San Antonio Versus Oklahoma City PreviewWestern Conference Second Round
#2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. #3 Oklahoma City (55-27)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Oklahoma City can win if…Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant play at an All-NBA First Team level and the Thunder reverse their season-long pattern of collapsing in the fourth quarter.
Westbrook has clearly been the MVP of the first round, posting playoff career-highs in several categories (26.0 ppg, 11.2 apg, 7.8 rpg, .463 FG%) while leading all players in assists and ranking fourth in scoring. During the regular season, Westbrook ranked second in the league in assists (10.4 apg), fifth in steals (2.0 spg) and eighth in scoring (23.5 ppg). Stephen Curry is the only other player who ranked in the top 10 in all three categories. Westbrook posted 18 triple doubles, the most by any player in one season since Magic Johnson had 18 triple doubles in 1981-82. The Thunder went 18-0 when Westbrook had a triple double. Westbrook notched the second fastest triple double in NBA history (18 minutes) and he reached triple double numbers in less than 30 minutes on five different occasions. Westbrook is the engine that makes the Thunder go and a good case could be made that he is the best all-around player in the NBA. Perhaps the greatest thing about Westbrook is the tremendously high energy with which he consistently plays.
Durant has bounced back from his injury-hit 2014-15 campaign to regain his status as one of the NBA's elite players. He tied Westbrook for team-high honors with a 26.0 ppg average during the Thunder's 4-1 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in the first round but Durant shot just .368 from the field in that series. Durant ranked third in the NBA in scoring during the regular season (28.2 ppg, his third highest average in a nine year career during which he has won four scoring titles) while shooting .505 from the field and averaging a career-high 8.2 rpg.
San Antonio will win because…the Spurs are an efficient team that minimizes errors and mental mistakes. Every possession matters in the playoffs and the Spurs figure to waste fewer possessions than the Thunder. The Spurs are smarter, more efficient and better coached than the Thunder. Oklahoma City's advantages--besides the force of nature that is Russell Westbrook--are youth, explosiveness and size. This series will likely depend on fourth quarter execution, a strong suit for the Spurs and the weak link for the Thunder.
The Spurs' system does not encourage or permit any one player to put up huge individual numbers but Kawhi Leonard is absolutely an elite player even though his statistics do not jump off of the stat sheet. LaMarcus Aldridge is a top notch power forward even though his first round numbers (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg) are nothing special.
Tim Duncan is in the old-David Robinsion phase of his career; he rebounds, he defends and he is a presence in the paint but he is a limited player who can only be counted on for limited minutes. If he played for any team other than San Antonio he likely would have retired several years ago but instead he has gracefully accepted the reduction in his role and status much like Robinson gracefully accepted a reduction in his role and status when Duncan first joined the team.
Other things to consider: Stephen Curry's status is up in the air and LeBron James is far from a sure thing in the NBA Finals, so this series could very well turn out to be the de facto 2016 championship series.
The Spurs efficiently swept the undermanned Memphis Grizzlies, but it is puzzling that media members placed so much emphasis on Memphis' injuries when the Grizzlies have actually not been serious playoff contenders for a while due to their inability to consistently generate enough offense--and that has been true regardless of what lineup they use. The Grizzlies made it to the Western Conference Finals in Coach Lionel Hollins' last year with the team (2013) but have been first round fodder in two of the three subsequent seasons. Even at full strength, the Grizzlies would have finished no higher than fifth in the West standings this season and likely would have lost in the first round of the playoffs. It is unfortunate that several of their key players suffered injuries but it is silly to act like these injuries actually changed the balance of power in the league.
Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban has been successful overall during his tenure in the NBA but he has also said and done some stupid things. His assertion that Westbrook is not a superstar may have been intended as some kind of gamesmanship as opposed to being an objective player evaluation but it is still an idiotic statement--and the "reasoning" behind that statement (that if Westbrook were a superstar then he would have led the Thunder to the playoffs last season) is ridiculous: in 2014-15, the Thunder won the same number of games as the eighth seeded New Orleans Pelicans but the Pelicans had the better tiebreaks--and the Thunder went just 5-10 in the 15 games that Westbrook missed, which strongly suggests that Westbrook is a superstar who almost single-handedly carried the Thunder to the playoffs.
Perhaps Cuban is trying to deflect attention away from his own team, which has now lost in the first round of the playoffs in four of the past five seasons and in seven of the past 10 seasons. Cuban supposedly used analytics to conclude that the best choice was to break up his 2011 championship team but the idea that you can make your team better by making your team worse is silly; just ask the Philadelphia 76ers, who have turned losing into an art form without making any tangible progress toward building a good team.
It is interesting that Cuban gets a pass from the media while the Thunder are often blasted for supposedly making a huge mistake by not retaining the services of James Harden. Harden was never going to be more than a third option in Oklahoma City and in his final year with the Thunder he performed terribly in the NBA Finals while also making it clear that he wanted to have an expanded role and would sulk if he did not get it. Since Harden arrived in Houston, the Rockets have repeatedly lost in the first round (other than one fluky Conference Finals run that will not likely be duplicated during his time with the team), while the Thunder have remained a championship contender when Durant and Westbrook have been healthy. The Thunder are the only team in the NBA that has advanced to at least the conference semifinals in five of the past six years and that run includes three trips to the Western Conference Finals. It is good for Daryl Morey that he loves Harden so much, because he is likely stuck with him for many years to come; I doubt that any team that has a legit All-NBA First Team player would trade that player straight up for Harden. The Thunder would most assuredly not be better off if Harden were on their roster and sulking about Westbrook being the focal point of the team's attack.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:19 AM