2012 Western Conference Finals: Why the Spurs Will Beat the Thunder
The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the one and two seeds in the Western Conference, respectively, took turns dispatching both Los Angeles teams in the conference semifinals—the Spurs sweeping the Clippers and the Thunder eliminating the Lakers in five games.
Now, the country gets to see the matchup it wanted most: San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals.
Many feel that the Spurs and Thunder are the two best teams in the NBA. Both have high-octane offenses that can absolutely run you out of the building if you don't bring your A game, and both possess two of the league's best point guards in Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook.
Chances are, this will be a shootout, with the scores being in the upper 90s and 100s throughout the series. But what are the keys and who holds the edge?
Let's examine this potentially classic battle.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Key player: Tim Duncan.
The Big Fundamental is the only player in this series with a low-post game, and I expect San Antonio to utilize that. Of course, the Thunder contain two of the best interior defenders in the game in Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, but neither of them possesses any inkling of a back-to-the-basket skillset.
I have said this was Oklahoma City's biggest flaw all year long, and I don't think anyone would disagree with me. When the going gets tough, the Thunder still have to rely on perimeter scoring to win games.
The Spurs? They can dump the ball into the four-time champion and two-time MVP and let him go to work, and in case you haven't noticed, Duncan has seemed to turn back the clock in these playoffs, as he has been tremendous.
What the Spurs must do: Keep Oklahoma City from getting out in transition.
I don't think it's any secret that the Thunder are at their best when Kevin Durant, Westbrook and James Harden are able to get out in the open court and find each other for game-breaking alley-oops. If you can slow Oklahoma City down and force it to generate offense from the half-court set, it becomes much more beatable.
That is not to say that the Thunder cannot score the basketball at a slow pace, because they can, but they would not prefer it that way. This is where the lack of a low-post threat really hurts OKC, because if Durant, Westbrook and Harden aren't hitting their jumpers, the Thunder's offense suffers immensely.
What the Spurs must NOT do: Turn the ball over.
This obviously goes hand-in-hand with keeping Oklahoma City out of transition, and the Spurs were one of the best in the business at taking care of the basketball this season.
However, the Thunder have the speed and athleticism to change that, so San Antonio must be ready. It helps that Gregg Popovich has one of the best floor generals in the game at his disposal in Parker, so I think the Spurs should be alright here no matter what.
That said, it's still worth pointing out.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Key player: Perkins.
This isn't even a question to me. Yes, Durant, Westbrook and Harden are clearly Oklahoma City's main guys, but Perkins is, in my opinion, the best low-post defender in basketball.
As good as Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler and Ibaka are, they do not possess the kind of one-on-one defensive prowess that Perkins does. Just look at what he did to Andrew Bynum in the conference semifinals. He turned one of the most dominant players in the NBA into a mere mortal.
The Thunder desperately need Perk to bring it against San Antonio for a couple of reasons:
First of all, he needs to limit Duncan. Although Parker emerged as an MVP candidate this season, the Spurs still run a very sizeable portion of their offense through Duncan, as he is their main threat down low. If Perkins can neutralize Duncan, it makes things much more difficult offensively for San Antonio.
Also, Parker isn't the kind of point guard that likes to take jumpers. He likes to get into the paint and finish around the rim, and who better to protect the paint than Perkins? The same goes for Manu Ginobili, who attacks the paint with the same reckless abandon as Parker.
Perkins needs to be huge in this series, and he has the tools and the experience to do just that.
What the Thunder must do: Attack the paint.
Outside of Duncan, the Spurs really don't have any other intimidators inside. Tiago Splitter is not that guy, and neither is Boris Diaw. That is why Durant, Westbrook and Harden need to get inside relentlessly, both to get Duncan in foul trouble and to get easy buckets.
Because Oklahoma City does not have any low-post scorers, it must rely on dribble penetration from its wings, and the Thunder possess the best trio of backcourt scorers in the league.
What the Thunder must NOT do: Become a jump-shooting team.
I have noticed that Oklahoma City does have a bit of a bad habit (Westbrook in particular) of shooting pull-up jumpers in transition. It cannot do that against the Spurs, because San Antonio has the type of offense that will absolutely make you pay if you are not hitting those shots.
Durant, Westbrook and Harden (jeez, how many types have I typed that in this article?) need to be aggressive by getting into the paint and scoring around the rim. I'm not saying they shouldn't shoot any jumpers at all, especially considering how deadly Durant and Harden can be from behind the three-point line when they are on, but they can't fall in love with it.
This is an intriguing series, to say the least. The Spurs and Thunder may very well be the two best teams in the league, and here they are going head-to-head to decide who will represent the Western Conference in the 2012 NBA Finals.
Taking all things into consideration, I just cannot see San Antonio losing. Popovich's squad has won 18 straight games dating back to April 11 and 29 of its last 31 overall. Those numbers are absolutely mind-boggling and make you realize how truly dominant this Spurs team is.
Oklahoma City is certainly an outstanding team, but I just don't think it has enough to counter the experience and the depth of San Antonio.
Spurs in six.
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