Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio: Western Conference Finals Breakdown
And then there were two.
With a win in Game 1, the Spurs would tie the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers for the longest postseason win streak.
Meanwhile, the Thunder have been riding the revenge train. They avenged their loss last year in the Western Conference Finals by sweeping the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Kevin Durant and company then dispatched the Lakers, who eliminated the Thunder in the first round of the 2010 playoffs.
Now the table is set.
It's the top-seeded Spurs vs. the second-seeded Thunder in a series that seemed inevitable since the All-Star Break.
Will it be a formal "changing of the guard," or will the Spurs continue their quest for a fifth NBA Championship?
Let's break it down, position by position.
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Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook are each excellent in their own way.
Parker is the motor to the Spurs' machine-like offense.
Westbrook is the electricity to the Thunder, the Robin to Durant's Batman.
We thought we were going to get a treat when Tony Parker went up against Chris Paul in the semifinals. But the Spurs shut down Paul, and Parker struggled knocking down his jump shot.
The Western Conference Finals should provide more excitement.
Westbrook comes in averaging 24.1 points per game during the postseason while shooting 47.2 percent from the field. Parker is not too far down the list, averaging 19.1 points per game.
But it won't be the scoring that determines this series, strangely enough.
It will be Parker getting into the paint and Westbrook facing the turnover battle.
Westbrook will put up points; he averaged 22.3 points per game against the Spurs in the regular season. The problem, for Thunder fans, is that he also turned the ball over an average of 3.6 times. That's the second-highest average in his four-year career.
If the Thunder want to beat the Spurs, Westbrook must make better decisions than fans are accustom to seeing.
The game plan doesn't stop there.
Defensively, Parker cannot be allowed into the lane. When No. 9 is free to roam, the floodgates are wide open.
Advantage: Tony Parker
Although Tony Parker did not have a great series against the Clippers, he torched the Thunder in the regular season. Neither Westbrook nor James Harden could slow down the Spurs point-man, as Parker averaged 23.7 points and an impressive 7.7 assists per game.
While Westbrook has had a better handle on his turnovers this postseason, he is just not as good of a decision-maker as Parker. Ultimately, barring near-perfect performances from Westbrook, Parker should have a bigger impact on the series.
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The shooting guard position has a very similar feel on both teams.
For the Spurs, Danny Green was a nice addition to add some young legs to the team, and it has already paid dividends.
Green is one of the better shooters on the team, shooting 50 percent from the field, which includes an impressive 45.7 percent from downtown.
While Green is a threat to knock down the open shot, he still struggles to create a basket of his own. Much of his 10.4 points per game derives from the penetration of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Green also doesn't see as much court time as many starters in the Association. His 24.8 average minute per game are mainly due to him sharing court time with the electrifying Manu Ginobili.
A very similar situation exists in Oklahoma City.
Thabo Sefolosha is by no means a scorer. Just take a look at his 3.9 points per game average. While Sefolosha's role on the team is geared much more towards the defensive end of the floor, he sees less court time than Green.
That's because Scott Brooks has the NBA Sixth Man of the Year riding his bench in James Harden.
Neither shooting guard is a make-or-break component of his team, but both players successfully fulfill their appropriate role.
While Green is capable of chipping in a nice 10 points per game, Sefolosha's defense can't be measured on paper.
The combination of a key outside shooting and solid perimeter defense should cancel each other out, and the shooting guard play over the course of the series should be about even.
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This one is not even a contest.
Plain and simple.
Kevin Durant is what the Oklahoma City Thunder are built on, and he is a heck of a superstar to build around.
The regular season scoring champ is putting up an average of 26.7 points per game during the postseason.
That's the second-best scoring average behind LeBron James of any player who hasn't been eliminated.
On the other side, the Spurs certainly have a impressive defender in rookie Kawhi Leonard. His 6'7", 225 lbs frame matches up well with the 6'9", 235 lbs Durant, who was limited to only 22.7 points per game against the Spurs in the regular season.
Still, however you slice it, Durant can't be stopped.
Gregg Popovich just hopes he can be slowed.
Advantage: Kevin Durant
The two-time defending scoring champion, Kevin Durant did not meet his averages against the Spurs during the regular season, but he still averaged 22 and nine. Kawhi Leonard has the length and weight to match up well and give Durant a challenge.
In the end, the Spurs will make the Durantula work for his points, but there are no signs that he can't get the job done.
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Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward to ever play the game, looks like he put on a new pair of legs this season.
He's shooting 54 percent from the field. That's his best shooting average during the playoffs since the 05-06 postseason. In fact, Duncan is shooting better from the field than he did during the Spurs' 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007 championship seasons.
He is also turning the ball over far fewer times than he has in the past. No. 21's 1.25 turnover per game average is the lowest in his 14-year career.
But let's not close the case on this one too quickly.
Serge Ibaka is one of the best defenders in the NBA, averaging 3.7 blocks and 7.5 rebounds per game. On top of that, he is actually shooting a higher percentage than Duncan.
Still, Ibaka is a developing role player behind the Westbrook-Durant duo while Duncan has long been a superstar in San Antonio.
Advantage: Tim Duncan
Whether or not you think the window is closing on Duncan, you can't disagree that he is, at times, looking like his former self.
The Spurs will pick-and-roll the Thunder to death. If Tim Duncan is knocking down the 19-foot jumper, San Antonio is going to be hard to beat, no matter how many blocks Ibaka can come up with.
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The NBA needs to come up with an award just for players like Kendrick Perkins.
Perhaps "Nastiest Defender of the Year."
We'll make that a working title for now.
While I may not agree with his choice of facial hair, Perkins is one of the scrappiest low-post men in the NBA. He is just a pain to score on.
Before San Antonio picked up Boris Diaw as a free agent, this was probably the weakest position on the team. DeJuan Blair is a worker, but his lack of size makes for a difficult matchup during the postseason. Tiago Splitter is developing and is a nice player to come in off the bench, but it appears as though Pop feels like he is still a couple years away from being a starter.
The addition of Boris Diaw was a natural fit for the San Antonio organization. Besides his lifetime friendship with Tony Parker, Diaw brings a passing and outside shooting ability that can't be found in any of the other Spurs' big men.
While Perkins and Ibaka may see shared time defending Tim Duncan, Diaw will force the Oklahoma City defense to stay honest and not overload the paint.
Perkins basically is just an extra body on offense, but his defensive tenacity is where he earns his keep. The Thunder will need their big men to play well to keep Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as far away from the paint as possible, and Perkins has the defensive skills to do this, at least to a certain degree.
The Spurs have the deepest and most talented bench in the NBA.
The Thunder do not.
Some fans have questioned why Harden isn't a starter, since he is easily the third-best scorer on the team.
Well that can be explained in one statement.
James Harden is the bench.
Who else is going to come in and produce points?
Daequan Cook? Derek Fisher?
Don't think so.
So while the Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard was a no-contest in favor of the Thunder, this one swings the other way.
Advantage: San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs just have too many weapons that can come into the game while the Thunder basically have one.
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After breaking the series down position by position, it is hard not to like the San Antonio Spurs.
The two teams are very similar, but it just seems as though everything the Thunder do, the Spurs do better.
The one wildcard is Kevin Durant. Kawhi Leonard did a solid job during the regular season, but if Durant goes off in this year's Western Conference Finals, the Thunder may very well find themselves in their first NBA Finals.
If that is to happen, Scott Brooks better make certain that the Thunder take care of the basketball. They committed the most turnovers during the regular season, and that's not going to fly against the Spurs.
The Thunder played well in their first two series, but the Spurs are just on another level right now. It's going to take one of the best series the Thunder have ever played to knock off the Spurs, and I just don't think they are capable of that without depth on the bench and taking better care of the ball.
The Spurs are going to quietly win their fifth NBA Championship since 1999.
San Antonio Spurs 4-2
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