Spurs-Thunder Series Preview
Someone will lose… in no less than seven games.
by Cub Buenning / @cubbuenning
For NBA fans who reside west of the Mississippi, the Western Conference Finals matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs is our Finals.
The two teams that proved their excellence over the course of the condensed 66-game schedule have made it with consistent regular-season performances, coupled with brilliant post-season play. Neither team found much resistance from their opponents in the first two rounds and each come into Sunday’s Game 1 with rest, focus and good health.
The aging team from San Antonio looks relatively similar in name, but name alone. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are still the engines that drive this train. But for a multi-chip-winning franchise that was built on defense and pace, the “new” Spurs aren’t afraid to throw the engine into fifth gear and roll at high speeds. While they don’t play with the defensive intensity of Spurs’ teams past, they are an all-court enterprise, which looks to race their opponent to the 100-point mark. They have gone from the plodding, half-court unit to a deep up-tempo team that likes to shoot threes and isn’t afraid to go “small ball” to take advantage of mismatches.
OKC, on the other hand, is the young bunch that many “not in the know” want to shove aside as “not quite ready for primetime.” Their core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all 23 or younger, but what we have seen from this team in the past month better describes a veteran-laden squad. Facing recent Champions in Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers, the Thunder showed heart, played gritty at times and basically beat those teams in the fourth quarter. When the Thunder were supposed to be the young, clueless wide-eyed kids, they were instead, steely veterans locking down win after win. This hyper-maturation during crunch-time might be the difference in this series.
While the Spurs’ recent run of “untouchability” is well documented, the Thunder have been more than impressive in the past few weeks. Both have the ability to go on the road and get tough, gritty wins and also can dominate on their “college atmosphere-like” home courts.
Something has to give. Someone has to lose. This one has to go seven games, right?
Point Guard: Russell Westbrook vs Tony Parker
This is quite possibly the most exciting individual matchup in the entire NBA postseason. The 30-year-old Parker enjoyed his best season as a pro, finally able to open up the court, push the pace and dictate a tempo he has always preferred. Westbrook has continued to improve and despite still being prone to bouts of emotion, he has been more mature and offensively dangerous than we have seen in the past couple postseasons.
Advantage: Push. These two are the best in the business right about now.
Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs Danny Green
We have two role-playing guys here who are basically “seat-warmers” for Harden and Ginobili. Each has the ability to score in bunches, mainly from long-range. While we have seen more of that from Green in this postseason, Sefolosha still has the scoring in him and his ability to play lockdown defense gives him the slight nod.
Advantage: Thunder. Again, just barely, based on Thabo’s defense.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs Kawhi Leonard
I think the world of the young forward from San Diego State, but this is a no-brainer. KD is at the top of his game, playing a beautiful all-court brand of basketball and should be able to do work on the rookie Leonard. This matchup, though, should be a great learning experience for Kawhi.
Advantage: Thunder. C’mon.
Power Forward: Serge Ibaka vs Boris Diaw
We have seen a rebirth of the French forward, as Diaw has given the Spurs some interior grit and of course, the ability to knock down open shots. While Ibaka has not been as offensive as we saw earlier in the postseason, his ability to change shots on the defensive end is top-level in the entire League.
Advantage: Thunder. First-Team All-Defense mention, enough said.
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs Tim Duncan
Perkins is the one “non-Thunder” piece on the team, but gives them exactly what they have lacked over the years, some grit and age. Speaking of age, Duncan appears to have dipped into the fountain of youth, playing some of his most spirited ball in years. He’s healthy, rested and as always, steady.
Advantage: Spurs. One is a former Champion with experience and muscle and the other is in the G.O.A.T. discussion at his position.
Coach: Gregg Popovich vs Scott Brooks
This is not a real question, as we are comparing a legend and future Hall of Famer with a young coach who is just getting his feet wet. These guys come from different schools of thought and style, but for their respective teams, they may not be better matches in the entire League. The former player, Brooks, meshes well with his young troupe and we all know the unspoken bond between Pop and his guys.
Advantage: Spurs. Brooks’ future is bright, especially with this roster, but Pop is just warming up into mid-season form.
Bench: Spurs vs Thunder
Two of the deepest teams in the entire League meet up with plenty on the line in this conference final series. Both team’s bench players might be thrust into major roles, and their individual and collective ability to contribute might make the difference in what looks to be a close series.
Advantage: Push. Manu and the Beard are two the League’s best players who don’t hear their names during the starting lineups.
Prediction: Thunder Win in 7.