Starting tomorrow, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be taking on Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in a colossal western conference final. These two have looked like the top 2 teams in the NBA over the first two rounds, and the winner of this series will likely defeat whoever comes out of the east (most definitely Miami). In the eastern conference, the Philadelphia 76ers will face the Boston Celtics tonight in game 7, with the winner going on to play Miami next week. I will preview that series as well when the time comes.
Because the conference finals are a very big deal and more interesting than the first two rounds of playoff games, I will give a preview similar to my previews for Nets games, where I talk about key matchups and give predictions. First, I will give some background information on the two teams.
Lets’s start with the Spurs, who were tied for the best record in the NBA this season. After a disappointing finish to the 2011 season where they were also the 1-seed and lost in the first round, the Spurs continue to defy their age and play excellent basketball. They have won 18 straight games going back to the regular season, including 8-0 in the playoffs (more wins that the Bobcats had all season) and they truly look unbeatable right now. Tony Parker had a good case for MVP this season and Tim Duncan looks rejuvenated at 36 years old after averaging 15 ppg and 9 rpg last season.
We have become accustomed to the Spurs’ lockdown defense over the years, but this year, they led the NBA in scoring thanks to their good shooters and role players. This group was as always led by Manu Ginobili, but also had large contributions from Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, and Tiago Splitter. This is an extremely balanced team on offense, and if one player is having an off night, there are plenty of other guys that can step in to score. It would be almost impossible to stop everyone on San Antonio, and that is why they are so hard to beat.
The Thunder had another great regular season this year and finished 3 games behind San Antonio which was good enough for the 2-seed in the west. The Thunder were in first place in the conference for most of the season, but a 3-game losing streak in the beginning of April knocked them down to the two seed. Last season, the Thunder impressed many by making the western conference finals where they lost to the Dallas Mavericks. This year, they got revenge on those Mavericks, sweeping them in the first round and then beating the Lakers 4 games to 1 in the second round. They are 8-1 in the playoffs, which make the Spurs and Thunder a combined 16-1 so far. That is excellent. In contrast, the Celtics alone have already lost 6 times in the playoffs, and they will likely move on to the conference finals as well.
The Thunder’s offense is led by their Big 3: Durant, Westbrook, and Harden. We all know what Kevin Durant can do. He led the NBA in scoring this season, just edging out Kobe Bryant and he is very difficult to guard because of his height and length. Russell Westbrook is a close second in scoring on Oklahoma City, and he has more of a “Wow factor” than Durant does. He plays with so much energy and he is also active on defense. This play was pretty awesome. The third scorer for the Thunder is the NBA sixth man of the year, James Harden. Harden has really emerged as a scorer for the Thunder after being drafted with the third pick a few years ago. He would be a starter on any other team, but he has accepted his role coming off the bench very nicely and has not been insulted by it. Defensively, the Thunder are led by their big men, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Ibaka finished second in the defensive player of the year voting, and could have easily won it. His nickname is “I-block-a” for a reason. Perkins is just a tough guy that nobody wants to mess with. He should have some good battles with Tim Duncan and company as he had with Andrew Bynum in the last round.
Against Oklahoma City this year, the Spurs went 2-1. In one game, Tony Parker had 42 points against Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. If he is ever able to do that in this series, the Spurs should win easily. The Spurs have never met the Thunder in a playoff series, but the Thunder have only been in Oklahoma City for a few seasons.
Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker. Advantage: Westbrook
This is going to be a very fun matchup to watch. As I wrote earlier, Parker had a 42-point game against the Thunder this year, and the Thunder cannot let that happen again. But I don’t think Westbrook will let it happen. He has been great these playoffs, even on defense. The difference now is that he will be guarding Tony Parker, while before he was guarding a very old Jason Kidd and Ramon Sessions. Expect Sefolosha to help Westbrook out a lot on defense, but he also has to be careful not to leave Danny Green open. I expect Westbrook to average 30 ppg in this series. I think he will be too fast and explosive for Parker, who is getting old, and the Spurs don’t have a shotblocker to stop him at the rim. Expect many layups and not a lot of jump shots for Westbrook. Parker should also be able to do his share of scoring, but it won’t be as much as Westbrook.
Thabo Sefolosha vs. Danny Green. Advantage: Green
Both these guys are pretty similar. Their biggest difference is that Sefolosha plays better defense, but Green is a better shooter. They both shot about 44% from 3 this year, but the difference is that Green takes many more 3’s. He average shooting 3.6 3-point attempts per game, and they usually go in if he is open. I expect Sefolosha to have to help out on Tony Parker quite a bit, and this can open up shots for Green, as well as Gary Neal and others.
Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard. Advantage: Durant
Obviously, Kevin Durant is the better player here, but Leonard has had a very good rookie season. He has scored 14 or more points already 3 times in these playoffs, and if Durant backs off him to help out on Duncan or one of the guards, Leonard could have a big game. However, Durant is the closer for this Thunder team. Russell Westbrook can take all the shots he wants, even in the 4th quarter, but in the last minute of a close game, look for the ball to be in Durant’s hands. He is a much better closer than Lebron James, and I believe, even Kobe Bryant. Another great thing that Durant does is draw fouls. No matter how poorly he is shooting in a game, he is always able to get to the free throw line, where he shoots at over 85%. He averaged almost 8 free throw attempts per game last season, which was one of the best marks in the NBA.
Serge Ibaka vs. Tim Duncan. Advantage: Duncan
This will be a very important matchup in this series. Even though Ibaka finished second in the defensive player of the year voting, he is not a great 1-on-1 defender, especially against a crafty veteran like Tim Duncan. Most of Ibaka’s blocks come against small guards who get into the paint, not against guys he is guarding. And because the Spurs are such a good passing team, if Tony Parker is able to get into the lane and he sees Ibaka coming at him, instead of trying to shoot it over Ibaka, he would pass to Duncan for an easy layup. Ibaka can help out on defense occasionally, but his number one priority should be to stay on Duncan.
Kendrick Perkins vs. Boris Diaw. Advantage: Perkins
After being cut by the historically bad Charlotte Bobcats, Boris Diaw came to San Antonio with very low expectations. Now, he is the starting center on what looks like the best team in basketball and he probably couldn’t be happier. He helps spread the floor because of his dangerous 3-balls and he is a big body which can help a team on defense. Kendrick Perkins came to Oklahoma City last season in a trade from Boston. He is very big and nobody wants to mess with him. His stats won’t blow anybody away, but he impacts the games in many ways. He is not afraid to give a hard foul if necessary and he will not back away from Tim Duncan.
Derek Fisher, James Harden, Nick Collison, and Nazr Mohammed vs. Gary Neal, Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson, Matt Bonner, and Tiago Splitter. Advantage: Spurs
The benches will be very important in this series. The 2 most important bench players are obviously James Harden and Manu Ginobili, both former sixth man of the year award winners. At this point in their careers, Harden is obviously the better player, but Ginobili was injured for much of the season, which can actually turn into a good thing for San Antonio. He still has a lot of energy and he is still a good shooter. Other important players are long-time veteran Derek Fisher, hustle big guy Nick Collison, 3-point specialist Gary Neal, ex-disgruntled Milwaukee Buck Stephen Jackson, and 3-point big guy Matt Bonner. Bonner may be the key for the Spurs. The Thunder really don’t have anybody that can guard him; Ibaka, Perkins, Mohammed, and Collison don’t really want to leave the paint, and nobody else is tall enough to put a hand in Bonner’s face. He may get many open looks in this series.
It is prediction time. My bold prediction in this series is that Russell Westbrook will lead the Thunder in scoring in most games of the series, averaging over 30 points per game. He is too quick and energetic for the Spurs to stop. Because of Westbrook, I am picking the Thunder to win this series in 6 games. This was a very difficult prediction for me to make and I flip-flopped many times, but I am now sticking with this. The reason for my prediction is the Spurs’ age. They have survived to this point despite their best players all being over 30, but the Thunder will wear them down in this series, and by the end, they will have no energy left. The turning point in the series will be game 5, where OKC will shock the Spurs in San Antonio to take a commanding 3-2 lead heading back home. And with all the pressure of not wanting to return to San Antonio and with the great home crowd, the Thunder will win a very close game 6 in Oklahoma to advance to the NBA finals. Below you will see who I predict to win each game.
Game 1: Spurs
Game 2: Thunder
Game 3: Thunder
Game 4: Spurs
Game 5: Thunder
Game 6: Thunder