San Antonio Versus Oklahoma City PreviewWestern Conference Finals
#1 San Antonio Spurs (50-16) vs. #2 Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19)
Season series: San Antonio, 2-1
Oklahoma City can win if…the Thunder are able to control the paint defensively (by limiting Tony Parker's dribble penetration and effectively contesting Tim Duncan's post up opportunities) without leaving San Antonio's deadly three point shooters open. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden must not only score but also create scoring opportunities for their teammates.
San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are operating like a well oiled machine at both ends of the court; defensively they consistently take away their opponent's first and second options, while offensively their talent and discipline enable them to create (and make) good shots.
Other things to consider: Both teams are productive and efficient offensively but they are very different stylistically. The Thunder rely primarily on their Big Three of Durant (26.7 ppg playoff scoring average), Westbrook (24.1 ppg playoff scoring average) and Harden (17.0 ppg scoring average), with Serge Ibaka (9.8 ppg playoff scoring average) contributing putbacks and an occasional jump shot; Derek Fisher (6.0 ppg playoff scoring average) is the team's fifth leading playoff scorer and everyone else on the team is averaging less than 4.0 ppg in the playoffs. The Thunder are a below average three point shooting team, though Durant and Harden can be dangerous behind the arc.
The Spurs' Big Three of Tony Parker (19.1 ppg playoff scoring average), Tim Duncan (17.6 ppg playoff scoring average) and Manu Ginobili (11.3 ppg playoff scoring average) led the Spurs to three championships (2003, 2005, 2007; Duncan also won a title in 1999 before Parker and Ginobili joined the team) but the Spurs' offense is not dominated by one, two or even three players; eight Spurs are averaging at least 6.5 ppg in the playoffs and six of those eight are shooting at least .500 from the field (top scorer Parker is shooting .430, while Ginobili is shooting .400, his worst postseason field goal percentage since his rookie season). The Spurs led the league in three point field goal percentage and ranked fourth in three point field goals made, so they are both efficient and productive from long range.
Parker's dribble penetration and Duncan's post up skills ensure that the Spurs can attack the paint in multiple ways on a nightly basis and the Spurs' deft passing leads to a parade of layups and wide open three pointers; Duncan is no longer a perennial All-Star or member of the All-NBA First Team but his per minute productivity is still very high and he is a much bigger contributor to San Antonio's success than the general public realizes. Parker deservedly receives a lot praise but without Duncan's paint presence at both ends of the court the Spurs would be much weaker both offensively and defensively. Duncan is not interested in padding his statistics or courting media attention but he is hardly just a role player along for the ride; he is literally and figuratively the central force for the Spurs.
The Spurs originally based their championship formula on a Twin Tower system focused on playing suffocating defense but in recent seasons the Spurs have evolved into an offensive minded, uptempo team that plays solid but not stifling defense; in essence, the Spurs have borrowed the best aspects of Mike D'Antoni's offense but without completely abandoning defense. The Spurs ranked second in scoring but just 17th in defensive field goal percentage this season, a combination that would have been unthinkable during the Spurs' last title run in 2007 when San Antonio ranked 14th in scoring and fourth in defensive field goal percentage. The Spurs began changing their identity about two years ago and now they have the personnel in place to be very efficient offensively and competent enough defensively.
The Thunder ranked third in scoring and fourth in defensive field goal percentage this season, so they make their mark at both ends of the court. Since they do not have a post up threat like Duncan or an armada of great three point shooters they rely very much on midrange jump shots and, as TNT's Charles Barkley frequently suggests, that could prove to be the Thunder's downfall.
This should be a great, competitive series. Unlike most commentators, I predicted that San Antonio would be one of the top three teams in the West but I did not foresee that the Spurs would capture the number one seed and then just steamroll to the Western Conference Finals. I originally thought that this would be the year that the Thunder break through and make it to the NBA Finals but by the last month of the season I realized that this is San Antonio's year: the Spurs are just too talented, too deep, too versatile and too disciplined for anyone to beat them four times in a seven game series. The Thunder can certainly challenge the Spurs, though, and I expect this series to go the distance. I would be surprised but not shocked if the Thunder pull off the upset; I definitely expect the Spurs to win this series and then go on to capture the championship but the Thunder have to be respected as a legitimate championship contending team that is capable of beating the Spurs (and any other team) in a seven game series.
In my Spurs-Clippers preview I mentioned that the Spurs remind me of the underrated 1982 Lakers team that peaked at the end of that season and then rolled through the playoffs before notching a 4-2 NBA Finals victory against a strong Philadelphia team led by Julius Erving; if the Spurs make it through the playoffs with just one or two losses they will have completed one of the greatest single seasons in league history--and it will certainly be the least heralded and least publicized great season; the Spurs' 50-16 record prorates to 62 wins in an 82 game season and includes two times when the Spurs lost a game because they rested their stars after building an 11 game winning streak. The Spurs' regular season point differential (7.2) is better than the point differential posted by two of Chicago's six championship teams from the 1990s and better than the point differential posted by two of the three O'Neal-Bryant Lakers championship teams--and the Spurs' point differential would have been even greater if not for the games that Coach Gregg Popovich essentially conceded in order to rest his stars during the grueling post-lockout schedule. The Spurs have now won 18 games in a row--their final 10 regular season games plus two playoff series sweeps--and they have won 29 of their past 31 games; one of those two losses was to the Utah Jazz when the Spurs rested their stars and the other loss--the last loss in a game that the Spurs actually tried to win--came against the L.A. Lakers on April 11, a defeat that the Spurs avenged with not one but two blowout victories against the Lakers (April 17 and April 20). The Spurs' point differential during that 31 game stretch is more than 13 ppg, a staggering number on par with the point differentials posted by some of the most dominant championship teams in NBA history, although those teams maintained such point differentials over the entire season as opposed to a stretch of 30-some games.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:05 AM