazz and soundly defeating the Los Angeles Clippers in four games. They got a bad rap last season after losing to the 8th seeded Grizzlies, but they've upped the ante this season with some nice acquisitions, young and old. Plus, their entire roster is healthy and ready to go, including the older Duncan and Ginobili. But it's the series everyone has been waiting for, and some are saying the Western Conference Finals might as well be the NBA Finals.
|Boris Diaw||Kendrick Perkins|
|4.7 Pts, 4.3 Reb, 2.4 Ast, 58% FG%||5.1 Pts, 6.6 Reb, 1.2 Ast, 1.1 Blk|
|Tim Duncan||Serge Ibaka|
|"The Big Fundamental"||"IBlocka"|
|15.4 Pts, 9.0 Reb, 2.3 Ast, 1.5 Blk||9.1 Pts, 7.5 Reb, 3.7 Blk, 54% FG%|
|Kawhi Leonard||Kevin Durant|
|7.9 Pts, 5.1 Reb, 1.1 Ast, 1.3 Stl||28.0 Pts, 8.0 Reb, 3.5 Ast, 1.2 Stl|
|Danny Green||Thabo Sefolosha|
|"Gerald Green's Second Cousin"||"Selfishlosha"|
|9.1 Pts, 3.5 Reb, 1.3 Ast, 0.9 Stl||4.8 Pts, 3.0 Reb, 0.9 Stl, 47% 3PT|
|Tony Parker||Russell Westbrook|
|"Firey Francophile"||"Honey Badger"|
|18.3 Pts, 2.9 Rebs, 7.7 Ast, 1.0 Stl||23.6 Pts, 4.6 Reb, 5.5 Ast, 1.7 Stl|
|Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson||James Harden, Daequan Cook|
|"Obi Wan Ginobili", "Stack Jack"||"Jimbo Slice", "Dynamic"|
MG: 12.9 Pts, 3.4 Reb, 4.4 Ast.
SJ: 8.9 Pts, 3.9 Reb, 2.0 Ast.
JH: 16.8 Pts, 4.1 Reb 3.7 Ast.
DC: 5.5 Pts, 2.1 Reb.
The Lowdown: Having Harden on the bench is one thing, but Ginobili and Jackson? Blimey, that's one mean scoring duo. Though neither of them is as threatening as they used to be, Ginobili is great at drawing fouls down low, and Stephen Jackson can run the floor, defend, and hit threes like he used to for the We Believe Warriors. Harden is probably a more dynamic option than both of them offensively, but he's only average to above average defensively. Cook will pretty much shoot one or two threes a game.
|Gary Neal||Derek Fisher|
|10.0 Pts, 2.1 Reb, 2.1 Ast, 42% 3PT||5.6 Pts, 1.9 Reb, 2.7 Ast, 92% FT|
The Lowdown: I feel like I'm spending this entire preview gushing over the Spurs, but in this case, it's justified. Gary Neal is a huge asset for them, since he has the ability to walk up and hit a three before the Thunder's defense has even been set up, and he's a great threat as a ball-handler. He's not completely focused on the paint, but I have a feeling he'll exploit Derek Fisher a little bit. Nevertheless, Fisher will do his usual thing with his good off-ball movement, occasional open three, and occasional charge.
Bottom of the Bench :
|James Anderson, Patty Mills||Royal Ivey, Reggie Jackson, Lazar Hayward, Cole Aldrich|
|"Big Game James", "Patty Cakes"||"Cheese", "Better Basketball", "Zar Zar Binks", "Cole Sore"|
The Lowdown: Aside from Garbage Time, none of these guys have seen time in the playoffs so far. But Anderson and Mills have proven they can fill the wing positions capably, though Anderson's motivation has been called into question. Thunder-wise, Ivey can defend well and his occasional threes, while the other threes are a bit raw by NBA standards.
Advantage: Push. The Spurs players are arguably better, but Ivey brings a lot of experience to the table, and I like Lazar Hayward for some reason.
|Gregg Popovich||Scott Brooks|
|Reg. Season: 847-399
4 NBA Championships
|Reg. Season: 174-125
The Lowdown: Popovich is one of the NBA's most storied, successful, and stable coaches. Historically he's know for running a slow, defensively minded team. But his roster changed, and his coaching philosophy had to change a little bit as well. There's still things that have remained true about Popovich since the beginning of his career, such as not fouling the opposition, protecting the paint, and moving the ball. But, like any great coach, he adapts well to any roster. Brooks, on the other hand, has really only coached one style of team, but he's done it relatively well. He's a student of Popovich, but his style of coaching is noticeably different in that his plays are less complex, and he's more willing to let his stars play through bad days.
Keys to Winning the Series:
1. Get Consistent Production from Russell Westbrook. In a series like this, we can't afford to have Westbrook go 9 of 25 from the field. The Spurs are a lot better than the Mavs or Lakers were offensively, and if the Thunder hit a dry spell, the Spurs will make them pay hard. The only reason I'm calling out Westbrook specifically is because he's notorious for being off and on, and Parker has given him fits in the past. If the Thunder can keep Westbrook under control, this becomes a whole new series, right off the bat.
2. Limit the threes, in any way possible. The Spurs basically live on threes at this point, as one of the NBA's top teams at taking and making threes. This is where they'll kill you the most, because three threes in a row from the Spurs and only two scores from the other team means a 9-4 run, despite the other team not really doing that much wrong. The Thunder try to combat the constant threes by staying in a man-to-man defense, but sometimes they're lazy about the initial setup, and they get too focused on providing help defense in the paint. There's no one great solution to the problem, since the Spurs are fantastic from the three regardless. But if the Thunder could limit the amount of open shots the Spurs got, it would go a long way.
3. Get out on the break. The Spurs are one of the NBA's worst offensive rebounding teams (especially considering their record), but they always always ALWAYS get back on D. They generally like to play a slow pace, and you're going to like playing a slow pace, darn it. But, there are ways of combating this. The Thunder could push the ball up the court early and draw pressure to free up an easy open shot. They could try harder to get steals in the back court. But, it's all easier said than done.
4. Experiment with going small. Over the course of the season series, the Thunder have gone small a few times and it's paid huge dividends. Sometimes it's backfired, but for the most part it led to some minor runs due to good shooting, the ability to beat the Spurs in the paint, and the ability to outrun them. But I think the Thunder would be better served in general by throwing some more minutes Cook's way. They'll really need the scoring punch he provides.
5. Get the O-Boards. Okay, this one's a bit cliche, but the Spurs pretty much dominate when it comes to defensive rebounding. The Thunder aren't super-reliant on offensive boards, but Ibaka and Perkins have used it to save the Thunder's butt in the past. If they can get a few key rebounds, it would go a long way, especially toward's Ibaka's point total against a tough interior D.
Game 1: Sunday, May 27th, 7:30 CDT, SAS, TNT
Game 2: Tuesday, May 29th, 8:00 CDT, SAS, TNT
Game 3: Thursday, May 30th, 8:00 CDT, OKC, TNT
Game 4: Saturday, June 2nd, 7:30 CDT, OKC, TNT
Game 5: Monday, June 4th, 8:00 CDT, SAS, TNT
Game 6: Wednesday, June 6th, 8:00 CDT, OKC, TNT
Game 7, Friday, June 8th, 8:00 CDT, OKC, TNT
Prediction: Spurs in 5.
Sorry, Thunder fans. I just don't think the Thunder have the tools in the right places to win this series. I know I seemed like a huge Spurs homer in giving nearly every matchup to them, but that's because their talent level, overall, blows ours out of the water. But, I will say that the Thunder clearly have the two best players in this series, and while their role players can't explode on any given night, they do complete a set job on a consistent basis, and that's valuable in itself. The thing is, the Spurs just have a few too many matchup advantages against us. They won't send us to the line. They won't let us run the break. They will kill us from three. They will frustrate Russell Westbrook. They will make KD turn over the ball. They will exploit Derek Fisher. They will have their big men shoot from mid-range. The list just goes on and on. In fact, the only things I'd say the Thunder have legitimately going for them is their star power, Harden's court vision, and Perk's defense on Duncan. Otherwise, the Spurs have us beat. I'd LOVE to be proven wrong, but for now, I'm predicting the Spurs to coast into the NBA Finals.
How do you think the series will go? Vote in the poll, post a comment!