Thunder vs. Spurs: Can the San Antonio Spurs Slow Down Russell Westbrook?
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When two talented teams square off in a best-of-seven playoff series, expect individual matchups to be thrust into the spotlight.
The conference's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds squaring off with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
The Thunder are younger, but they're also returning to the conference finals for the second year in a row. Last season, they were bested by the older and more experienced Dallas Mavericks.
This season, they hope to avoid a repeat of that scenario when they face the more experienced and top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
It's a serious challenge for the Thunder. The Spurs have home court, the league's best coach and the best big man of the century.
The Thunder counter with one of the most athletically gifted trios the league has ever seen.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are three of the league's most gifted athletes.
Durant finished second in the league MVP voting. Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year award. Westbrook is arguably the fastest point guard in the league in the midst of unprecedented depth at the position.
How did the Spurs so easily beat the Clippers? One key was the team's defensive commitment to stopping the Clippers point guard Chris Paul.
Paul, who finished third in the league MVP voting, was unquestionably the key to the Clippers offense. While Blake Griffin threw down breathtaking dunks and dominated highlight reels, Paul was busy putting together an all-around dominant season.
That is, until he ran into the Spurs in the playoffs.
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Paul was effectively shut down by the Spurs in the four-game sweep.
The motor that made the Clippers run during the regular season averaged 12.8 points per game on only 36.8 percent shooting from the floor—precipitous drop-offs from the 19.8 points on 47.8 percent shooting he produced during the regular season.
The Spurs frustrated Paul on offense and then hoped that would make him feel added pressure to create shots for his teammates, which in turn would lead to more turnovers.
The Spurs were right about that. Paul averaged only 2.1 turnovers per game this season, but against the Spurs in the second round, he averaged 4.5 per game.
That stymied the production of the Clippers backcourt—with one noted exception.
The only backcourt player who showed that he could maneuver through and around the Spurs' disciplined team defense was Eric Bledsoe.
That should be a concern for Gregg Popovich and his team as they prepare for the Thunder.
Bledsoe doesn't play for the Thunder, but Russell Westbrook sure does. If the speed and athleticism of Bledsoe was a problem for the Spurs, then Westbrook will present a major challenge.
It didn't work out that way during the regular season, but then again, this isn't the regular season. Both Oklahoma City and San Antonio are playing better basketball right now than they were during the regular season.
Both teams have really picked up their defensive intensity in the playoffs. Oklahoma City allowed 96.9 points per game on 42.7 percent shooting during the regular season. That's dropped off to the point where they now yield 91.9 points on 41.2 percent shooting per playoff game.
San Antonio has made even greater strides. The Spurs allowed 96.5 points per game on 45.2 percent shooting during the regular season. Popovich's crew is now allowing just 88.8 points per game on 42.3 percent shooting.
That drop-off makes the two games where Bledsoe was able to really score with frequency more of a concern for the Spurs.
Bledsoe averaged 20 points per game on 61.5 percent shooting against San Antonio in Games 1 and 4. His playing time has always been limited, so his window to enter the game and make enough of an impression to remain in the game is always short-lived.
When he was able to convince Vinny Del Negro to leave him in against the Spurs, Bledsoe produced very positive results.
Westbrook will have zero problems convincing Scotty Brooks to give him major minutes. He's one of the keys to the high-octane Oklahoma City offense.
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That doesn't mean that the Spurs will lose the series, or even that Westbrook will run wild against them.
However, in a series in which individual matchups are likely to play a major role in determining the eventual outcome, the Westbrook-Parker showdown may be worth paying extra special attention to.
Parker and Westbrook have certainly matched up before and the results have been more positive for Parker than Westbrook. It's the postseason, though. Sometimes players are able to ratchet up their level of performance in the playoffs.
The Thunder have yet to make the NBA Finals, but this is the team's second consecutive trip to the Western Conference finals.
Westbrook is looking to take his game to another level. Whether or not Parker and Popovich can prevent him from doing that will go a long way toward determining if this younger Thunder team can upset the veteran Spurs.
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