NBA Playoffs 2012: Are the Spurs or the Thunder the Better Team?
The Oklahoma City Thunder began the season as the West's best team—a title which they held for the majority of the regular season.
However, towards the end, the San Antonio Spurs emerged as the league's hottest team and stole the title from OKC.
Despite the Spurs' No. 1 seed, many will argue that the Thunder are still the best in the west, while others will say that the Spurs clearly have the advantage.
Now, with the 2012 NBA playoffs underway and both squads dominating, these teams seem destined to meet in the Western Conference finals. The million-dollar question is: Who would win?
While the playoffs are an entirely different story, with teams playing with a much greater motivation, it is impossible to compare the two teams without taking into consideration their play in the regular season.
Twice, the Spurs walked away victorious, with the Thunder only winning one.
The Thunder took the first game in a 108-96 win at home. However, many factors should be taken into consideration.
The Spurs were without Manu Ginobili, and they were yet to make their midseason acquisitions of Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson.
Tony Parker also played one of his worst games of the season, scoring only four points in 25 minutes. However, as of late, it seems nearly impossible to contain Parker, as he has jumped into MVP consideration.
The second game was played at the AT&T Center, with the Spurs finishing on top. Parker proved to be the difference, as his 42-point game helped the Spurs beat out the Thunder by 11. Ginobili still had not recovered from his injury, making this win all the more impressive.
The next game was played right after the trade deadline, so the Spurs roster was missing Richard Jefferson—who had been sent to Golden State—and Jackson, Mills and Diaw, who were yet to play for the team. Ginobili also continued to sit out with injury.
Despite this, the Spurs walked away with a 114-105 win on the road. While Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook scored a combined 61 points, every member of the Spurs starting five scored in double digits. Duncan also had one of the best rebounding performances of the season, grabbing 19 boards.
Now that the Spurs have added Jackson, Diaw and Mills—with Ginobili back as well—they seem to have the advantage in this matchup.
The Spurs' reserves have been one of their most valuable assets this year, as they lead the league in scoring once again.
Their 41.9 points per game average was better than any other team, and their bench dominance continued into the playoffs, where they still lead every other team.
Oklahoma City, however, only finished 16th in the league, with a mere 31.7 points per game. Their bench continued this lackluster performance with only 33.0 points per game in their sweep versus the Mavericks.
At first look, the Thunder's bench may seem to be better due to their sixth man, James Harden. He is the favored candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, and he is talented enough to start, but his role gives the Thunder an offensive spark from the second team.
The Spurs' sixth man, however, is far from being any less talented. Manu Ginobili—who, since returning from injury, has come off of the bench—is one of the best shooting guards in the league. He can match Harden's effort, so no true advantage comes out of that head-to-head matchup.
The real advantage is apparent when you delve deeper into their list of reserves. With Gary Neal, Stephen Jackson, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw and more, the Spurs have the clear advantage. From Ginobili to James Anderson, every player can produce when given the chance.
The Thunder's bench is much more limited, and while the Spurs' starters can rest for long periods of time, the Thunder don't have that option.
Many say that the postseason is dominated by stars. In the Thunder's case, they are chock full of them.
Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant provide the team with one of the best one-two punches in the league. Both were All-Stars and seem to be likely candidates for All-NBA rosters.
Durant led the league in scoring and is one of the two most likely MVP candidates. Westbrook led all point guards in scoring and was one of the league's best throughout the season.
However, Westbrook is matched by Tony Parker, who emerged to be a top-tier point guard this season. Parker is one of the MVP candidates, as his 18.3 ppg was good for fifth at his position. He also averaged 2.2 more assists than Westbrook.
In a head-to-head matchup, there is no clear winner, as both are some of the best point guards in the league.
This still leaves Durant.
The Spurs may have a match for Westbrook, but they have no answer for Durant.
While their other players are certainly talented, Durant is one of the best players in the league, and the Thunder's success is largely due to him.
If the postseason is truly a time where the stars shine, then it is clear that the Thunder are one of the NBA's best.
Some say experience is not that big a factor in the playoffs, while some will argue that it makes all of the difference. Either way, the Spurs certainly have a lot of it.
Since drafting Tim Duncan in 1997, they are yet to miss the playoffs and have made four appearances in the NBA Finals—winning them every time.
The Thunder, however, are composed of younger stars. While this is an advantage in some categories, it is harmful in others.
Their lack of experience was exposed last year, as Westbrook and Durant fought over who would be the team's alpha dog. This led to in-fighting that the entire team joined in on. This year, they need to prove that they have a different attitude. Otherwise they may find themselves sitting at home watching the finals on television.
The Spurs, on the other hand, come into the playoffs with the "been there, done that" attitude. Duncan has been on four championship teams, with Parker and Ginobili appearing on three. Even Stephen Jackson was a part of the Spurs' winning teams, in his first run in San Antonio.
If in fact the teams meet up, the big stage will fail to fluster the Spurs, while the less-experienced Thunder may be intimidated.
The Spurs' continued success is often credited to a man who has never scored a point for the team. The man on the bench, Gregg Popovich, is one of the most intelligent coaches in the league and is once again leading his team to the top.
His efforts were recognized as he took home the 2012 Coach of the Year award.
He continues to bring out the best in all players, and his techniques for making sure the team is fully rested for each game are unrivaled.
He has been, undoubtedly, the NBA's best coach this year.
This is not to say that the Thunder lack a quality coach. Scott Brooks was named the Coach of the Year in 2010 and is one of the best coaches in the league.
Still, he is no match for Pop. In a battle between the two coaches, Popovich is the clear winner.