“Why, Lord, must we play the Spurs?” -James Harden
Travis Huse: With the Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers last night, our Western Conference Finals matchup is set. They can book their flight to San Antonio. Frankly, this series looks to eclipse the NBA Finals in terms of excitement. These games are going to pit the league’s two best offenses against each other, and with some very strange matchups to make things interesting. We have the league’s best scorer in Kevin Durant being guarded by Kawhi Leonard, the best defensive rookie this season. The Thunder’s best defensive player, Serge Ibaka, will have to defend the rejuvenated and driven Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili on James Harden. Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook trying to blow by each other. I’m totally pumped for these games. But looking at the Spurs lately, as well as their games against the Thunder this season, is there any hope for the Thunder to pull this off?
Doyle Rader: I agree that this series has great potential, it probably won’t be a seven game series as some might be hoping for, though. However, each game should be extremely competitive. As far as your matchup predictions I think you have it dead on with Leonard defending Durant. As for the rest I think that Scott Brooks will have Kendrick Perkins, if he is healthy, guard Duncan. Or at least until Duncan steals his lunch money and gives him a swirly. Perkins’ has the body mass to try and dislodge Duncan from the block but will get lost when Duncan drifts to the top of the key or his favorite 45 degree bank shot location. I just don’t see Ibaka as a viable defender on Duncan. His defensive prowess is predicated on off ball positioning and weak-side help and shot blocking. Ibaka has improved his face up defense this season but he need s the freedom to roam and hedge to be effective.
Much like we saw against the Clippers, the Spurs will probably use Danny Green to try and slow down Russell Westbrook. I doubt Parker will spend a whole lot of time guarding Westbrook this series. It looks like the Spurs have the advantage with disrupting the Thunder with the number of matchups and mismatches they can create on the court, but the Ginobili/Harden battle should be special.
TH: Ginobili vs. Harden is a great situation because they’re both 6th men, both fan favorites, and can play with some fire. As for Parker on Westbrook, I could see Pop keeping Tony on him just because he’s not Chris Paul. Against the Clippers, you need Green’s long arms to prevent Paul’s unparalleled passing ability, whereas with Westbrook, you’re going to be better the more he has the ball. If the Spurs can goad him into playing hero ball (like he did, in oh, say, last year’s WCF), the Thunder are done. The only way the Thunder have a chance is if Westbrook defers more. And if he can still score 30 while deferring. So it’s going to be tough.
Another thing I’d like to reiterate. This is a series that contains both the #1 and #2 offense in the league. But the Spurs stars have played so much less this season and are so much deeper, that the Thunder will need to highlight their defense to prevent giving up insurmountable leads while their stars rest. Look at these minutes numbers so far this season (including playoffs):
Kevin Durant: 2912
Russell Westbrook: 2655
James Harden: 2219
Tony Parker: 2203
Tim Duncan: 1890
Manu Ginobili: 1002
Even if you throw out Manu’s numbers because of his injuries in the regular season, that’s a pretty big contrast. Tony Parker has played less than OKC’s 6th man, which is a huge thing to take into consideration this season, because all those games were condensed.
DR: All of the OKC players you listed are younger than us. I think they’ll just fine in terms of fatigue, they have yet to show any signs of dwindling yet. In fact they outscored the Lakers in the combined fourth quarters of their series 119-97.
As you mention, these are prolific offenses. Maybe I’m just old-school, but I still think defense will define the series. The 7-Seconds or Less Suns never got to the Finals for a reason. The Spurs, though they have completely altered their identity, still have a defensive pedigree. They might not be as fast as the Thunder but they work well as a cohesive unit defensively and have completely dominated their previous opponents. I expect a platoon defense to be used on all three of the Thunder’s stars that features Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Green, Gary Neal, and Stephen Jackson. That’s a lot of bodies and fouls. Brooks should do the same against Parker and Ginobili with Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, and Daequan Cook. Don’t expect Derek Fisher to matter. The backcourt of San Antonio is too quick.
TH: Yeah, we’re going to see a ton of different lineups, but I think the onus is on the Thunder to figure out how to crack this Spurs team. San Antonio is on a roll, and performed very well against the Thunder this year (and since Kevin Durant first made the playoffs with this team, the Spurs have won 8 of 10). The strategies that they have been employing simply haven’t worked, and there’s no reason to believe that unless the Thunder manage to change their game significantly before the start of this series, that there is no plausible hope that they can win it.
DR: Scott Brooks has definitely grown as a head coach this season but he is out classed and outmatched in every conceivable way in this series. Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches that the NBA has seen and is a future Hall of Famer. He has seen just about everything and has more contingency plans than NATO had for a Soviet strike during the Cold War. Pop is the best coach in the league, and not just because he won Coach of the Year this season. I just don’t see any coach left in the playoffs that could possibly out-coach him and that is what it is going to take to beat the Spurs.
TH: My neighbor gave me 10-to-1 odds on a bet that the Spurs would make the Finals. It was the day the Spurs signed Boris Diaw (March 23rd), and I felt at that time they were as complete as they could possibly be. Plus, I would have only lost 10 bucks. They’ve lost two games since then, and right now I feel pretty darn secure with that decision.
DR: As a Mavs fan it is hard for me to heap praise on the Spurs, (don’t fret Thunder fans, I equally despise your team too) but I’m not so biased as to be blind. They are the better team in this series, hands down. Spurs win the series in five games.
TH: 5 games? Damn, that’s rough. I’ll say they pop two off against the Spurs. Spurs in 6.