This is the series I’ve been looking forward to with great anticipation. It took a little while to decide, but everyone knew that the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs would meet in the Western Conference Finals. After all, they were the 2 best teams in the West all season, and it was just a matter of time before these teams would face each other in a best of seven.
The Spurs demolished the Utah Jazz and the Los Angeles Clippers to reach this point. The Thunder dominated the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers to earn a trip to the Alamo City.
Many members of the media have portrayed this series as young vs old. However the Spurs average age of their roster is only 27.4 while the Thunder’s average age is 26.4. What the Spurs do have that the Thunder don’t is championship experience. The core of the Spurs roster, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have won combined 10 NBA Championships. These players know how to win in crunch time. Only Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammed have won world titles and Mohammed ironically, won his title with the Spurs in 2005. The Spurs are the hottest team in the NBA, winning 18 straight games going back to the regular season.
A key matchup will be at point guard as the ever reliable Parker will battle the very talented, but sometimes erratic Russell Westbrook. Parker has been nothing short of brilliant this season, posting MVP type numbers. The French superstar led the Spurs with 18.3 points and 7.7 assists per game. Parker has been even better in the playoffs, putting up 19.1 points and 7.1 assists over 8 games in the playoffs. Parker even had some choice words for Westbrook. “We’re definitely going after him.” said Parker. “It’s not going to be like Dallas or the Lakers. Their point guards are not as aggressive. It’s going to be a little different. We’re going to go at him.”
Westbrook has been excellent for the Thunder so far in the playoffs, averaging 24 points and 4.4 assists per game. However, Westbrook still looks to shoot first too often. He needs to do a better job at getting his teammates involved, and make the Spurs work defensively. This will be a big gauge for Westbrook to see how far his maturation is progressing.
The Thunder post matchup issues for the Spurs as well. Kevin Durant is quickly entering his name in the best player in the world argument. The 6’9 forward has been sensational for the Thunder, averaging 26.7 points per game, while improving his defensive play. Durant has been money at clutch time, hitting a game winning 3 pointer in Game 4 against the Lakers. Durant can beat you in various ways. His outside game his fantastic as he can draw power forwards to the perimeter, which he can either drive to the lane with his quick first step, or hit the outside jumper, or draw a double team which can open up the post game, or he can post up smaller swingmen in the interior.
The Lakers nor Mavericks had an answer for Durant, and the Spurs will be hard-pressed to solve the riddle on how to guard Durant. Expect San Antonio to share the load on guarding Durant with Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson and perhaps even Duncan to guard Durant in the half court. It won’t be easy as Durant has many weapons in his arsenal to dissect a defence.
Both teams have strong benches, and they will utilize the substitutes frequently. James Harden of the Thunder won the NBA Sixth Man Award this season and his fantastic coming off the bench. Harden provides scoring, averaging 17 points per game in the playoffs, while playing solid perimeter defence. Derek Fisher is a valuable substitute for the Thunder, as he provides a calming influence, while giving Westbrook some rest at the point.
The Spurs have Ginobili coming off the bench, and he provides championship experience, along with energy and offence. Jackson can score as well, to go along with playing some tough defence. Jackson can be used in the backcourt, or as a forward if the Spurs go with a small lineup.
Prediction: This will be a battle of contrasting styles. The Thunder love to play a full court game, using their speed and athleticism to race up and down the court. The Thunder are a running, fast-break team and they get space in the open floor, they are deadly. The Spurs love to slow things down, using a pragmatic, half court offence which isn’t flashy, but very effective. Home court is in the Spurs favour and this could be very crucial. The Thunder are great at home and the Chesapeake Energy Arena has become one of the best home court environments in the NBA. However, the Spurs have championship experience on their side, and half court teams tend to beat running teams in the playoffs. I expect a classic series, but I’m picking the Spurs in 7.
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