SI.com’s NBA writers debate the biggest question of the day. Today, we examine …
Will the Spurs or Thunder win the Western Conference finals?
Lee Jenkins: Thunder in six. Two playoffs ago, Miami lost Chris Bosh, went small, and still reached the Finals on the strength of LeBron James, the versatility of Dwyane Wade and the accuracy of shooters galore. The Thunder do not have the marksmen the Heat did, but they too can downsize without Serge Ibaka, leaning on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to make up for his absence. The Spurs will likely load up on Durant and back off Westbrook, treating him much the way they did James in last year's Finals, conceding some long jumpers. Westbrook will have to burn them, and a third scorer will have to emerge for Oklahoma City, but Reggie Jackson has proven in bursts he's up for the challenge. The Thunder have also demonstrated, going back to this round two years ago, they can run with the Spurs. Momentum favors San Antonio, but matchup may favor Oklahoma City, and the Thunder holds the age-old NBA trump card: best player on the floor.
Ben Golliver: Spurs in six. The Serge Ibaka injury flips the script. If he was healthy, the pick would be Thunder in seven, based on the Durant/Westbrook heroics that have often seemed driven by fate in recent weeks. Going back to the preseason, I predicted Oklahoma City to emerge from the Western Conference, and their regular season results and key individual matchup advantages had placed them in position to enter this series with confidence.
The loss of Ibaka, though, will likely expose cracks on both ends. Inconsistent and stagnant offense were problem areas against Memphis; extended bouts with either will be death against the Spurs. Strong interior defense was a particular strength against San Antonio this season; that calculation totally changes without Ibaka, putting Tony Parker in a position to exert his will. The Thunder's 4-3 home record during the playoffs has been out of character and stands as one final red flag against a healthy, focused, determined opponent that has been firing on all cylinders for weeks.
Phil Taylor: Spurs in six. The Thunder’s margin for error against San Antonio would have been small even with Serge Ibaka, but without him, it’s almost nonexistent. Ibaka’s absence due to a calf injury robs OKC of their best rim protector to hinder Tony Parker’s ability to finish around the basket, leaves them with one fewer body to throw at the still dangerous Tim Duncan, and makes them even more of a two-man offense. Granted, those two men are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, which gives the Thunder a fighting chance, but both will have to turn in a series for the ages in order to get the Thunder past the Spurs. As good as OKC is, somewhere along the line in a series they usually have a head-scratching stretch or two when they grind their gears -- when Durant’s jumper deserts him for a while or Westbrook’s shot selection goes haywire and they look directionless. The machine-like Spurs will punish them for that. Matching San Antonio’s consistency and precision would be hard enough for OKC under the best circumstances. Doing it while re-inventing themselves without Ibaka might be impossible.
Rob Mahoney: Spurs in six. The Thunder are too good to be wholly dismissed on account of Ibaka's injury, though it would be foolish to gloss over the profound difference his absence will make. With all players healthy and available this would be a dead-locked series; Oklahoma City is so dynamic defensively as to nudge San Antonio's clockwork offense to human error, while the Spurs have both the means to wall off the basket and one of the league's best on-ball options for guarding Durant in Kawhi Leonard. Both teams are great on both sides of the ball, which set up a series likely to be as riveting as it was strategically rich.
That still could be the case, though Ibaka's injury unsettles the incredible balance of this otherwise deadlocked series. There will be no game-changing shot blocker to make Parker and Ginobili hesitate on their drives to the rim. Every conventional big in the Thunder's rotation is a downgrade from Ibaka on offense as well, which could cause problems as the Spurs dedicate even more defensive attention to Durant, Westbrook and Jackson. There are problems even when OKC goes small by playing Durant at power forward, as that exchange has tangible costs in terms of help defense and team rebounding. There's still enough there for the Thunder to explode to a few wins -- I just don't quite see the basis for their victory in a seven-game series against a Spurs team playing such terrific basketball.
Matt Dollinger: Thunder in seven. Kevin Durant carried the Thunder for weeks when Russell Westbrook went down earlier this season -- why shouldn't we think he'll be able to do the same with Serge Ibaka? Oklahoma City won't be able to protect the rim like they could with Ibaka, but the presence of Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams in the paint still makes them formidable in the middle. In addition, the loss of Ibaka clears the way for Nick Collison to receive more playing time. The Thunder's offense scored 113.4 points per 100 possessions with Collison on the floor this season and just 109 with him off it. And the reserve big man had a positive impact on OKC's defense too, holding opponents to 101.5 points per 100 possessions (vs. 104.8 without him). The Thunder still have plenty of options on defense to slow down Tim Duncan, and with two of the 10 best players in the league controlling the ball on offense, I'm sticking with the Thunder. After all, Oklahoma City isn't the only one dealing with an injury. Tony Parker's hamstring will be put to the test against Westbrook.
Richard Deitsch: Spurs in seven. The Thunder are more athletic, younger, and rolled the Spurs (by a whopping 9.2 points average) during the regular season in four meetings. In nearly every matchup this season, they've kept San Antonio away from the rim. The Thunder also beat the Spurs in six games two years ago in this round. So, naturally, I like the Spurs. Why? I think the injury to Serge Ibaka changes the entire series given the huge impact Ibaka had against the Spurs during the regular season (14.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 4.0 blocks). Without Ibaka's help defense and his athleticism in the post, the lane opens up for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Look for the Thunder's forwards to be in foul trouble a lot this series. Obviously, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook present massive challenges for San Antonio. But I like the Spurs at home in Game 7, with Parker hitting a late game-winner.
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Chris Johnson: Spurs in seven. As Rob Mahoney explained Friday, Serge Ibaka’s presence on defense can not only force opponents to make adjustments around the rim. It can make them pass up shot attempts altogether. Oklahoma City might be able to overcome not having Ibaka against most teams in the league, but against San Antonio – who has scored more points per 100 possessions than all but one team (Miami) in these playoffs – it could be devastating. That’s not to say there’s no hope for the Thunder. Their small-ball lineups could pose problems for San Antonio, and it’d be unwise not to account for the possibility that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, extra motivated to push for a championship after another major injury derailed their postseason run a year ago, could simply will the Thunder past San Antonio. Oklahoma City’s electric duo can only do so much, though, against a Spurs team that came exceedingly close to winning a championship last season and appears even better equipped to do so this time around.
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