Western Conference final preview: No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 2 Thunder
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.
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.
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.