At a time when the Eastern Conference finalists, Boston and Miami, are dealing with age or injury issues, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are peaking, collectively winning 16 of 17 games in the opening rounds. The Thunder faced the past two NBA champions -- confident, veteran teams with renowned closers in Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers -- and broke their spirit with youthful energy and talent enriched by crunch-time poise and grit. The Spurs are merely the hottest team ever to enter a conference finals, having won 18 straight and 29 of 31, including dismantling four-game sweeps of the Jazz and Clippers in which their average margin of victory was 13.75 points.
Both teams thrive via dominant offenses. The Spurs and Thunder ranked first and second, respectively, in points per possession during the regular season and have flipped positions so far in the playoffs. But the way they rack up those points is very different. San Antonio spaces the floor and moves the ball, seeking a high-percentage shot for any of the 10 players in its deep rotation. The Thunder rely more on isolation plays for their three stars -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden -- who all excel at penetration, three-point shooting, drawing fouls and operating in both transition and the half-court game. Whichever team is able to disrupt its opponent's offensive juggernaut more frequently and effectively should eventually triumph in what could be an epic series.
Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw vs. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. The marquee matchup, of course, is at point guard, where All-Stars Tony Parker and Westbrook have put together career seasons. But Parker and Westbrook are both likely to have their way with each other on offense, with neither player enjoying a significant edge.
The frontcourt battle is more intriguing and volatile, and probably more influential. While Parker has become the Spurs' best player, the 36-year-old Duncan remains the team's undisputed leader and emotional bedrock, and during San Antonio's amazing winning streak, he's been playing with a contagious joy and frisky passion that hasn't looked this abundant for many years. One reason is the late-season addition of Diaw, a superb passer and capable mid-range shooter who is a perfect fit for the Spurs' offensive attack. When Duncan and Diaw were on the court together for 10 games during the regular season, the Spurs outscored their opponents by a whopping 19.5 points per 36 minutes, according to NBA.com. That number has increased to 20.1 points per 36 minutes in the playoffs.
But Perkins and Ibaka are more tenacious, physical and versatile defenders than the Jazz and Clippers frontcourt pairs that Duncan and Diaw faced in the first two rounds. If you see Duncan getting flustered, waving his hands like a giant crane protesting calls from the officials, it is very good news for Oklahoma City. On the other hand, if Duncan and Diaw maintain the wily synergy they've developed, the Spurs will make quick work of the Thunder.
Spurs: Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio broke up its successful three-guard rotation and dealt George Hill to Indiana in order to acquire Leonard in last year's draft. The gamble paid off as the 6-foot-7 small forward has emerged as the team's perimeter stopper, frequently matched up against Clippers point guard Chris Paul in the second round and the likely first option to defend Durant, a three-time reigning scoring champion who has shot 54 percent from the field in his last seven games. Durant has at least two inches and four years of experience as advantages over Leonard, but the rookie has defended him well this season. Along with his strong on-ball defense, Leonard's rebounding prowess, especially on the offensive glass, and 37.6 percent shooting from three-point range force Durant to both grind and run on the defensive end. In a series that will swing on who can deny the opponent's offense more effectively, the caliber of the defense that Leonard, Danny Green and Stephen Jackson put on Durant could be crucial.
Thunder: James Harden. It is impossible to watch Harden play and not be reminded of San Antonio's Manu Ginobili. Both are off-the-bench magicians with uncanny ingenuity, dipping into their multifaceted skill sets to provide their teams with a perfectly timed elixir -- a steal, a three-pointer, a court-length drive. Or a flash of derring-do turns into two converted free throws. Or a seemingly nonchalant half-court dribble becomes a zipped assist for a rim-rattling dunk that applies the electric paddles to a team's heart. But where age and injuries have created larger gaps between Ginobili's magical moments, Harden is ascendant, still underrated as a mere third wheel to Durant and Westbrook rather than a genuine peer. Fast-forward through the series against the Mavericks and Lakers and you see Harden's fingerprints on the turning points. If the pattern continues against the Spurs, this series will live up to the hype.
Any NBA team that has won 29 of 31 going into Memorial Day weekend has to be considered the favorite, and if this is a quick, four- or five-game affair, it will almost certainly be the Spurs advancing. That said, the Thunder are not your garden-variety underdog. In winning eight of nine against Dallas and the Lakers, they have blended youthful swagger and veteran cunning. While the Spurs have been blowing out opponents, Oklahoma City has been tempered under pressure, enduring enough close games to believe it is both charmed by fate and tough enough to survive adversity.
San Antonio will provide that adversity. During the regular season, the Thunder held San Antonio to just 48 percent shooting in the paint, well below its 61 percent season average, according to NBA.com. But San Antonio won two of three anyway by converting 51.9 percent of its three-pointers. The Spurs are a resourceful offensive dynamo that is almost impossible to stop. To win, the Thunder need to slow down San Antonio, hope they are more accustomed to pressure and continue to hit big shots of their own. My head says San Antonio will win in five or six games, but the matchup is too delicious not to let my heart rule on the side of maximum drama. Spurs in seven.