Spurs–Thunder: Now the NBA playoffs get real
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We'll do this in 15 steps.
1. Start with Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard for seven games. One of them is the best perimeter defender on earth (ever?) and the other is a seven-foot merchant of death and/or buckets. It's an unstoppable force vs. immovable object situation. Watching the two of them go back and forth for 48 minutes is enough by itself to make the Thunder and Spurs must-see television. Questions: Can Durant score on Kawhi? Can Kawhi be assertive on offense and punish Durant? Which one of these players is more unfair? And how many times throughout the series will the answers change?
2. I'm so ready. We made it. We did it. Spurs-Thunder! Alert your families, stock the house with supplies. The playoffs started two weeks ago, but now it gets real.
3. Russell Westbrook against the world. If you're sick of people besmirching Westbrook's name and nitpicking his game, just know that this series is a great opportunity for him to silence everyone. With Durant locked up against Kawhi, Westbrook will have to carry a bigger load against a team that doesn't have many options to guard him. Tony Parker can't handle him for more than a few minutes. Patty Mills may not fare much better. Maybe Danny Green could do it? The Spurs will have help on the interior, but there are no easy answers. It means that Westbrook will have the chance to swing games by himself. Whether he succeeds or not is almost beside the point. Everybody wins when we get to watch Westbrook try to prove the world wrong.
4. And the west is wide-open, isn't it? It's hard to say what Steph Curry's injury will mean to the Warriors, but to OKC and San Antonio, title dreams are about twice as realistic as they were two weeks ago. Both teams have to be assuming Curry isn't coming back 100% this season, and they know they'll have a very real shot at the Finals if they can survive this round. This series was going to be fun regardless, but now it has a Western Conference finals vibe that could take it to a different place.
5. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan is refusing to wage any dance wars ...
Tim Duncan, on OKC Dance Party: "Westbrook, there isn’t anyone more focused than that kid once on the court. So they can do what they want."— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 28, 2016
But as Steven Adams noted yesterday, Duncan's relentless diplomacy is his greatest weapon of all. And speaking of weapons, here is where we remind you that Kawhi Leonard's defense turns the court blue.
6. Across the board, the Spurs have never been better. They won 67 games this year. They have the best defense in the league, and an offense that's been reinvented to control pace, and score with ruthless efficiency. And then when things get tight, Popovich has more tools than ever to tweak lineups. The bench goes five or six deep with specialty role players, each one a little weirder and harder to deal with than the last, right up until you get to Boban. Business at the Spurs laboratory has never been better.
7. The Thunder have never been more vulnerable. With Durant's free agency looming and the future very much in doubt, the Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka nucleus is surrounded by Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, Steven Adams, Randy Foye ... These are the players OKC will use to compete with one of the most well-rounded teams of the past 15 years. It's as flawed and inconsistent a supporting cast as OKC's ever had. It's not to say they can't win, but if you're wondering why the Spurs are favored, this is it.
8. I just want to make sure everyone has seen Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook discuss Charlie Villanueva's career prospects. As the future of this team becomes more and more uncertain, Westbrook and Durant are closer than ever, and angrier at the world than they've ever been. Support this movement.
9. The Thunder have enough talent and athleticism to break San Antonio. The Spurs are favored because they're deeper, they have Popovich, they've got home court advantage, and OKC hasn't been consistent enough to inspire confidence. Sure. But Durant is still the best player on the floor, Russ won't be far behind him, and both will play 40+ minutes every night. There was a time a few years ago when everyone in the league was touting the "reinvented" Spurs, marveling at their efficiency, and wondering if they were one of the greatest teams ever. They went up 2–0 on the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, and then Russ and KD (and James Harden) tore through them for four straight wins. Harden's gone now, but with Durant and Westbrook, there's still a level to hit that San Antonio can't answer. Can they get there four times in seven games?
10. "Look, we're not the San Antonio Spurs," Durant told reporters earlier this season. "We're not going to make 30 passes in a possession. We're not that. Of course, people want us to be that. That's great basketball, don't get me wrong. But we're not that. We've got guys that can score. We've got two guys on this team that can get a bucket."
11. The violent collision of styles almost makes it feel like the NCAA Tournament. Except it's better than that. Anytime someone tries to tell you college basketball is king, tell them to watch the Thunder and Spurs.
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12. Plenty of basketball teams at any level play disciplined, for example. They move the ball and play together on both ends and avoid dumb mistakes. You probably played against a team like this in high school. But the Spurs take this science and make it art. They all make the smart play as a rule, but they do it with a wide spectrum of skills, and it all turns into a blur of ball movement and defense and execution that seems like it shouldn't be possible. They're clinical in ways that only the most talented professionals in the world could ever approach.
13. The Thunder aren't clinical at all. They can be sloppy, they're emotional, and they're inconsistent. But in Westbrook and Durant, OKC has the kind of talent that will show up to your basketball clinic and convince everyone that 27-footers and violent dunks are the only way to ever play basketball. These sort of players don't exist in college. They're so gifted you feel lucky to be watching, and when they're hitting on all cylinders, meticulous preparation and flawless execution is irrelevant.
14. And when you take two teams who play drastically different styles at the highest possible levels and make them play over and over again for two weeks straight?
15. That's as good as the NBA playoffs get. Game 1 is Saturday at 8:30 p.m. EST. Let's do it.