One has 5 NBA Championships since 1999; three presumptive Hall of Famers; one of the greatest professional coaches in all of sports; and a known pedigree for winning. The other has 2 of the NBA’s top 5 players; a 6-year run of hanging around the top of the Western Conference and contending for an NBA Championship; and an ability to any given time to look like the best team in the league. Welcome to Spurs-Thunder III.
For the third time in six seasons, these two perennial Western Conference powers will meet – this time for the right to play the defending champion Golden State Warriors (assuming all goes according to plan on that end of the bracket). The previous two series were in the Western Conference Finals, with the winner moving on to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. But make no mistake – that should not make this series any less important or less exciting. In fact, this series may just carry with it more intrigue than either of the previous two meetings.
With Steph Curry’s sprained knee sidelining him for up to 2 weeks and the uncertainty surrounding how healthy he will be once he does return, this series takes on a bit of a Western Conference Finals feel. The winner of this series will certainly be feeling more confident than they would have felt 2 weeks ago before the reigning MVP went down in Game 5 against Houston. Couple that with Kevin Durant’s impending free agency and the aging players on the Spurs side — like Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker — and this may be the last time we have a playoff meeting with these same stars. There’s a lot to look forward to as these two heavyweights prepare to match up.
- Russell Westbrook. OKC has the perfect situation when they take the floor against most teams. They roll out Westbrook (a triple double machine) and Durant (a physical freak of nature) and let the opponent pick their poison – because you can’t stop them both. And that very simple formula is more often than not good enough to put the Thunder in the win column most nights. But I did say MOST teams. The Spurs are not most teams, of course. And Kawhi Leonard is not your typical NBA defender. Leonard will be tasked with the challenge of guarding Durant during the series. And that matchup has yielded very positive results for Gregg Popovich’s team this year – Durant shot 26% from the field with Leonard guarding him and still below 40% with Leonard just being on the floor at the same time as the former MVP. So it seems Pop has the right idea when it comes to limiting KD’s production and efficiency. But Westbrook is another story. With Tony Parker and Danny Green taking turns checking the high-energy guard, Westbrook shot 67% from the field in the four games the two teams played this season. Will Westbrook’s production, alone, be enough to give the Thunder the edge?
- OKC’s Bigs v. LaMarcus Aldridge. The Thunder have the athleticism to make this a series and even win the thing. But they don’t have the skilled big men to bang with the Spurs in a 7-game series. Billy Donovan will have to be very strategic with Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Enes Kantor – who they will match up with and how to keep them out of foul trouble. LaMarcus Aldridge is not a poor rebounder by any means, but if you’re going to find a weak spot – rebounding is it. And Matthew Bonner and Boris Diaw are also flawed in the paint when it comes to grabbing boards. So the opening is there for the Thunder to take advantage, if they play their cards right. If Kantor and Adams can be a force to some degree on the offensive glass and get easy put-backs or create second chance opportunities for Durant and Westbrook, that will be a success. And let’s not forget about the Hall of Fame man in the middle that Popovich has gone with for nearly 2 full decades. Tim Duncan will not let this series come and go with being heard from. Being a presence in the paint and putting up 12 and 8 might be all the Spurs need.
- The San Antonio Bench. You will have a hard time finding a deeper bench in the entire NBA than what Gregg Popovich has at his disposal. This will allow Pop to run hard defensive schemes at OKC’s dynamic duo and not worry too much about foul trouble with his starters. San Antonio has done it all year with the league’s nastiness defense and the ability to rest key players for longer stretches during games and not miss a beat. The Pop’s 2nd and 3rd teamers stand on their own at times while facing the oncoming rush of Westbrook and KD?
- The Tale of Two Styles. Billy Donovan would love to run up and down the floor all day long with his potent superstars slashing and gunning; but that’s a tall order against any lineup the Spurs send out. He has far better athletes and far more firepower. But the Thunder lack a defensive prowess. Popovich will try to muck up the game on the defensive end, stall the Thunder attack, and play with obscene offensive efficiency on the other end of the floor.
This Spurs team may be the deepest that Gregg Popovich has had during this historic stretch of dominance. He now has a new core of players – LMA and Kawhi have slid in for Ginobili and Duncan. But the same blueprint for winning exits – staunch defense, efficient offense, role players who do what is asked of them (and do it very well), and protect homecourt.
The Thunder must feel a sense of urgency – the looming free agency of their superstar forward and the sense that they have fallen short of expectations for years now. They run into, quite possibly, the strongest of the Spurs teams they have had to face over the last 6 years with, remarkably one of their weakest teams during this stretch. Their bench can’t match San Antonio’s, Donovan’s defense is not of the same world as Pop’s, and they have struggled all season to hold 4th quarter leads. But they have the athleticism to keep them in games, and they have a history with the Spurs. They won’t be afraid and they won’t back away.
This may be the final time these players all meet in the playoffs wearing these uniforms. Sit back and enjoy it. This is what NBA Playoff basketball should be.