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|
The Lowdown: When the Spurs acquired Boris Diaw, he couldn't have been more of a godsend. Not only were they able to get an experienced defensive anchor, they were also able to get someone who could be a part of the high-scoring Spurs offense AND even move Tim Duncan to his more natural position of power forward. My gut feeling is that defensively, Scott Brooks will put Perk on Duncan, and move Ibaka to Diaw. It would be the smart move, but Diaw could still definitely beat Ibaka off the dribble and from outside. Defensively, Perk is pretty much a non-factor, but I could see him getting a couple extra points against the smaller Diaw.
Advantage: Spurs. Perk is the Duncan stopper, but Diaw has more all-around skill.
|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%|
The Lowdown: Tim Duncan has been the Spurs pillar for many, many years. The last time Tim Duncan wasn't on the Spurs, I was more concerned with Pokemon than I was the NBA. Nevertheless, he's still here, and he's been a significant factor in the playoffs. I expect him to be matched up with Perkins defensively, who has been great at keeping Duncan away from the rim. Duncan should be held to below his playoff average of 18 points, but he'll still get easy points from mid-range against the slower Perk. Ibaka, meanwhile, will undoubtedly struggle against Duncan. If Ibaka can somehow hit his mid-range shots and draw Duncan out to that area, he'll definitely beat Duncan to the rim. But in general, Duncan stays in the post, and I think Ibaka will only have a successful game once or twice in this series. Offensively, at least.
Advantage: Spurs. Duncan is better in every area except athleticism and blocks. That could be key, but I don't think so.
|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|
The Lowdown: Kawhi Leonard has been the rookie sensation of the year. You can talk about Kyrie Irving all you want, but he's just another star point guard in a sea of them at the moment. Leonard, on the other hand, is the starting SF on a potential championship team. He's a great all-around player, and I remember him most for his MEAN dunk over Serge Ibaka earlier this season. Despite all of that, Kevin Durant pretty much has him beat. In general, Durant will have no problem getting the open shots he loves and scoring efficiently. I will admit that Leonard and the Spurs are great at making him turn the ball over, but they don't have effective shot challengers against Durant, or at least guys who were as effective as Marion and World Peace were at times.
|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|
The Lowdown: Danny Green was a great unexpected find for the Spurs (The Spurs? An Unexpected Diamond in the Rough? Who Knew?), this time off of the bench of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Green mostly functions as a three point specialist, always lurking on the perimeter ready to receive a pass from down low or cross-court. He'll go down the lane occasionally (more then Sefolosha or Cook, anyway) and he can pass a bit, but he's mostly there for the threes. Sefolosha has been quiet in the playoffs, but since the Spurs protect the paint at all costs, he'll get a few open looks. Still, his value in this series will hopefully come from playing D on Ginobili, who loves to drive the lane.
Advantage: Thunder. I'll take defense over threes. It's pretty much a matter of preference, though.
|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|
The Lowdown: This is pretty much the matchup that defines the series. Tony Parker is the quickest player in the NBA, able to find his shooting spots with ease and destroy his opponents in the paint. Russell Westbrook is strong and athletic, but he's also headstrong. By that I mean he'll challenge Parker directly, shooting quick-fire mid-range shots right in his face and forcing him into the lane. Problem is, Parker's too quick for that. He has the power to alter Westbrook's mid-range shot just enough, and he's quick enough to lead Westbrook right into the trees when he goes into the paint. Basically, until Westbrook goes back to a more relaxed, calculated game, Parker will have his number. And I think it'll take him a little while to settle into that, especially after his high-octane play last series.
The Lowdown: The Spurs have the league's best bench, hands down. Their big man core is no exception. These guys could start on a lot of teams. Tiago Splitter is a guy who had some growing pains when he first entered the NBA after a long wait, but he's settled comfortably into a backup role, and has some nice post moves. DeJuan Blair, on the other hand, was a rookie sensation and key for the Spurs this season, but was overall inefficient offensively. He kind of turned to be the odd man out in the rotation, but he's killed the Thunder down low before. Lastly, Matt Bonner is a guy who can kill the Thunder offensively with his outside shot, but he'll get killed defensively. Collison went for a season high 12 points against him, if that tells you anything. On the Thunder's side of things, Collison and Mohammed (if he gets time) will do their jobs. Collison has a good basketball IQ and won't give away any free points, while I could see Mohammed getting a few gimmes when the Spurs pressure one side too much down low.
|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!